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Autism and Aggression: Intervention Strategies

Aggression in children with autism can take many forms, such as hitting, kicking, scratching, biting or destroying property. A child’s aggression can be directed at self or others, and can be scary for everyone involved. Not every child with autism displays aggression. But for parents and teachers that do have to deal with their child’s outbursts of rage, feelings of frustration, exhaustion, and embarrassment often ensue.

Aggression is most likely a side effect of communication and/or coping issues. So when a child with autism becomes aggressive, there is a reason. For instance, many children with autism have a hard time with change, so changes to their routine can cause them to get upset. It’s up to us to figure out why they are being aggressive and to teach them that 1) aggression will no longer be reinforced and 2) other things they can do instead of being aggressive.

Here are some strategies to use to get your child out of the cycle of aggression:

Teach Communication. Children with autism usually have deficits in communication. Lack of effective communication skills often leads to frustration, and frustration can lead to aggression.  Imagine if you wanted something but could not say it! So one of the first things you need to do is address any communication issues your child might have. Your child should be taught how to communicate his needs, either through spoken language, sign language, or picture communication systems designed for people with special needs. This alone should help with a lot of behavior problems.

Teach Alternative Behaviors. Once you know the reason(s) why your child becomes aggressive, the child should be taught how to get what he wants without hitting. For example, say your student throws items whenever he is asked to do independent seat work. You might try teaching him to say, “I need help” or “Break, please.” You may also need to figure out how to make certain tasks easier for the child. As time goes on, you can teach him to work independently for longer and longer periods of time.

Another strategy is to teach your child that he has options. For example, if you tell your child he cannot have a cookie, you should also tell him what he can have- such as crackers or an apple. The goal is to teach kids to make a different choice when one option is not available.

Reinforce Good Behavior. Whenever your child uses appropriate behavior to get his needs met, such as asking nicely for something, praise him for it! Initially, you should give your child what he asks for (within reason!) as often as you can in order to reinforce appropriate asking. So if instead of throwing his books, your student says, “Help me please!” It’s a good idea to help him right away so he learns that “using his words” results in reinforcement, whereas throwing items does not.

Change Your Behavior. Many children with autism will engage in certain behaviors because of the reaction they get out of people. If you yell or get angry, or otherwise provide the child with a lot of attention after they hit, then your reaction may be reinforcing the behavior. Also, if the child is allowed to get out of a non-preferred task after they become aggressive, this can also be reinforcing the behavior. In general, aggression should be met with firm, yet calm redirection.

Prevention.  Implementing the above strategies should help reduce aggression. But you should also learn the warning signs that aggression is about to occur. When you see a “precursor” behavior, NOW is the time to act! There is no reasoning with a person during a meltdown. So do it before your child loses control. For instance, if you know your daughter begins to stomp her feet prior to lashing out, then if you see her stomping her feet, use that opportunity to remind her of the benefits of staying calm versus the consequences of losing her temper. Also, if you know a certain task usually results in a meltdown, re-think whether or not that task is truly necessary. If it is, you may need to provide more assistance and more reinforcement for task completion.

The main idea to take home is that s­ome children resort to aggression because it usually works! Therefore, it is very important to not give your child what he wants when he becomes aggressive. If you give in, you are reinforcing aggressive behavior. What you should do is teach him how to communicate his needs, and how to cope when he cannot have his way. Set boundaries and follow through. Reinforce good behavior as often as you can. If a serious meltdown occurs, take your child to a safe place to calm down, but once he’s calm, follow through with any instructions you gave prior. Other consequences such as loss of privileges may be necessary, but it’s better to focus on teaching and reinforcing good behavior.