We often only associate anger with aggressiveness but anger is not the only reason your child could portray aggressive behaviours. Emotions such as anxiety, confusion, sadness, fear, stress and pain can also elicit aggressiveness in children with ASD.
It is pivotal to acknowledge that emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety, pain and sadness are healthy and are appropriate emotions to feel. Due to the negative connotations surrounding these words, we often refrain from speaking about it, which can prove to be disadvantageous to children with ASD. Some examples of emotions manifesting into aggressive behaviours are:
- Anxiety when transitioning from one activity to another.
- Confusion about what is happening / activity
- Overwhelmed by demands placed
- Fear of places/objects
- Pain due to injury
- Sadness from separation anxiety
With any behaviour a child shows, it is necessary to identify the function of it to understand why he/she is responding in such a way. To identify that, we can look back to what the child was doing prior to the reaction. For example, before the child started crying, what happened? Did he/she trip over something causing him/her to get hurt, leading it to manifest into an aggressive behaviour or did your child start crying during a change from one activity to another?
No child would spontaneously engage in aggressive behaviour without an antecedent. Hence, keep calm and identify what happened prior. Remember that what seems like a small event to you could be a big event for your child, thus, do not dismiss small events. Instead acknowledge it as that event could have triggered an emotion that caused the aggressive behaviour.
Awareness of the communication level of your child can aid in identifying the cause of their aggressive behaviour. When a child is unable to express feelings or ask for what he/she needs or wants, he/she may use aggressive behaviour to communicate. For example, if your child does not like the volume at which you are speaking, your child might hit you as a way of saying "You are speaking too loud.” In this instance, after identifying the antecedent to the behaviour, you can teach the child the words to say. Instead of saying, "Don't hit mummy", you can ask "Am I speaking too loud? Tell mummy, loud." and ensure the child echoes after you and says "loud" to equip the child with the words he/she might need for similar incidents in the future.
Here are some ways to manage aggressive behaviours.
1. Be calm
When your child releases big emotions, stay calm and do not add in more emotions into the mix.
2. Words are powerful
Some children with ASD can struggle with language and comprehension, hence, asking many questions or speaking in full sentences might not be helpful in this situation. While you can still ask questions to understand and help your child, minimise your sentences into phrases. For example, when your child suddenly starts hitting you when you are watching TV. Instead of saying "Stop hitting me, use your words", say "Is it loud?" or instead of "Sharon, come here and sit down", say "Sit".
Additionally, instead of telling your child what not to do, "Stop hitting me", tell your child what to do in your response by saying, "hands down".
3. Use visual cues
If your child is nonverbal, remember that your child is still most likely able to understand what you are saying. Hence, speak to him/her but use visual cues to allow him/her to communicate his/her needs with you. This could also work with verbal children who might struggle with communicating their needs when they are feeling big emotions.
In conclusion, behaviours are a form of communication and it is helpful to recognise the antecedents of the behaviours to figure out the reason behind it so that we can properly address the root issue.
Written by: Sharon