A few months ago, I was visiting an autism clinic in Albania, one of the underserved countries where Autism Speaks is making a difference through our Global Autism Public Health Initiative. There I met a three-year-old girl receiving a diagnostic assessment for autism. Clearly, she wanted her parents to stop talking to us and take her outside. She kicked her father and bit his hand and then began slapping her own head. This young girl was trying to make her preferences known but lacked speech.
Aggression was her way of communicating her needs.
Whatever their age, some individuals on the autism spectrum act out aggressively, and clearly, this can be distressing for everyone involved. In fact, aggression is among the most common challenges reported by parents of children and adolescents with autism.
What can help? I suggest working with your child’s physician and therapists on a four-stage approach to tackling this and other problem behaviors. The four steps are identification, understanding, management, and prevention.
By identification, we mean characterizing the problem behavior. As parents, you can write down the type of aggression your child demonstrates along with the time and setting of when the behavior occurs.
Next comes understanding. Specialists often use tools such as the Functional Behavioral Assessment decipher why a person with autism is behaving a certain way. In other words, what is the function of a given behavior for the person with autism? Is she telling you she doesn’t like what you’re doing? Is he telling his teacher that the school work is too complex? Does she want something she cannot have? Identifying the “communication” behind the behavior is the first step to teaching appropriate behaviors that can convey the person’s needs and desires.
In addition, underlying problems can trigger aggression. Among those with autism, common triggers include disturbing breaks in routine, lack of sleep, jarring “sensory stimuli” (noises, lights, or smells) or even undiagnosed mental health problems. Clearly, it’s important to look beyond the behavior itself to identify the underlying cause.
When it comes to managing aggression, there are many options. The information you gathered in identifying and understanding your child’s behavior may guide you and your child’s healthcare providers in developing a plan.
An abundance of research supports the effectiveness of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) in helping children with autism learn new and effective behaviors—so that aggression is no longer needed to communicate wants and needs. Research as shown that, in many cases, ABA alone is effective in reducing aggressive behaviors.
When ABA is not effective, it is important to consider the possibility of an underlying medical condition. For example, we know that autism is frequently associated with sleep disturbances and gastrointestinal distress. Disrupted sleep is likewise associated with uncontrolled seizures. Addressing these medical conditions can make a difference in reducing aggressive outbursts. Also remember that the sudden onset of aggression may signal that your child is in pain, ill, or simply exhausted.
Medication has been used successfully to reduce aggression and self-injury in both children and adults with autism. Risperidone, in particular, has gone through extensive testing in this regard. Both risperidone (Risperdal) and aripiprazole (Abilify) are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treating autism-related irritability, which includes aggression, tantrums, and self-injury. A recent study demonstrated that a combination of parent training (in behavior intervention) and risperidone reduced tantrums and other problematic behaviors in children with autism to a greater degree than did medication alone.
However, the decision whether or not to use behavior modifying medication is can be difficult. Autism Speaks has developed a medication decision aid to help you work with your child’s physician to determine whether this option fits your family’s goals and values.
Finally we have prevention. Strategies to prevent aggression include working with your child’s therapists and teachers to create calming, predictable, and rewarding environments. Other helpful approaches include visual timetables and structured schedules—both of which can help smooth transitions between activities. Rewarding positive behavior and providing communication tools are additional strategies that many families find helpful.
Aggression in children with autism can take many forms, such as hitting, kicking, scratching, biting or destroying property. A child’s aggression can be directed at self or others, and can be scary for everyone involved. Not every child with autism displays aggression. But for parents and teachers that do have to deal with their child’s outbursts of rage, feelings of frustration, exhaustion, and embarrassment often ensue.
Aggression is most likely a side effect of communication and/or coping issues. So when a child with autism becomes aggressive, there is a reason. For instance, many children with autism have a hard time with change, so changes to their routine can cause them to get upset. It’s up to us to figure out why they are being aggressive and to teach them that 1) aggression will no longer be reinforced and 2) other things they can do instead of being aggressive.
Here are some strategies to use to get your child out of the cycle of aggression:
Teach Communication. Children with autism usually have deficits in communication. Lack of effective communication skills often leads to frustration, and frustration can lead to aggression. Imagine if you wanted something but could not say it! So one of the first things you need to do is address any communication issues your child might have. Your child should be taught how to communicate his needs, either through spoken language, sign language, or picture communication systems designed for people with special needs. This alone should help with a lot of behavior problems.
Teach Alternative Behaviors. Once you know the reason(s) why your child becomes aggressive, the child should be taught how to get what he wants without hitting. For example, say your student throws items whenever he is asked to do independent seat work. You might try teaching him to say, “I need help” or “Break, please.” You may also need to figure out how to make certain tasks easier for the child. As time goes on, you can teach him to work independently for longer and longer periods of time.
Another strategy is to teach your child that he has options. For example, if you tell your child he cannot have a cookie, you should also tell him what he can have- such as crackers or an apple. The goal is to teach kids to make a different choice when one option is not available.
Reinforce Good Behavior. Whenever your child uses appropriate behavior to get his needs met, such as asking nicely for something, praise him for it! Initially, you should give your child what he asks for (within reason!) as often as you can in order to reinforce appropriate asking. So if instead of throwing his books, your student says, “Help me please!” It’s a good idea to help him right away so he learns that “using his words” results in reinforcement, whereas throwing items does not.
Change Your Behavior. Many children with autism will engage in certain behaviors because of the reaction they get out of people. If you yell or get angry, or otherwise provide the child with a lot of attention after they hit, then your reaction may be reinforcing the behavior. Also, if the child is allowed to get out of a non-preferred task after they become aggressive, this can also be reinforcing the behavior. In general, aggression should be met with firm, yet calm redirection.
Prevention. Implementing the above strategies should help reduce aggression. But you should also learn the warning signs that aggression is about to occur. When you see a “precursor” behavior, NOW is the time to act! There is no reasoning with a person during a meltdown. So do it before your child loses control. For instance, if you know your daughter begins to stomp her feet prior to lashing out, then if you see her stomping her feet, use that opportunity to remind her of the benefits of staying calm versus the consequences of losing her temper. Also, if you know a certain task usually results in a meltdown, re-think whether or not that task is truly necessary. If it is, you may need to provide more assistance and more reinforcement for task completion.
The main idea to take home is that some children resort to aggression because it usually works! Therefore, it is very important to not give your child what he wants when he becomes aggressive. If you give in, you are reinforcing aggressive behavior. What you should do is teach him how to communicate his needs, and how to cope when he cannot have his way. Set boundaries and follow through. Reinforce good behavior as often as you can. If a serious meltdown occurs, take your child to a safe place to calm down, but once he’s calm, follow through with any instructions you gave prior. Other consequences such as loss of privileges may be necessary, but it’s better to focus on teaching and reinforcing good behavior.
Aggression is a common problem with autistic children, and again, it comes from being overwhelmed with frustration and anger.
Maybe your little one can’t express their needs or desires. They could be getting bullied at school or by other caregivers. It’s very common for adults to judge and correct autistic kids until they start lashing out. Being constantly misunderstood and labeled “bad” is traumatic.
Autistic kids often feel very out of control and sometimes aggression is a way we can try to exercise some control in our own lives. It’s not the best solution to the problem, but the discrimination and mischaracterization we experience limits our choices. At least, it makes them feel much more limited, especially when it comes to trying to defend our boundaries or sense of self worth. Think of this in terms of fight or flight reactions, which are close to and fuel meltdowns.
How to Stop an Autistic Child from Hitting
This is an area where it is good to ask autistic adults , because each kid is different and collecting advice from people who have struggled with their own aggression will help you.
Remember that a lot of autistic aggression comes from a place of fight or flight. Many autistic adults will tell you that they find themselves unable to control their own bodies when in this state. Losing control of your body can also be traumatic. Addressing what triggers this state will help, but this is often a very complicated process.
Researching treatments for PTSD can help. There is a lot of overlap in how autistic meltdowns and trauma reactions affect the body.
What to Do
Reach out to other autistic people for support and insight.
Work to identify and respond to your kid’s needs. Preventing aggression is going to be a daily practice of regulation and building responses to future outbursts.
What Not to Do
Don’t forget that autonomy and personal agency are important to everyone’s emotional wellbeing. If your kid is aggressive or lashing out, look for what might be limiting these areas of their life.
Don’t hesitate to change schools, daycares, decorations, or social circles if they are causing consistent stress in your child.
About the writer
I’m a writer, artist, and advocate who loves living in Maine among the trees and oceanside villages. I’m also autistic, ADHD, and PTSD. My education, both academic and personal, has centered around mental health and neurodevelopmental disabilities, as well as discrimination and the socioeconomic consequences of living disabled in America. I work to plant seeds and spread ideas through my writing and will be among the autistic adults helping you understand your autistic kids better on Spectroomz’ Ask An Autistic. You can find me on Twitter @ladysnessa.
There are many ways to help autistic aggression, but the first and most important step of the process is often overlooked. Before trying anything else, talk with your doctor to see if there might be any underlying medical issues causing the behavior. For example, a child who has allergies may be bothered so badly by them that she constantly displays aggressive behavior. The same might be true of a child with epilepsy, who is really experiencing seizures and is merely reacting to them through this behavior.
Think about what might be motivating your child’s aggressive behavior. For example, if your child has sensory issues, it could be that she kicks or hits in order to receive sensory input, rather than out of true aggression. If this is the case, consider increasing the amount of sensory input that your child receives, by using deep pressure, high-impact games (e.g., pillow fights, play wrestling), and other sensory activities. If your child is frustrated by his inability to communicate, consider using an augmentative communication device to lower his frustration level and increase his ability to tell you what he wants.
You may find that you are unwillingly encouraging your child’s aggressive behavior by repeatedly giving in to her tantrums. If this is the case, you will need to make a firm decision to no longer do so. Instead, you should respond to your child’s aggression by first placing the child in a secure location and making sure that she cannot hurt herself or others. You should then withdraw your attention and any other positives (e.g., snacks, toys) until the tantrum is over. When the aggression finally subsides, you can then return to giving positive attention.
For cases in which the aggressive behavior occurs often, you may want to consider small prizes for each short span of time that no aggression occurs, if your child is able to cognitively understand the cause and effect of this method. For example, the child can receive two minutes of music time for every fifteen minutes that she shows no aggression.
Give Positive Attention
Although you should never give positive attention to aggressive behavior, often autistic kids may display this behavior in order to get attention – even negative attention – from you or from other people. To offset this, give as much positive attention as possible when the child is behaving well. This is an important way to help with autistic aggression, and it should be used together with the previous technique.
Therapy and Medication
When common sense doesn’t seem to be working, you can turn to a therapist to help your child successfully control her aggression. The therapist will likely use ABA, or Applied Behavioral Analysis, in order to motivate your child to succeed. If you take this route, make sure to talk to your therapist about how to use these same techniques at home with your child, so that your child will be able to practice the skill of behaving appropriately in all situations.
You may also need to turn to medication to help your child control his aggressive tendencies, as well as other severe autism behaviors. Anti-psychotic or anti-depressive medications can sometimes be one of the necessary ways to help autistic aggression.
McCoy, Krisha. Managing aggression in autistic children. EverydayHealth.com, retrieved at https://www.everydayhealth.com/autism/managing-aggression-in-kids.aspx
Autism Treatment Center of America, Q&A Session 9. Dealing with aggression and autism, retrieved at https://www.autismtreatmentcenter.org/contents/about_son-rise/qa_session9-dealing_with_aggression.php
This post is part of the series: Aggression and Autism
Is your autistic child aggressive? If so, this series contains articles that can help you understand what your child may be feeling and how to control these aggressive tendencies.
Biting, kicking, and even punching are some of the things that most parents on the spectrum report as common conducts during meltdowns and tantrums.
Today we will analyze, the reasons for ag gres sive conduct, as well as effective tips to handle them properly!
Why Do ASD Children Hit?
For autistic children, aggressive behavior is a physical way of communicating when they cannot express their feelings in words. If they feel frustrated, upset, hungry or tired, their emotional state has a direct impact on their conduct.
This is why children react aggres s ively towards their parents or even siblings.
Aggres s ive behaviors are com m on and normal during early infancy, e specially if your child has communicational challenges. The best way for you, as a parent , to deal with these situations is to understa n d what your child is going through and offer the support they need to express their emotions properly.
What To Do When Your Child Hits You?
Stay Calm: Although it might sound pretty obvio u s , the first step is staying calm. When you stay calm it shows your child that you are in control. Which, can represent huge support for him/her during a frustrating moment.
Never Punish/Yell/Spank: Keep in mind that your child ’ s behavior is not personal. I t i s not that he/she means to hurt you. I f you react with similar behaviors, you will only reinforce the conduct i n your child, and somehow he/she will learn that it is okay to express his/her feelings in that way.
Stop The Behavior: S topping the behavior is the first step to properly managing anger episodes.
Gently grab your child ’s arms to stop him from hitting you, and then calmly but firmly mention to him/her “ I see that you are angry but I won’t let you hit me”. A simple statement like this will show your child that you care and validate his/her feelings, but you are setting healthy limits.
Validate his/Her Feelings: Validatin g your child ’ s feelings is crucial for his/her connection with you. This way you are letting your child know that even though you don ’ t approve of his/her conduct, you understand the feeling behind it.
The following phrases will help you validate your child ’ s emotions while setting boundaries:
- “I know that you were very angry and this is why you hit me. I’m here if you want to talk about it.”
- “I see how upset you are. Let’s talk about this!”
- “Let’s take a moment to calm down and see how you feel.”
Teach Ways To Manage Emotions: After children learn that their feelings are approved, and negative conducts are stopped, they need to learn proper ways to communicate their frustration.
Asking him/her to take a moment to calm down, breathe, and even draw are some proper ways to teach them to handle their emotions in a good way.
You can use t he following visuals for your child to help ease the task:
Remember, the best support that you can offer to your child is staying calm when he/she is not. Be patient and you will harvest amazing results!
At WSCC, we offer support for autistic families and their children with stem cell therapy treatments that can transform autistic conditions by healing the gut, decreasing inflammation and improving overall brain functioning. Contact us and join an autistic community of support and companionship .
Aggressive behavior is something that parents of children with autism or emotional disabilities are often confronted with on a regular basis. It can be a challenging, frustrating and emotionally draining experience. Through the support of a professional behavior analyst and consistent practices, parents, teachers, and caregivers can address aggressive behaviors in children and adolescents so that they can live productive and independent lives.
Many times when caregivers are faced with aggressive behavior, their impulse is to want to stop the behavior, and they may view the child as misbehaving. However, it’s important to understand that aggressive behavior is sending us a message. Every behavior serves a function— such as making a request, avoiding something, escaping a task or seeking attention. The same is true of aggression. For individuals with limited communication skills, aggressive behaviors can become inadvertently shaped by caretakers and others in their environment.
For example, a child throws a tantrum to gain access to candy. The parent gives the child candy to stop the tantrum. If this interaction repeats itself, the behaviors become reinforced and the child learns that tantruming is rewarded with access to the desired food. Next time, the parent may decide they are not going to give the child candy and so the child tantrums even louder and harder. If the parent gives the child candy, the parent has inadvertently reinforced the behavior. As parents, we all do this in very subtle ways regardless of whether our child has special needs or not, often without realizing that we are shaping our children’s behavior and strengthening the behaviors that are unwanted.
When children are small, it can be less of an issue for parents to manage aggression, or they may think that their child will grow out of it. It is easier to restrain young kids to combat and control outbursts, but if these are the only methods we use, we are not setting our teenagers up for success. It is important to understand why our kids are acting out and what they are trying to communicate. Once we know the “what” and the “why”, we can teach more appropriate means of communication to replace the need for aggression (such as making a verbal request and teaching the child to tolerate “no” when the answer is “no”). If the aggressive behaviors are not replaced by more appropriate functional behaviors, then we run the risk of shaping adolescent aggression which can include physical violence that is more serious and tougher to overcome.
If your child is demonstrating aggression, the best place to start is an assessment of his behavior to understand why the behaviors are occurring. A good assessment will tell you what the function of the behavior is, meaning— why he is acting out and what he is trying to communicate. Then a plan can be put in place to teach new methods for communicating effectively as well as reducing and eliminating the aggression using behavioral strategies.
Here are a few strategies you can use before aggressive episodes start:
- Give up some control over the environment or routines by offering choices; it does not matter if he brushes his teeth before changing clothes, but if having control over that routine helps keep your child’s aggression down, give up that control and let him choose. Providing choice also teaches independent thinking and problem solving which are critical skills for adult life.
- Prime your child by giving them a verbal “heads up” of what is coming: describe to your child when and what the expectations are for that setting.
- Use visual support like a picture board or a photo to help provide clear expectations for each activity or different parts of the day.
- Prompt and model the behavior you want to see instead of the aggressive behavior.
- Praise that behavior when you do see it so that it will continue to be a part of their repertoire. Remember if you like something you need to let your child know. In other words, catch them being good and if you like a behavior, reinforce it!
In the moment of the aggressive behavior, safety is most important! Do your best to keep yourself and your child safe. If you can redirect your child onto something else or an activity, that might be necessary.
Some parents of adolescents who display aggressive behaviors worry that it is too late for their child to have a fulfilling and independent life. On the contrary, it is never too late to start planning on a future for your child and working towards attainable goals. Think about what you want your child to be doing in a year from now and start working towards that today. If you want your child to ask for the desired item or preferred activity instead of tantruming to get it, start taking small steps now. If you are hoping they will have more friends in a year, start exposing your child to those opportunities and teaching the socially appropriate skills that will afford those opportunities. If you want them to have fewer aggressive behaviors, do not wait a year to start working to improve that behavior. It is never too late or too early to start working towards next year. The results will support your child in having their needs met and experiencing greater success at each stage of development. The ultimate goal is setting your child up for success and helping him achieve as much independence as possible.
Children with autism typically use behaviors to communicate their wants, needs, anxieties, and frustrations.
These behaviors can include:
- Repeating words or phrases
- Self-injurious actions
- Ignoring peers
- Refusing to follow directives
While behaviors are important communication tools, some behaviors can disrupt learning in a classroom setting. Various interventions teach children with autism new skills that help them develop acceptable ways to communicate, socialize, and function.
Strategies For Handling Autism Behavior Problems In The Classroom
The following strategies help school staff successfully handle the behavior challenges exhibited by children with autism in the classroom.
Follow A Behavior Plan
Because each child with autism is unique, they need a customized behavior plan. This document is part of the child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and outlines the child’s needs and includes specific steps that improve maladaptive behaviors without punishing the child.
A behavior plan starts with a Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA). This analysis identifies the root of behaviors, which can include the child’s desire to obtain an object, activity, or sensation, escape a demand or undesirable situation, or gain attention. The FBA will describe the frequency and intensity of behaviors, identify the causes and consequences of behaviors, and suggest possible solutions.
With information from an FBA, a special education or behavior consultant writes a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). This document lists the challenging behaviors, their causes, and effective solutions that are specific to the child’s needs. The BIP includes measurable goals that the teacher and other staff can monitor. The BIP can be modified as the student achieves goals.
Incorporate Strengths & Interests
Every child has strengths and interests. These assets can become leverage to help children engage more in class, stay on task, and reduce behavior challenges.
Observe children with autism closely to discover their unique assets. School staff can then incorporate the children’s strengths and interests into the curriculum, activities, and rewards system to prompt positive behavior.
Changes in the daily routine can create stress for many children with autism. These students thrive on routine and consistency and may exhibit maladaptive behaviors when they face unpredictable situations at school.
An increase in classroom structure and daily organization may relieve stress and pressure. Modifications like an organized and minimalist classroom, predictable daily schedule, visual activity schedule, physical boundaries, and other routines may help children feel calm, relaxed, and less agitated throughout the school day.
Set & Explain Realistic Expectations
Most children function better when they know what’s required of them and when they have the skills to meet those expectations. Children with autism are no different, especially since they can think in very literal and concrete terms.
Carefully set realistic expectations, and explain those expectations clearly to reduce autism behavior problems in the classroom.
For example, teachers may need to show students visually what they must do and use simple instructions. Have the child repeat the instructions back to the teacher, too, to ensure understanding and reduce outbursts.
Switching between activities and moving between classes can frustrate children with autism. They typically thrive on routine and predictability and also appreciate the opportunity to finish one activity before moving on to something else.
To avoid behavior challenges, time transitions carefully and seek to avoid as many disruptions as possible. Written or visual schedules clarify expectations and verbal prompts may motivate students to transition calmly, too.
Address Sensory Sensitivities
Sensitivity to textures, aromas, bright lights, and noise are a few challenges that may affect children with autism. These sensory sensitivities can cause discomfort and pain, which may precede challenging behaviors.
Address a child’s sensory sensitivities to improve comfort. Teachers can discover these sensitivities by observing the child and talking to parents or caregivers. It may be impossible to remove every child’s sensory triggers, but simple changes like dimming the lights or avoiding crowded hallways can make a big difference.
Offer Quiet Space
It’s common for students with autism to feel uncomfortable, overwhelmed, or anxious at school. These feelings build up until the child responds with challenging behaviors.
A quiet space in a corner of the classroom or another room can help students relax before they disrupt the classroom. Ideally, this space will include tools that help children feel safe, secure, and calm. A swing, rubber wall, art supplies, low lights, no noise, and other tools allow a child to relieve pressure and prepare to return successfully to the classroom.
Improve Communication Skills
Because children with autism often struggle to communicate, they may benefit from strategies that teach functional communication skills. Improved communication abilities can help children communicate better and may reduce autism behavior problems in the classroom.
Available communication tools include augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) tools, such as sign language and Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS).
Speech and language therapy can also occur in natural and various settings throughout the day and involve teachers, peers, staff, and the child’s family. The child’s communication goals, therapies, and tools will be listed in the IEP and updated as needed.
Implement Calming Techniques
When a student becomes verbally or physically disruptive or aggressive in the classroom, the staff may respond in kind. A calm demeanor can make a huge impact, though, and often defuses rather than escalates the situation.
Classroom staff can handle behavior challenges more successfully when they implement calming techniques themselves and with the children. Deep breathing, counting to 10, taking a break, pushing on a wall, and using a quiet, slow voice are a few strategies that defuse tension.
These and other calming techniques can be used in the moment or become part of the class’s daily routine as every student develops helpful tools that promote peace, tranquility, and calm.
Successfully Handle Autism Behavior Problems In The Classroom
Children with autism may exhibit challenging behavior in the classroom. Several strategies can help staff handle behaviors appropriately, reduce classroom disruptions, and provide every student in the class with access to a safe and effective education.
Despite these steps, some children with autism may need even more support. A specialized school like the Sarah Dooley Center For Autism provides an educational setting that’s designed to meet the child’s specific needs and successfully handle behavior challenges.
When a child engages in physical aggression, an immediate response is required, especially if the target of the aggression is a person. A lack of preparedness can result in a spontaneous reaction that may exacerbate the aggressive episode. The following techniques can help safely end physically aggressive episodes and deter repeat performances of physically aggressive behavior.
Common forms of physical aggression include:
- Hitting – Hitting can range from slapping with an open hand to punching with a closed fist, with extreme force. Hitting can cause injury ranging in degrees of severity, such as bruising, broken skin, fractured or broken bones, or concussions.
- Kicking – Another common form of aggression displayed by children with autism is kicking. Kicking can range from tapping another person with the foot, to driving the foot forward with extreme force. It can cause injury ranging in degrees of severity, such as bruising, broken skin, fractured or broken bones, or concussions.
- Scratching – Scratching can range from fingernails lightly raked over exposed skin, to fingernails dragged across exposed skin with applied pressure. It can cause injury ranging in degrees of severity, such as bruising, broken skin, and scarring.
- Hair pulling – Hair pulling can range from several individual strands of hair secured between two fingers, to large sections of hair secured within a closed fist. Hair pulling can occur at varying locations of the strand of hair, particularly when it is long; this includes hair secured at its root, as well as at its end. Hair pulling can cause injury ranging in severity, such as bleeding at the hair loss site or, when hair is removed repeatedly from the same site, baldness.
- Biting – Another common form of aggression displayed by children with autism is biting. Biting can range from a part of the body coming into brief contact with a child’s teeth, to the closing of a child’s mouth with extreme force, around a part of the body. Biting can cause injury ranging in severity, such as broken skin, bruising, bleeding, or scarring, and can lead to infection or other medical situations requiring prolonged medical attention.
To effectively neutrally redirect such physical behavior, the adult can prevent the child from making contact with her body by moving out of the child’s range of motion. When moving away from the child is not possible, the adult may need to protect more vulnerable parts of her body with her own hands, arms or legs; or by altering the position of her body relative to the child. After the adult has successfully avoided injury and the child has stopped aggressing, she will then guide him to engage in an appropriate task. It is very important that the adult not react to the child with exaggerated body movements or a change in facial expression.
If the adult knows of situations in which the child is most likely to engage in physical aggression, it is important for her to be prepared for this possibility. Arranging the environment so that the child has fewer opportunities to hit, kick, scratch, pull or bite is advisable. Strategies include staying within an arm’s or leg’s length of him; keeping him seated at a table for instruction, possibly with a barrier in the front of the table; teaching him from across the table outside his range of motion; teaching from a standing position while he is seated; and guiding him to sit with his legs crossed when seated on the floor
More specific behavioral interventions include:
- For scratching, the adult may choose to cover exposed areas of her body with multiple layers of clothing, or may desire for the child to wear clothing (such as gloves) that inhibits his ability to scratch but continues to allow him to successfully manipulate teaching materials. Additionally, adults may assist the child in keeping his fingernails shorter in length, to minimize potential injury to others who may be scratched.
- For hair pulling, when moving away from the child is not possible and the child is successful in pulling hair, it is important for the adult to stay calm and not pull her own body away from the child. Pulling away from the direction of the child as he pulls hair will increase the likelihood that hair will be lost from the site of growth, and will maximize the amount of pain or discomfort (as well as any potential tissue damage) incurred by the injury. The adult may choose to keep longer hair pulled up close to her hair, to prevent the child coming into contact with her hair should he attempt to pull it.
- For biting, when moving away from the child is not possible and the child is successful in biting, it is important for the adult to stay calm and not pull her own body away from the child. Pulling away from the direction of the child as he bites will maximize the amount of pain or discomfort (as well as any potential tissue damage) incurred by the injury. Additionally, the adult may choose to cover exposed areas of her body with multiple layers of clothing.
These techniques provide an adult with the safest manner to avoid injury from hitting behavior without needing to physically intervene.
When the child is around other children, it is very important to monitor his interactions at all times. Because the sibling or peer will likely react to the child’s hitting behavior, it is important to teach them to excuse themselves from the child’s proximity immediately.
If you’re here, you likely need answers regarding your child’s aggressive behavior. Before we dive into our tips for how to stop an autistic child from hitting, you must understand why this occurs in the first place.
Unable to express their thoughts or feelings in words, children with autism may “lash out” and hit, scratch, or bite their parents or siblings. Hitting can range from an open-handed slap to a closed-fisted punch, and some outbursts may even injure themselves or others.
Many things can trigger aggressive behaviors like hitting, scratching, and biting, but these are some of the most common in children with autism:
- Feeling very anxious or stressed
- Trying to communicate
- Being in physical pain
- Seeking attention
- Sensory overload or sensitivity
- Not understanding what’s going on around them.
Once we understand why children with autism behave aggressively, we can work toward prevention and treatment. First, we need to discuss appropriate ways of dealing with aggressive and violent behaviors in children with autism.
What to Do if Your Child Hits You
Neutral redirection is effective in how to stop an autistic child from hitting. This is an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) technique consisting of replacing a child’s aggressive, potentially dangerous behaviors with functional, appropriate behaviors.
With some guidance and gentleness, neutral redirection allows parents to effectively teach their children socially appropriate and safe behaviors, skills that will help them interact with peers, share experiences, and enjoy a higher quality of life. This process begins at treatment centers like Therapeutic Pathways, but can (and should) be followed at home.
As a parent or caregiver, here’s how you can remediate your child’s aggressiveness through neutral redirection:
- Remain calm. Remember that your child’s behavior may be kindled if you “give in” to their aggression.
- Prevent your child from making contact with you by moving out of the way.
- If this is not possible, you may need to protect vulnerable parts of your body.
- During the process, refrain from speaking to your child (scolding or asking them to stop), making eye contact with them, or reacting physically (flinching or making faces).
- Calmly redirect your child to a different method of communication. For example, if your child usually hits you to get your attention, you can instead instruct them to tap you on the arm and say “excuse me”.
- Only give your child direct acknowledgment (eye contact, etc.) when they engage in the appropriate behavior. Failing to do so could lead your child to associate aggressiveness with attention and getting what they want.
As mentioned, parents must refrain from reacting to their child’s aggressive behavior with exaggerated movements, loud voices, changes in facial expression, and other reactions that could validate the child’s behavior.
It’s important that you do not give in to aggressive behavior. If you continue to give in, your child will continue acting aggressively because they’ve come to learn that it’s an effective way to get what they want.
You can also be prepared by teaching your other children how to respond to their sibling’s aggressiveness. One of the best ways to do this is simply having the other child leave the room immediately. Your other children may react and spur more aggressive behavior, so having them walk away for a while can be helpful.
Treatment for Aggressive Children With Autism
Knowing how to stop an autistic child from hitting is key. Aggressive behavior can hinder a child’s progress at school, at home, and in social interactions. If your child has an autism diagnosis and is engaging in aggressive behaviors, seek treatment options as soon as possible.
The earlier the intervention (treatment), the greater your child’s chances of developing alongside their peers and becoming independent.
At Therapeutic Pathways, our Board-Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) put together an ABA treatment plan for each child engaging in aggressive behaviors. We work diligently to remediate harmful behaviors and encourage children to engage in safer, more appropriate behaviors.
For more information and to learn more about our ABA methods, contact Therapeutic Pathways at (209) 422-3280 to see if our Behavior Center program is right for your child.