What To Do When Your Autistic Child Gets Aggressive

There’s no reasoning an autistic child out of an aggressive outburst. But there are other ways to handle it.

Originally Published: 
Two children fighting on a couch.

One of the most challenging situations parents face is when they cannot calm an aggressive child. It can make parents feel scared and unsafe; when other people are around, it can be mortifying. And although there are some best practices for any parent trying to calm an aggressive child, there are specific considerations for parents of autistic children when behavior turns combative.

Research shows that autistic children do tend to show more aggression than their peers. A recent study published in Autism Research showed that autistic kids demonstrate higher levels of verbal aggression and disruptive behavioral intensity throughout childhood. Autistic kids under the age of 6 showed more physical aggression than their non-autistic peers, but these levels became equal to their non-autistic peers as the kids aged.

And, it’s crucial to note, this is something autistic kids generally grow out of. “Adults with autism are actually significantly more likely to be victims of aggression than they are to be aggressive with other people,” says Darren Olsen, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor of pediatrics at Children’s Mercy in Kansas City and co-leader of the hospital’s Down syndrome and autism clinic.

In the meantime, Olsen recommends that parents embrace these three tips to help defuse the situation when their autistic kids show aggression.

Cool It Down

Parents naturally tend to try to reason their kids out of outbursts, but that rarely works. Trying to talk through it — or, even worse, meeting or exceeding the intense energy of a child’s explosion — will likely only worsen things. “Any extra talking, any extra touching, any more stimulus only adds fuel to the fire,” Olsen says.

One way to cool this situation is to change your child’s surroundings. For example, moving a kid out of proximity of an agitating stimulus may be easier than making the environment less stimulating. And if you can’t pinpoint the stimulus that has pushed the child past their limit, the change of scenery may help them escape it anyway.

Olsen also suggests that some kids find deep pressure soothing once other stimuli have been removed. Letting the child chew on something or look at a soothing image can also help, as long as parents offer the options gently and don’t push them on the child. “If parents can activate some of their senses in a different or calming way, that can be helpful for some kids,” he says. “But for others, it might be too much, or they may simply not accept it. So it’s important to remember that clear and gentle communication is paramount.”

Save The Debrief For Later, But Definitely Debrief

Although kids can’t engage during an autism meltdown, the behavior shouldn’t be ignored. Instead, it needs to be addressed once the child has calmed down and they can process what happened, why it happened, and what can be done to prevent aggressive outbursts in the future.

“It's best to talk about the aggression in very simple, straightforward terms. For example, it's okay for a parent to say straight out that hitting, kicking, biting, and other violent behaviors are unacceptable and that there are logical consequences for those behaviors,” Olsen says.

For example, when a child lashes out they may need to make some sort of restitution — be it an apology or something more tangible like helping to replace a broken item. But it’s important that the logical consequence isn’t shaming or overly harsh and that it’s in line with their developmental capabilities.

Olsen then suggests allowing the child to brainstorm one or two calm alternatives to try the next time they feel overstimulated or misunderstood. It can also be helpful for parents to share that sometimes they can feel the same way and the self-regulation techniques that work for them in similar circumstances.

Just as parents should address negative behaviors, they should also recognize when their child uses a healthy response. If possible, parents shouldn’t wait to affirm calm behaviors like they do when addressing aggressive behaviors. “One of the most important things is that whenever the child chooses a calm behavior, they receive a lot of attention and positive affirmation,” Olsen says. “Focusing positive attention on the child when they choose non-aggressive communication strategies shows them they have tools they can use to express themselves.”

Use A Script

Kids aren’t the only ones with difficulty engaging with other people when acting aggressively. The situation's intensity can also make it difficult for parents to process what to do in real time. And if a child starts acting aggressively in a public space, it can be hard to react calmly, with feelings of embarrassment or shame rising to the surface as the parental version of fight, flight, or freeze kicks in.

It can often help to have a mantra or something to consistently tell people who are around when your child starts acting aggressively. For example, “My child is still learning to control their emotions” or “We need to take a break.”

“It doesn't need to be anything big or elaborate. It just needs to be a consistent explanation that parents can deliver quickly and confidently when needed,” Olsen says. “So if your child starts being aggressive, you can quickly go over there and say something like, ‘This is not okay. We're going to leave now,’ and other parents can see that this is a system in place and that you have the situation under control.”

Preventing Aggressive Outbursts

Aggressive episodes from autistic kids are not random. The authors of the recent study attribute aggression in young autistic kids to frustration from sensory overstimulation, regularly being misunderstood, difficulty expressing their own emotions to others, and challenges with recognizing emotions in others. “If we could go into their brains and see the logic of why they ended up being aggressive at that moment, it would make a lot of sense,” Olsen says.

Understanding what might trigger an outburst in the first place can help parents reduce the frequency with which their child becomes aggressive or even prevent outbursts altogether. Two of the most common triggering stimuli are noise or irritating textures, which can put kids in a heightened state that pushes them to the verge of lashing out. And when kids reach their capacity to deal with those stimuli, things boil over.

In addition to understanding triggers and trying to avoid them, Olsen also emphasizes the importance of communication in preventing hostile outbursts. This can require picking up on nonverbal cues from kids who have vocal communication limitations and responding quickly to at least acknowledge attempts at communication even if the request or need can’t be met immediately.

Olsen emphasizes that parents shouldn’t be too hard on themselves if they try these techniques and their child still has aggressive outbursts. “Some kids are more predisposed to using aggression as a means of communication,” he says. “My heart really goes out to the parents who are doing everything that they can because I know they care, and they’re trying.”

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