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Autism and Aggression: 7 Expert Tips to Decrease Aggressive Behaviors

Autism and Aggression: 7 Expert Tips to Decrease Aggressive Behaviors

Updated: August 29, 2023 · 5 Minute Read

Taylor Thomas, Regional BCBA at Hopebridge Autism Therapy Centers

Written by:

Taylor Thomas, Clinical Director of Functional Assessment at Hopebridge Autism Therapy Centers

Highlights

  • Instead of saying, “I think you might be thirsty; here’s a drink of water.” Say, “Water? Okay!” in a happy tone. Too many words or speaking fast can sound jumbled to many autistic kids.
  • Resist the urge to lead play or turn it into a “teaching” moment –it shows you are interested in learning and playing with them and that you do not have to be in charge.
  • When your child becomes upset, let them know you understand how they feel and validate their feelings.

Autism and aggression can oftentimes go together. While we don’t ever want to make our kids “less autistic,” or take away the things that make them unique and interesting, those really tough moments with challenging behaviors can leave you feeling frustrated and confused. How do you help your child through aggressive behaviors like biting, hitting, pushing, or throwing things?

 

Expert Tips for Understanding and Managing Aggression with Empathy

Behavior is a form of communication. Oftentimes children become aggressive when they struggle to communicate their needs and wants. Maybe your child wants you to do something else, give them something they need, or don’t like what you are doing at that moment. Whatever it is, your child may resort to aggressive behavior because they feel it is the only way you will understand or give them attention.

 

Here are some professional and parent-approved strategies you can try at home:

 

1. Look for nonverbal signs of communication.

It can be easy to overlook moments when your child is trying to communicate with you, especially if they are non-speaking. It’s important to notice these little gestures, like pointing at or pulling you to something. It may seem like it is not directed toward you but could be an indirect method of communication. They might be trying to tell you something they need before resorting to aggression.

 

2. Run through a physical checklist.

Think about what could be bothering them. When did they last eat or drink? Do they need to use the bathroom, or do they have a dirty diaper/pull-up? Is there a loud noise or bright light? Are they tired or in pain? Review these regularly to avoid your child becoming so distressed they feel the need to communicate in other ways.

 

3. Use simple language.

As adults, we tend to use a lot of extra words when we are speaking. It’s often better to simplify. This doesn’t mean talking down to your child, just keeping communication simple and short. This is especially important when giving them things, like a glass of water, so they can start to associate shorter words with items (sometimes called labeling). Instead of saying, “I think you might be thirsty; here’s a drink of water.” Say, “Water? Okay!” in a happy tone. Too many words or speaking fast can sound jumbled to many autistic kids.

 

4. Set aside time to be present — but not intrusive — with your child.

You can learn a lot about your child by allowing them to lead play. It feels natural to step in and guide the conversation or show them how to do something. Instead, try to be present when they are engaging in something, without interrupting the play. Try not to give a lot of instructions during this time. Resist the urge to lead play or turn it into a “teaching” moment — it shows you are interested in learning and playing with them and that you do not have to be in charge. The first time you do it, they might wonder what you are doing, but as you continue, they might start to put you in places or lead you to the play on their own. Remember, there’s no “wrong” way to play!

 

5. Don’t take aggressive behaviors personally.

It’s easy to get upset and take aggression personally, especially when it comes from your child. The best way to respond is to take a big, deep breath. We tend to hold our breath when we are stressed, so this step can help. If you can safely separate from your child for a few moments, that can also be a good option for both of you. It is extremely important to understand that aggressive behaviors are a type of dysregulation, which means your child is having just as hard a time (if not more) than you! Your child can co-regulate with you through your regulation. (Think of it like your child drawing from your calm to become calmer). It’s hard not to take aggressive behaviors personally sometimes, but it’s healthy to take a break and walk away when you need to.

 

6. Redirect their unsafe wants to more appropriate choices.

If your child wants something unsafe or inappropriate, try to redirect them with a game or activity. For instance, if they love running away, teach them games like tag, racing, and “Duck, Duck, Goose,” which turns it into a safe activity with tons of language opportunities. Be sure to explain to your child in simple terms why the activity is unsafe or inappropriate, and use lots of empathy. (More on that in tip 7!)

 

7. Show empathy in tough moments.

Sometimes, we can’t give children what they want, which can lead to tantrums, meltdowns, and yes, aggressive behaviors. When your child becomes upset, let them know you understand how they feel and validate their feelings. For example, you can say “You’re upset you can’t eat M&Ms all day; I wish I could, too. But if we did that, our tummies would hurt!” It is important for autistic/neurodivergent kids to know the “why” behind things, so give your child an age-appropriate, simple answer as you validate their disappointment. It’s a natural feeling to want to immediately make it better for your child, but you want them to learn how to healthily handle discomfort and disappointment. Fixing everything for them sets them up for even more dysregulation in the future when you inevitably can’t give them what they need or want. You also don’t want your child to be totally reliant on you — instead, teach them how they can regulate themselves. Teach them how to label their feelings through empathy. You can say things like “it’s sad” or “it’s frustrating,” and just let it be for a minute. Then help them move on to better things.

 

Conclusion

It’s important to note that if your child engages in severe aggression or self-injury, you should ask for help. We don’t expect parents to be home day after day without professional support. If your family is struggling with this, look into your local resources, such as a local Hopebridge therapy center.

 

Remember that learning new skills takes time and practice. These tactics are not intended to be a fast “fix.” Parent coaching programs like Circle of Security and services like ABA therapy or DIRFloortime can also help with managing aggressive behaviors.

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