Aggression in Children with Autism? How to Manage Aggressive Behavior

Aggressive behaviors are common in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Many parents who have a child with autism can relate to being concerned over their child’s challenging behaviors especially when those behaviors are hurtful toward others or to the child themselves. This can be an unpleasant experience for the child, for their parents, or for anyone else. For the child who is displaying aggression, this type of behavior can be frightening, exhausting, confusing, and stressful. The behavior can also lead the child to miss out on the chance to learn valuable life skills and alternative behaviors. Aggression that isn’t addressed in an effective and helpful manner can lead to more such behavior in the future. In this article, we will discuss aggression in children with autism spectrum disorder and how parents can manage it more effectively.

Function of the Behavior – Why is Your Child Being Aggressive?

When attempting to change a child’s behavior, it is helpful to understand why your child is behaving a certain way. Exploring the cause of your child’s behavior will more likely have a positive difference with your child and help manage their behavior more effectively. In ABA therapy (applied behavior analysis), therapists and BCBA’s look at what is called the function of the behavior.

There are four functions of behavior. These include the following:

  • Escape: the child is exhibiting the behavior to get out of or to avoid doing something.
  • Attention: the child is acting a certain way to get the attention of someone else even if it’s negative.
  • Access: the child is behaving a certain way to get access, to physically get something, such as a toy they want or video games, etc.
  • Automatic Reinforcement: the behaviors exhibited by automatic reinforcement have to do with things that either make the child feel good or help them to manage their sensory input.

Behavior analysts can complete functional behavior assessments (FBA’s) which help determine the function of behaviors. Reach out to Behavioral Innovations for an FBA as identifying the function of your child’s behavior can lead to a more effective behavior plan.

Examples of Functions of Aggressive Behavior

Let’s consider a few examples related to the functions of behavior and how these functions might apply to aggressive behavior.

  • ESCAPE: The child is throwing food and dishes across the table or on the floor to get out of sitting at the table and eating the meal.
  • ATTENTION: The child hits mom to get her attention. She has been busy doing housework, but the child wants mom to play with him.
  • ACCESS: The child hits another child because he wants the toy the other child is playing with.
  • AUTOMATIC REINFORCEMENT: The child pinches mom’s arm often because he likes the sensation of squeezing her skin.

Consider Medical and Biological Issues Related to Your Child’s Aggression

Another thing to consider when trying to identify the cause of your child’s aggressive behavior is that medical issues can contribute to aggressive behavior. Sometimes, when children with autism experience illness, such as an ear infection or a headache or a fever, or have ongoing medical conditions, such as diabetes, they engage in aggressive behaviors. This could be due to many reasons – from being uncomfortable and not having another way to express themselves to being in pain, and so on.

This is especially true for children who have challenges communicating or those who don’t communicate with spoken language.

Also, consider your child’s basic needs. When a child is tired, hungry, or uncomfortable, they may engage in more aggressive behaviors than otherwise.

Think about whether this could be influencing your child’s behavior. Does your child have a regular sleep schedule? Do they struggle staying asleep? Do they have a routine for meals and snacks? Do they eat a well-balanced diet? Do they seem to get stressed or overwhelmed when they are too hot or too cold or when they are wearing certain textured clothing? Answers to these could be critical when trying to manage your child’s aggressive behavior.

Being Proactive – Use Antecedent Strategies

When managing aggressive behavior, the best and first recommendation for parents is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. Antecedent means before, so using antecedent strategies means to do something before your child acts aggressively. Take a moment to think about how you might be able to reduce the chances of your child acting hostilely.

Some ideas to consider for antecedent strategies include:

  • Not missing naptime if the child acts more aggressively when he’s tired
  • Providing strict rules about access to preferred items (such as electronic devices) if the child tends to act aggressively when he/she wants to use these items
  • Finding alternative ways to satisfy and regulate your child’s sensory experiences if he/she has behaviors that should be minimized due to the harmful nature of the behaviors
  • Plan for quality time with your child on a schedule that is ideal for your child and your family and frequent enough, so your child isn’t exhibiting aggression because he wants your attention.
  • Help your child practice alternative behaviors and functional communication to replace aggressive behaviors. Alternative behaviors are behaviors that your child should do instead of the aggressive behaviors. Functional communication is when your child uses more appropriate communication skills.

Be Careful Not to Reinforce Your Child’s Behavior

Try not to reinforce aggressive behaviors. When a behavior is reinforced, albeit unintentionally, it is more likely to happen again in the future. Typically, the function of the behavior will tell you what might reinforce the behavior. For instance, if the function of the behavior is access to an electronic device, then giving the child the device when they are aggressive is likely to reinforce the behavior and make it more likely that he will be aggressive again in the future.

Another thing to consider is thoughtful introspection of your own behavior to see if you might be reinforcing your child’s aggressive behavior accidentally.

Reinforce Appropriate Behaviors Instead of Aggression

Be sure to reinforce behaviors that you’d rather see your child do instead of the aggressive behavior. Consider what you’d rather see your child doing than the aggressive behavior. Let’s look at an example. If your child hits his sibling because he wants the toy they have, a behavior they could do instead of hitting is saying, “Can I have a turn?” or simply waiting for the other child to be done with the toy and then playing with it. If your child does either of these two behaviors and doesn’t hit, praise your child for sharing and being nice and waiting their turn.

Safety First

When a child engages in aggressive behavior, be sure to consider the safety of your child and the people around him or her. If needed, contact the appropriate authorities to ensure that everyone stays safe and that severe harm is prevented.

On the other hand, if your child’s aggressive behavior isn’t something that seems like it could severely hurt anyone and you feel you can manage it yourself, remember to stay calm and follow the behavior plan and reinforce appropriate behavior.

Think About Yourself, Too – Take a Break

It is also important to give yourself a break from time to time. Parenting can be exhausting no matter who you are. When you have a child who has more challenging behavior than other children, it can be really tiring and emotionally draining. Find a support system.

Plan times that you can have time away from your children. Find other people who can help care for your child to give you a break sometimes.

Creating a Behavior Plan That Works to Manage Aggressive Behavior in Children with ASD

Behavioral Innovations can be a great support for you and your child when it comes to decreasing or sometimes even eliminating aggressive behavior. Behavior Analysts (BCBA’s) at Behavioral Innovations can help you develop a behavior plan that identifies and outlines specific strategies that are likely to be effective for your child. Every child is different, so an individualized approach to managing aggressive behavior is necessary. Behavioral Innovations behavior analysts can help create an individualized behavior plan that will help your child.

Some of the components of a behavior plan that BCBA’s can help parents create to manage their child’s aggressive behavior include:

  • The function of the aggressive behavior
  • Operational definitions of the aggressive behavior (which also supports an effective intervention – when you know exactly what the behavior is, you know what you’re dealing with)
  • Proactive AND Reactive Strategies (based on behavior science) that are likely to work for your child when it comes to reducing the occurrence of their aggressive behavior
  • Replacement behaviors – things your child can do instead of the aggressive behavior to still get their needs met and express their thoughts and emotions

Managing Aggression in Your Child with Autism

When your child acts aggressively, it can be stressful and possibly dangerous for everyone involved. To help your child, consider the tips we’ve recommended. You might also consult with a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) at Behavioral Innovations as they have experience with helping children who engage in aggressive behavior. We are here to help. Contact us today.

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