Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) do not necessarily express anger, fear, anxiety, or frustration in the same way as other children. It is common that parents come across untimely aggressive outbursts from their child with ASD. Although it is common for children with autism to behave aggressively towards themselves or other people, such behaviors can be dealt with and prevented.
Understanding the cause
For parents to intervene and manage aggressive or self-injurious behaviors, it is crucial to first understand why these behaviors occur. Some common examples of aggressive behaviors could be throwing objects, scratching, hitting, kicking or even head banging against a wall. These maladaptive behaviors can arise due to a myriad of reasons, some of which may be due to:
Difficulty expressing their wants and needs
Trouble understanding what is going on around them
Wanting to escape from a stressful tasks/ situations
Before assuming the cause of a behavior, parents need to first understand how well their child can communicate as it can be a crucial step in finding out what’s causing the aggressive behavior. When children have difficulty asking for what they need or what, they may turn to aggressive behaviors to communicate.
After understanding your child’s ability to communicate, parents can consider getting a diary which keeps track of a behavior for 1-2 weeks, noting down what happened before the aggressive behavior occurred. This can help parents identify potential triggers, which can be avoided after being brought to attention. For example, if you found out that your child will have a meltdown when told to wait for a long time, you can try visiting restaurants and malls at off-peak hours to avoid triggering your child’s outbursts in public.
It is recommended for parents to adopt proactive strategies when aggressive behaviors are not happening, as it will prevent the frequency of occurrence of aggressive outbursts from children with ASD. Proactive strategies like teaching your child communication, will prevent them from being aggressive to get what they want. This will allow children with autism to be equipped with the skills of requesting things and coping with negative feelings, which can reduce their own stress and that of their loved ones.
As children with autism have difficulty understanding social norms and copying what people do in their natural environment, behaviors need to be explicitly taught to them. One of the most crucial things to teach a child with autism is communication. There are 9 critical communication skills which we will recommend teaching first, and they are to:
Request for something they want
Request for help
Request for a break
Respond to “wait”
Respond to instructions
Transition between activities
Follow a schedule
Parents who have non-verbal children can consider teaching their child how to request by pointing and showing their palms out for the start. This will prevent the child from engaging in negative behaviors to get what they want, like snatching, whining or hitting etc.
The next thing that parents can teach their children who have difficulty expressing their anger in socially desirable ways, is to teach them coping strategies that they can practice on their own. It is important to let the child know that it is okay to feel angry or upset, but it is not okay to hurt themselves/others. Parents can encourage their child to practice some relaxation strategies when they are angry, like counting to 10, drinking some water, squeezing their hands/ a stress ball, taking deep breaths, or hugging something soft. For older children with more language, parents can introduce them to strategies like reading a book, asking for quiet time, and writing their feelings in a journal.
In essence, parents should seek to implement long-term proactive strategies to prevent aggressive outbursts and to allow their child to be able to behave appropriately without being reminded in the long run. Although it is a challenging ordeal to get through, at the end of the day, behaviors are a form of communication and there is always a cause that has to be sought and understood before eliminating any aggressive outburst. However, if parents find themselves in a situation where they are unable to manage their child’s aggressive behavior despite having tried other strategies, it will be best to get professional help to keep their child and the people around them safe. Professionals will be able to provide parents with positive support and behavior plans to reduce/eliminate the maladaptive behavior, or teach new behaviors to the child with ASD.
Written by Clarissa.
Aggressive Behavior: Autistic children and teenagers. (2020). Retrieved 20 June 2021, from https://raisingchildren.net.au/autism/behaviour/common-concerns/aggressive-behaviour-asd
Early Autism Project Malaysia. (2020). Managing Challenging Behaviors (Part 3/5) - Teaching Strategies | Autism At Home [Image]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SzNI81CqwIU