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Understanding Aggressive Behavior in Autism

March 12, 2024

Parents of children on the spectrum often worry about aggressive behavior in autism, delays in social and developmental skills, and the lack of understanding in our communities. Sometimes, simply understanding autism and its triggers can help reduce tantrums and aggression in children.

Aggressive behavior in children with autism poses challenges for parents, often limiting family interactions due to fear of public outbursts. This problem persists as children grow older. Siblings of children with autism may also face isolation and higher risks of depression and anxiety due to challenging behaviors associated with autism. Because of that, it’s important to understand this behavior and learn how to manage it for the well-being of the whole family.

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Managing Autism Meltdowns, Tantrums and Aggression

Understanding the triggers behind aggressive behavior in autism

Discovering the root causes of aggression and tantrums in individuals with autism is crucial for effective management. Often, aggressive behavior serves as a form of non-verbal communication, indicating discomfort or dissatisfaction with the current environment.

For some autistic individuals, sensory sensitivities play a significant role in triggering aggressive outbursts. Factors such as loud noises, harsh lighting, and strong smells can lead to aggression if not addressed appropriately.

You can make simple adjustments to help ease these sensory triggers and reduce aggression, such as:

Additionally, autistic individuals may resort to aggressive behavior as a means of avoidance or seeking desired items. For example, a child may exhibit tantrums to evade tasks they find undesirable or when denied access to preferred items like electronic devices.

Understanding these avoidance strategies and implementing appropriate interventions can help manage aggressive behaviors effectively.

It’s essential to recognize that aggression in autism often stems from challenges with emotional self-regulation and impulse control rather than deliberate misconduct. While it doesn’t excuse the behavior, it underscores the importance of providing support and interventions tailored to address these underlying difficulties.

How to manage aggressive behaviors in autistic children

There are a variety of methods and checklists that parents and caregivers can use to help understand what a child might want to help reduce aggression and attention-seeking behavior.

A young boy angry at a table in a cafe
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/manage-autism-child-aggression/

Here are some things you can do to reduce aggressive behavior in your autistic child:

  • Find the source of the aggression – If it is something in their learning environment, you can make adaptations and modifications to make their environment more sensory-friendly.
  • Learn their triggers – Knowing what triggers your child and using prevention methods to avoid environmental triggers can also help reduce behavioral problems.
  • Consider ABA therapy –  ABA therapy is another effective option that studies have found to be effective in reducing symptoms of autism and anger by using positive reinforcement to change behaviors in a child.
  • Consider using medicine – Some families consider supplementing therapy with medication such as Risperidone to reduce aggressive behaviors in children with ASD, but it’s a personal decision often debated, requiring consultation with a pediatrician or developmental specialist to weigh the pros and cons.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to reducing aggressive behaviors because each child is unique. Autism also has a high comorbidity rate, which means it is very common to have other medical conditions in addition to autism, which can have an impact on which treatment option to use.

Understanding autism beyond aggression

There is no evidence indicating aggression is a sign of autism. Autism is a global developmental delay that affects speech, communication, social skills, self-awareness, impulse control, and the ability to identify emotions and read body language.

With therapy and support in place, parents are often able to find resources in their region for support addressing the specific areas of concern, well-being, and life skills for children with severe autism.

Aggression is most often a sign of frustration from lack of communication and not being able to be understood. People with autism are not much different than other people. They experience the same range of emotions as everyone else and often with an insightful perspective and twist that is brilliant and beautiful.


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FAQ

Q: Is aggressive behavior a symptom of autism?

A: Aggressive behavior is not a defining symptom of autism, but rather can stem from frustration due to communication challenges often associated with the condition. Individuals with autism experience a broad range of emotions and possess unique perspectives, showcasing the richness of their inner world beyond any single behavior.

Q: How do you stop aggression in autism?

A: Stopping aggression in autism involves identifying triggers such as sensory sensitivities or communication barriers and implementing strategies like therapy, medication, or environmental adjustments tailored to the individual’s needs. Consulting with healthcare professionals specializing in autism can help devise personalized intervention plans for effective management.

Q: Why does an autistic child hit others?

A: Your autistic child may hit others due to frustration stemming from communication challenges or difficulty regulating emotions, which are common features of autism spectrum disorder. Understanding their triggers and providing appropriate support and interventions can help address this behavior.

Q: Do autism symptoms get worse with age?

A: Autism symptoms can vary over time, with some individuals experiencing improvement in certain areas while others may face new challenges as they age. However, early intervention and ongoing support can significantly impact the trajectory of symptoms and overall quality of life.

References: 

Kaartinen, M., Puura, K., Pispa, P., Helminen, M., Salmelin, R., Pelkonen, E., Juujärvi, P., Kessler, E. B., & Skuse, D. H. (2019). Associations between cooperation, reactive aggression and social impairments among boys with autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 23(1), 154-166. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361317726417 

Neuhaus, E., Kang, V.Y., Kresse, A. et al. Language and Aggressive Behaviors in Male and Female Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism Dev Disord 52, 454–462 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-020-04773-0 

Leïla Oubrahim & Nicolas Combalbert (2021) Frequency and origin (reactive/proactive) of aggressive behavior in young people with intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder, International Journal of Developmental Disabilities, 67:3, 209-216, DOI: 10.1080/20473869.2019.1640972

Hu, X., & Lee, G. (2019). Effects of PECS on the Emergence of Vocal Mands and the Reduction of Aggressive Behavior Across Settings for a Child With Autism. Behavioral Disorders, 44(4), 215-226. https://doi.org/10.1177/0198742918806925 

Jung, M.; Lee, E. Specialised Teachers’ Perceptions on the Management of Aggressive Behaviours in Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2020, 17, 8775. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17238775 

Sullivan, M.O., Gallagher, L. & Heron, E.A. Gaining Insights into Aggressive Behaviour in Autism Spectrum Disorder Using Latent Profile Analysis. J Autism Dev Disord 49, 4209–4218 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-019-04129-3 

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