The Mighty Logo

Addressing Aggressive Behaviors in Children on the Autism Spectrum

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Although there have been few large-scale studies examining the prevalence of aggression in children with autism spectrum disorder, it is estimated that around 50% of children and adolescents on the spectrum regularly engage in aggressive behavior. Aggressive behavior can be defined as impulsive behaviors that may injure another person, themselves, or destroy property. Examples would be behaviors such as biting, hitting, or kicking another person, throwing, breaking, or knocking objects over and biting or injuring themselves.

Aggressive behavior can be emotionally draining to parents and caregivers and negatively impact the child’s educational, social, community and family life. However, with a proper understanding of why children with autism may engage in aggressive behaviors, and some specific strategies, the aggression frequency can be significantly reduced.

Why Are Some Children on the Autism Spectrum Prone to Engaging in Aggressive Behavior?

All behavior serves a function. Often that function is either for attention, serving as sensory input or to gain access to something or to avoid doing something. For example, if a child wants a cookie and asks nicely, and they get it, the behavior gained them what they wanted. If a parent tells a child it’s bath time, and the child asks nicely if they can finish their TV show first and the parent agrees, then the behavior helped them avoid getting a bath at that moment. These examples of a child using appropriate behaviors of polite requests are likely to continue because they worked.

With this in mind, children with autism typically struggle in many areas, such as:

  • the ability to effectively communicate their wants and needs
  • sensory sensitivities which may lead to overstimulation
  • may not understand what is happening around them and to them
  • may easily become anxious and want to escape or avoid situations
  • low frustration tolerance
  • the ability to understand their own emotions and the emotions of others

Aggression can become their form of communication because no other tools are at their immediate disposal.

Using the ABCs of Behavior to Minimize Aggression

So accepting the fact that the aggressive behavior is sending a message, it is up to parents and caregivers to determine what that message is and provide the child with a more appropriate tool to deliver it. An excellent strategy for this is called the ABCs of behavior. The “A” is the antecedent (what happens before the behavior), the “B” is the behavior itself, and the “C” is the consequence (what happens as a result of the behavior).

Understanding the Antecedent

In defining the antecedent, you want to look where the behavior occurred, with who did it occur, when did it occur, etc. being very specific. For example, a child regularly bites a parent in the morning during transitions into the car seat when going to school. The parent should closely examine what is happening immediately before the biting. Is the child watching a favorite TV show they don’t want to leave? Is the car seat uncomfortable? Is there a reason they wouldn’t want to go to school?

Then the parent should begin to adjust the antecedent. Such as, add the use of a timer before transitioning. Eliminate the option of watching TV before school. Adjust car seat straps to make them more comfortable. Put a highly preferred item in the car seat, such as a favorite book or toy as a reinforcer. It is much better for everyone to address as many behaviors as possible in the antecedent phase, thereby eliminating them from occurring.

Understanding the Behavior

The behaviors to address in the ABC strategy are observable behaviors. So again, those aggressive behaviors such as hitting, biting, pinching, throwing, kicking, etc.

Understanding the Consequence

The consequence is how others respond to the behavior. Did the child get what they wanted or avoid what they wanted? If so, then the behavior worked, and the likelihood of them repeating it is high. If the child didn’t get what they wanted as a result of the behavior, what happened instead? Did the parent attempt to redirect the child or ignore the behavior?

It is important to note that any form of physical punishment such as spanking or biting the child back should not be used as a consequence. Physical punishment is only reinforcing to the child that aggression is an acceptable form of communication. It can be very upsetting when a child engages in aggressive behavior. However, responding to aggression with aggression won’t have any positive results and over time can be emotionally damaging to both the parent and the child, as well as teach the child physical aggression towards others is acceptable.

Teaching Replacement Behaviors

If a child on the autism spectrum is using aggression as a form of communication, after analyzing and adjusting the antecedent and consequence, if possible, the next step is to teach appropriate replacement behaviors. For example, if the target behavior is the child hits their sibling when they don’t want to play with them, teach them the phrase, “I need space,” as an appropriate cue that they want alone time. If they are hitting the pantry door when they want a snack, teach them to say “I want blank.” If the child struggles verbally, create visuals of pictures or phrases they can use to demonstrate their wants and feelings. These are just a few of the many ways to help give your child strategies to help them overcome using aggression as communication.

Our Family’s Experience

My son is 5 years old and on the autism spectrum. Aggressive behaviors have been and continue to be an area in which he struggles. Most recently, he behaved aggressively when I was assisting him with washing his hands. The consequence of this incident was I ignored it and put him in his room for a few minutes. Then he was expected to say, “I am sorry,” and I told him not to do that again. Then I offered a replacement behavior. I told him he could tell me, “X means no,” if you don’t want me to help you wash your hands. This is a phrase he has coined on his own. If he tells me “X means no,” I do my very best to honor that.

Next, I examined the antecedent of the aggressive behavior. He had been on the toilet. I had helped clean him up and, without warning, led him to the sink to wash his hands and squirted the soap. The overstimulation of the sensory sensation of the soap was more than he was prepared for. In the future, I will ask him, “Do you want me to help you wash your hands, or do you want to do it by yourself?” Choices almost always help transitions to go easier for him.

If your child struggles with aggressive behavior, my best advice is to remain as calm as possible, analyze the antecedent, adjust where you can, keep the consequence consistent, teach appropriate replacement behaviors, and, most importantly, don’t take it personally. Remember, your child isn’t giving you a hard time; they are having a hard time. It is up to us to help them fill in the gaps, so they have appropriate tools to share their big feelings and emotions when they struggle to understand and explain them.

Resources for Using the ABCs of Behavior

For a more in-depth description of the ABCs of Behavior and free printable resources to understanding and collecting behavioral data, check out Strategies Part 1 and Strategies Part 2.

“Try to remember that the moment your child is at their most challenging is the moment when your child is struggling with the most challenges.” – L.R. Knost

Getty image by Dragana 991.

Originally published: October 18, 2020
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home