Aggressive Behavior in a Child or Teen with Autism
May 6, 2019

Aggressive behavior in a child or teen exhausts every parent who must deal with it. When a child with autism who is already struggling in so many ways also displays aggressive tendencies, parents and caregivers can feel locked in a daily battle with too few options.

Aggression, defined as hostile or violent behavior toward others often with a readiness to attack, can put family members, and even strangers we come across during our day, in danger. Understanding aggression in the context of autism is a first step in dealing with this behavior. Fortunately, once thoughtfully examined, there are options available to families dealing with aggression.

Let’s look at the options up front. When dealing with aggressive behavior in a child or teen with autism, parents want answers fast. So instead of providing facts and statistics first, let’s save that for later and present some options NOW.

Help the Child to Communicate Effectively

So, give the child or teen an effective way to communicate. Many people on the autism spectrum are nonverbal/nonspeaking and/or have limited communication skills. Without the means to clearly and effectively get your thoughts across, frustration sets in and stays there! Imagine if you were in pain or wanted something desperately and could not tell anyone? Aggressive behavior is probably going to get a point across. (Maybe not the right point, but aggression is a form of communication). 

There are vast options nowadays in assistive technology and augmentative communication methods. Several apps are available for all levels of communicative intent. Specialized devices by companies like TobiiDynavox support independent communication. And if technology isn’t your thing, there’s always good ole PECs to try. Providing a way to communicate basic needs and wants is crucial to decreasing inappropriate, aggressive behavior.

Reduce Aggressive Behavior with Self-Regulation

Next, support self-regulation. Anxiety is not uncommon in people with autism. Understanding social norms and cues is a daily struggle.  Dealing with society’s expectations along with a loud, bright, confusing world is enough to spark aggression in a child or teen with autism. Self-regulation is key! Learn what calms your child, and think outside of the box on this.

There are so many options which include noise cancelling headphones, weighted vests, chewelry, tag-less clothing and seamless socks, worry beads, and squishy toys. For some, fidgets work well (and many toy stores are now stocking metal fidgets, wooden fidgets, and plastic fidgets small enough to fit in a pocket). 

Self-regulation is not just about sensory needs; having a visual or written schedule can help support calm behavior. Daily vigorous exercise such as jumping on a mini-trampoline or swinging can provide soothing self-regulation. Dietary changes and certain supplements or essential oils can help bring about a calmer mood. Anything that supports the person’s mental and physical state of being can decrease aggressive behavior.

Aggressive behavior
Photo by mohamed Abdelgaffar from Pexels

Treat Aggression with ABA Therapy

In addition, retraining behavior with Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) can lead to decreased aggression. ABA is a process of systematically employing interventions, after appropriate assessment, to improve socially significant behaviors. A 1999 study showed that using variable and delayed reinforcement techniques to curb aggression and impulsive behavior were effective.

If traveling down an ABA path to ameliorate aggressive behavior, know that parents and caregivers can easily learn the techniques used and apply them when the therapist is not present. Several online resources exist for parents who want to employ ABA techniques in their home.

Alleviate Aggression with Dietary Changes

Another option that exists for decreasing or eliminating aggressive behavior is making dietary changes. If a child or teen with autism displays any of the following symptoms, there’s a chance that aggression is an outward sign of internal pain: sleep disturbances, constipation or diarrhea, skin rashes, posturing behaviors, picky eating, dark under-eye circles, severe stimming, screaming, and self-injurious behaviors. 

Many parents of children with autism find that removing all gluten, casein, soy, corn, artificial colors and flavors, food dye, and MSG makes a dramatic difference in behavior. Some families don’t try these dietary strategies due to cost, complicated recipes, or unwillingness of schools to follow the plan, but there are resources available to help. 

Consider Medical Treatment for Aggressive Behavior

The fourth option for addressing aggressive behavior in a child or teen with autism is medical treatment. Medical treatment for aggression is merely the treatment of conditions that can exist in the person along with the autism. Treatment for allergies, gastrointestinal disorders, immune dysfunction, and mood disorders can greatly contribute to a calmer state of mind. When combined with other strategies, medical treatment can, and often does, alleviate some or most of the aggressive behavior.

Aggressive behavior

Hormones Might Play a Role in Aggression

Now that some options have been presented, let’s look at how puberty can bring about aggression. In one word: hormones. Hormones at work in the pre-adolescent and adolescent bodies of typical kids is enough to drive an entire family crazy. Hormones in the body of a person with autism – well, take all those mood swings, noncompliant behaviors, and confusing emotions, and pour them into someone with limited communication, social deficits, and anxiety!

The aggression will of course be amplified. It’s going to take the consistent and patient efforts of the family to cope with aggressive behavior that arises. And depending on the size, weight, and strength of the person displaying aggressive tendencies, keeping family members safe becomes top priority.

Aggression should not be considered a symptom of autism, and it’s important to realize that not all people with ASD are aggressive. The rates? Hard to say, but a 2010 survey found that 68% of children with autism showed aggression toward caregivers.

Studies also indicate that aggressive behavior can overlap with extreme anxiety. What does that aggressive behavior look like? Throwing objects, intentionally breaking things or damaging personal possessions, hitting, kicking, scratching, biting, screaming, and/or threatening others.

It can be spontaneous or somewhat pre-planned. Generally, it seems that aggressive outbursts in children and teens with autism are sudden, intense, albeit inappropriate reactions to:

  • blocked communication or intent to communicate without means to do so
  • overwhelming sensory disorientation and lack of self-regulation skills
  • heightened reactions to foods, drinks, and/or chemicals
  • frustration with learning new tasks 
aggressive behavior

Aggressive Behavior is Not the Same as a Meltdown

Keep in mind that aggressive behavior is different from self-injurious behavior which is also different from tantrums and meltdowns. Of course, all of these behaviors can and do make appearances in children and teens with autism. Self-injurious behavior is harm directed at oneself (banging the head, biting one’s own arm…).

Tantrums are usually a reaction to not getting what one wants, and they are often done in the presence of an “audience.” Meltdowns seem to occur in the person with autism as a response to stimulus overload which leads to an emotional “explosion.” And aggressive behavior usually is about a readiness to attack or physically confront another with hostile or violent behavior.

The quicker the parents or caregivers can address aggressive behavior, the better quality of life you and your family will have. It’s not easy, and there may not be a quick, permanent solution, but with persistence and patience, you will find answers and learn how to cope.

More resources can be found in our Special Needs Category

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About Keri Horon

Keri is a special needs parent and a veteran high school English and journalism teacher turned writer. She enjoys writing, reading, painting, hiking, gardening, cooking, wine tasting, and practicing yoga. She a passion for creating awareness for and acceptance of differently-abled individuals. Visit her blog at www.kerimehome.com.

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3 thoughts on Aggressive Behavior in a Child or Teen with Autism
  1. Keri Horon should have M.D. shown after her name. She’s very knowledgeable and gives realistic advice that is easily understood and can be put into action immediately.

  2. Good article. One that is hard to deal with at times.

    Keep up educating and encouraging others like you do. God has given you that gift and you are using it. Proud of what you are doing.

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