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How to Handle Common Aggressive Behaviour for Children with Autism?

By making an effort to understand the motive behind their aggressive behaviours, you will be able to better come up with solutions to help you and your child.

Children with autism may occasionally display aggressive behaviour either towards themselves or towards others when they are frustrated, trying to communicate their needs, trying to escape from a task, or when there is a sensory overload and they are trying to cope and self-regulate, among other reasons. It can be quite frustrating and heartbreaking to see your child self harming, or hurting loved ones, especially if you don’t understand what is causing the aggressive behaviour. Common aggressive behaviours can include kicking, biting, scratching, pinching, hitting, banging of head against the wall, and pulling of hair. These behaviours can either be directed at themselves or at others.

I remember on my first session with a client, he was having a meltdown because he wanted to go for a walk, but no one understood him. As I was holding on to him to prevent him from hitting his mother and helper, he elbowed me in the face and would not stop thrashing about. It was absolutely gut-wrenching to watch the child try so hard to get us to understand what he wanted and hurting others in the process. Once we finally figured out what he wanted, we managed to teach him how to appropriately request for a walk, and rewarded him with a stroll at the void deck. He was a happy little camper after.

There are many reasons why children with autism display aggressive behaviour as mentioned above. And therefore it is crucial for us to understand what the function of the behaviour is in order to properly address the behaviour and teach your child a more appropriate way of managing their emotions or communicating.

Here are some ways you can deal with your child’s aggressive behaviours:

  • Teaching them to communicate their wants and needs in an appropriate manner

It is important to understand that if children are not able to communicate their needs verbally or gesturally, they may turn to aggression to get your attention. Hence it is vital to teach your child how to communicate in appropriate ways, be it through selecting picture cards, pointing, sign language or verbally. Honour their requests regardless of which way they choose to communicate with you. This way, they are more likely to understand that when they make attempts to communicate nicely, they will be rewarded with their desired activity, food, or whatever they are requesting for without the need to be aggressive

  • Prompt your child to show you what they want

If you know that the function of their aggressive behaviour is because they want something, you can get them to show you what they want. Sometimes in the heat of aggression, your child may need some help reminding them that you will not understand what they want unless they tell you or show you. You can do this by getting down on their level and telling them “can you show me what you want?” If they are flailing their arms about, you can hold down their wrists firmly (not tightly) before getting down beside them. You can even help them up once they have calmed down a little bit and get them to bring you to whatever they wanted to ask for. This can be used together with the method above. Once you know what they want, teach them to request for it.

  • Stay calm

Remember that when your child is aggressive, they are already experiencing a build up of negative emotions. By getting angry and screaming at them, you might only add to these emotions and upset the child even further. Instead, keep calm and try to understand why your child is behaving this way.

  • Keep your instructions short and simple

When children are upset, it is hard for them to process long and complex instructions. So keep your instructions to a few words, such as “sit down.” or “let’s count from 1 - 10”, “let’s breathe in and out 10 times”. This ensures that your child is able to catch your instructions with minimal processing effort. You can even go a step further by prompting your child to follow through with your instructions and praising them for listening to you.

  • Make sure your child is in a safe space

If your child is having a meltdown that is hard for you to control, the next best thing you can do is to create a safe environment for them. Try to remove any objects that could potentially fall over or objects with sharp corners. You might also need to remove people who are in the vicinity to give your child space. Another alternative is to move your child into a padded room, or a room with little obstructions.

  • Only reinforce your child when they display desired behaviours

While it is always easier to give in to a child when they are having a meltdown to get them to stop, it is not always the best thing for the child in the long run. By allowing them to get away with aggressive behaviour once, they will be more likely to try it again since they know it works. Instead, understand the function of the aggression. Stay close by to ensure that your child is not hurting themselves, or even just hold their hands down to prevent them from hurting you. But do not attend to the behaviours and wait until your child is slightly more calm before prompting them to ask for what they want and then reinforcing that behaviour.

So in the example of the child in the beginning of this article, here is a breakdown of what we did:

  • Hug the child from the back closely so that they cannot hit you and they cannot hit themselves. The closer you are to the child, the less likely they will be able to head-butt you as well.

  • Sing some songs that you know will calm the child down. Counting or reciting their favourite lines from their favourite movies might help too.

  • When the child is calm, remind your child “okay, look. Can you show me what you want?”. Help your child up if needed and get them to bring you to the object or the desired place.

  • Hold the desired object out and get your child to request for it. For example, “Door” or “walk”. Once your child repeats after you, try it one more time while saying “What do you want? Walk”. Your child should repeat “walk”. Quickly praise and reinforce with a nice little stroll.

You can also read more articles about various sensory meltdowns, meltdowns in public spaces, and head-banging by clicking on the keywords.

In a nutshell, the best ways to deal with aggressive behaviours are to understand and remove possible triggers, teach your child to communicate their needs and more appropriate ways of self-regulating and self-expression, and to reinforce when your child is expressing themselves in positive ways. it is always difficult in the beginning, but always remember that your child is trying to communicate with you, and it is probably also frustrating for them too. By making an effort to understand the motive behind their aggressive behaviours, you will be able to better come up with solutions to help you and your child too!

Written by Cheryl.

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