Screaming, pinching, biting, hitting, pulling hair, and spinning—those are things that are seen quite often in my house. My youngest child has autism—with a piggybacking disorder of aggression.
As a parent of two typical children, this is not something you would expect to hear from another parent at a park play date! Trying to give the slightest smile as I gently justify the craziness of our world—his tiny six-year-old world. The easiest way I found to explain these roaring episodes of weakness we have is by simply saying: Tantrums-we have them let’s face it A LOT of them. At six, he has not outgrown them, and as long as he has deficits in regards to communication, I don’t see them going anywhere anytime soon.
I would like to think that most of my child’s aggression comes from his lack of communication for he is non-verbal, so he has a hard time expressing his wants, needs, and his personality. Lack of communication can cause various emotions presuming anger or frustration being on the top of the list.
Aggression accompanies a lot of people on the autism spectrum as well as people with other neurotypical disorders. Not every person with autism has aggression as a sidekick, but there is a vast majority that does. I have come across information for a survey done in 2010 the results speak for themselves
In Aggression in Children With ASD: Prevalence and Risk Factors, June 18, 2019, they state:
“…risk factors for aggression were examined in 1,380 children and adolescents with autism spectrum
disorders (ASD). Prevalence was high, with parents reporting that 68% had demonstrated aggression to a caregiver and 49% to non-caregivers….”
Another article speaks of this survey in more detail. It summarizes the reasoning behind the survey and the assessments achieved it also speaks in great detail of the connection between people on the autism spectrum and aggression. What I have found are as follows:
In New Research on Children with ASD and Aggression, Nov 8, 2011 [IAN Interactive Autism Network]
“…The researchers were surprised to find that many of the risk factors associated with aggressive behaviors in typical children don’t apply at all to children with ASD. For example, being male is usually associated with a much higher risk of aggressive behavior, but this isn’t the case among children with ASD. Girls and boys with ASD are equally likely to be aggressive…”
“…The only factor that seems to work the same way for children with ASD as it does for typical children is age…the younger the child, the more likely he or she is to be aggressive. The children with ASD who are most likely to have aggressive behaviors…are those with the following characteristics:
- More repetitive behaviors, especially self-injurious or ritualistic behaviors, or extreme resistance to change
- More severe autistic social impairment
- A higher family income…”
Let’s take a step back and take a look at these findings. There were a couple of main points listed connecting autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and aggression.
Younger children are most likely affected by aggression: This I agree with, the younger the child, the less time you have spent with communication. Communication, I feel, is one of aggression’s top candidates. The younger the child, the less time you have spent working on things like life skills, social/emotional behavior building, boundaries, and house rules, and communication.
Think of a typical child going through their terrible two-stage and add in the fact that their stuck silent because speech and routine haven’t been developed yet. Aggression obviously can build here.
2. Repetitive behaviors
In SPECTRUM. (n.d.) Repetitive Behaviors they are defined as:
“… Repetitive behavior. Restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests are among the three core symptoms of autism. They include repetitive movements with objects, repeated body movements such as rocking and hand-flapping, ritualistic behavior, sensory sensitivities and circumscribed interests…”
Spinning is a behavior we see in my home. My child will just feel the urge to spin in circles (usually in one spot). From his Occupational Therapy sessions, I learned that his body “needs” to spin it is almost like a craving his body has just as if he were dehydrated, he would be craving a drink.
I would also like to just briefly point out that we have learned proprioception helps with his repetitive behavioral needs. Things like swinging, jumping, and rocking. Repetitive movement is the physical aspect of autism whereas most other things are developmental and neuro-related.
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3. More severe autistic social impairment
Being non-verbal or requiring to be “prompted” to speak would be a great example of this. Having to use the aid of an electronic device or PECS cards to help communicate.
4. Higher family income
Families with a higher family income showed more connections between aggression and autism. One of the speculations that were addressed in New Research on Children with ASD and Aggression, Nov 8, 2011 [IAN Interactive Autism Network] were:
“…families with higher incomes are better able to access interventions that challenge (and may be frustrating for) their child with ASD, in turn may create situations that produce aggressive behaviors…Another possibility is that people at different income levels may be more or less likely to report Aggression…”
From looking at these studies done, my own personal experiences, and then looking at those around me living a life encompassed by ASD I have come to terms with the fact that autism and aggression can go hand and hand. Now you are left asking yourself the final question, what are you to do?
What’s Next: Managing Aggression
It’s vital to find out what is the source of the aggression. If the aggression is communication-based, then try taking a stronger look at the individual’s communication, how does he/she communicate, is his/her communication effective, what can you do to improve communication? There are several different ways to communicate besides just using your voice.
- PECS cards
- Electronic device
- Sign language
There are different types of therapies offered in regards to communication and the behaviors that go with them.
- Speech therapy
- Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy ***
***ABA therapy is an amazing tool that can be used to help those with ASD. ABA therapy takes a deep look into specific behaviors and breaks them down using a three-tiered method. For every behavior there is a Beginning-Middle-End:
- Beginning being the request
- Middle being the behavior or response
- The end being the final result
For those of you that are in a relationship with autism, whether it is with someone you know or someone you live with, someone you’re related to, or someone you love, one thing has always been clear—this is a long road with a lot of different turns, and unfortunately you can only go as fast as the developmental process will let you. Autism comes in all forms—all shapes and all sizes. There is no list of specifics; there is just day by day and moment by moment.
Kanne SM, Mazurek MO. “Aggression in children with ASD: prevalence and risk factors” J Autism Dev Disord. 2011 Jul;41(7):926-37. National Library of Medicine. Web. June 18 2019. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20960041>
From Anderson Connie PhD. (2011, Nov 8) [IAN Interactive Autism Network] New Research on Children with ASD and Aggression. Retrieved from https://iancommunity.org/cs/simons_simplex_community/aggression_and_asd
SPECTRUM. (n.d.) Repetitive Behaviors. Retrieved from https://www.spectrumnews.org/wiki/repetitive-behavior/
This article was featured in Issue 93 – ASD Advice for Today and Tomorrow