How to Manage Aggressive Behavior in Kids with Autism

3/4/2019 By Michelle Lepitre, BCBA

Not all children with autism engage in disruptive or aggressive behaviors. But, for those that do, this group of behaviors can create a lot of stress for their parents or caregivers. Sometimes the behaviors may occur at a level that can make it difficult for the whole family to enjoy outings together or spend time with friends.

It’s important to remember that every situation is different and every child has different needs. Aggression can be displayed in many different forms:

  • Aggression toward others: when the child “lashes out” at others around him, such as by hitting, kicking, biting, pulling hair, etc.
  • Aggression toward their environment: when the child destroys items in their environment, such as breaking or throwing objects, turning tables over, knocking things off of counters, etc.
  • Aggression toward themselves: when the child engages in behavior that may be harmful to his or her self, such as slapping or biting themselves, as well as banging their head against a hard surface.

Aggression can be a very serious and challenging form of behavior. If your child is engaging in these types of behaviors, it is very important that you seek assistance from a licensed professional with experience in managing and supporting this type of behavior. The recommendations listed below are only general suggestions and DO NOT replace the need for an evaluation and guidance from a professional who has been trained in behavior reduction procedures, such as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.

1. Stay calm.

When a child begins engaging in aggressive behavior, there may be a wide range of emotions and reactions that a parent may experience. First and foremost, it will be very important that you are able to remain calm and “neutral.” This means keeping your body language and expressions in a relaxed and natural state. Try not to appear aggravated or upset. You should also limit speaking to them about the situation beyond what is necessary at that time. Until your child is calm, they will most likely not be able to attend to what you are trying to communicate to them, and for some children, talking to them may only escalate the behavior.

2. Focus on safety first.

Remaining calm in situations where your child’s behavior is escalated allows you to be more aware of adjustments you can make to the environment to best protect your child, yourself and others. Look for any potentially dangerous items in the area that might need to be removed as a safety precaution. For example, remove any scissors, pens, keys and breakable or heavy objects that can potentially be used to cause physical harm to others.

3. Learn the triggers and create a plan for the future.

Once your child is calm and able to return to their normal routine, it can be helpful to try to write down the specifics of the situation in a notebook or journal. Specific details that will be helpful to include are:

  • What happened right before the child became upset or engaged in aggression?

  • Were there any signals or “warning signs” that the child was about to become upset or engage in aggression?

  • What exactly did the behavior look like? (Describe what they did using action words like “cried,” “ran,” “fell,” etc.)

  • How did you and others around your child react when the behavior occurred?

This type of information can be helpful in multiple ways. Being able to recognize changes in behavior that happen BEFORE aggression occurs provides you with the opportunity to possibly prevent the aggression from occurring at all. Keeping this information written down, even in a calendar, may reveal patterns or additional information for yourself or for professionals when they are evaluating your child.

4. Seek the help and support of a professional.

To be clear, these suggestions aren't intended to replace the need for evaluation and guidance from a professional who has been trained in behavior reduction procedures. A Behavior Analyst will be able to evaluate your child by performing a Functional Behavior Assessment and, in turn, create a Behavior Support Plan that includes specific strategies and recommendations to address and reduce your child’s problem behaviors.

Seeing your child attempt to hurt others or hurt themselves can be incredibly difficult, but, if you remain calm and seek the help of a professional, you can help your child overcome their impulses and achieve their goals.