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Aggressive behaviors are one of the biggest struggles that parents of Autistic children face, but unfortunately, most information about it is filled with ABA strategies to “eliminate the behavior”.

The problem is, aggression in Autistic children isn’t as simple as them misbehaving, and the ABA tactics are actually likely to make the aggression worse.

See, Autistic children are never aggressive for no reason. Not ever.

But just because they have a reason doesn’t mean that we can just ignore the aggression and hope it goes away. So what is a parent supposed to do when their Autistic child is aggressive?

Young boy sits in a chair punching a teddy bear he is holding. Text reads: 5 Steps to Handle Aggression in Autistic Children.

5 Steps to Deal with Aggression in Autistic Children

If you’re dealing with aggression from your Autistic child, it can be easy to feel completely defeated.

Traditional parenting strategies aren’t working.

You know that your child’s aggression isn’t their fault, but you’re also getting concerned about the safety of your other kids or those your child is hurting.

Not to mention worrying about what the future looks like for your Autistic child if you can’t get the aggression out of control.

A few years ago my son was struggling with aggression during his meltdowns. Anyone near him would get a headbutt as hard as he possibly could.

At first, I was at a complete loss for how to handle it…

Then I found a way that kept everyone in our family safe, respected my Autistic child for who he was, and made sure his needs were being met.

And that 5 step process to handle aggression in Autistic children is exactly what I’m sharing with you today.

Step One: Check Your Assumptions

Before you can truly handle your child’s aggression, you need to check your assumptions.

And here’s the thing: it’s totally normal for you to have negative assumptions associated with your child’s aggression.

The truth is that most of us have negative experiences from our past that cloud our judgment.

But as valid as our experiences may be, it isn’t fair to put those negative assumptions on our children.

In order to recognize and adjust your assumptions, first start by listing out any thought you might have about your child’s aggression.

  • They’re so violent
  • They just want to hurt everyone around them
  • They’re abusive
  • They terrorize their siblings

Let all the thoughts you wouldn’t dare say out loud out on the paper.

Then I want you to take each and every thought and remove the judgment.

Words like violent or abusive aren’t clear, they’re filled with our own ideas of what they mean. Change for the specifics: “They hit. They kick.”

Making assumptions about their motives, what they want, or why your child is being aggressive are simply assumptions that we need to put aside before we can handle aggression.

Step Two: Handle Aggression When It Happens

Ultimately we want to stop the aggression before it happens of course, but until then we need a plan for how we will handle aggression when it happens.

To do that, think about specifically what “aggression” looks like for your Autistic child.

  • Hitting?
  • Kicking?
  • Scratching?
  • Pushing?
  • Pulling Hair?

You want to be as specific as possible because the plan for a kid who scratches might be completely different than the plan for a kid who kicks.

Now that you’re clear on what, specifically, they do, you’re going to ask yourself: how can I keep them and others safe when they’re struggling?

The “and” is probably the most important part of that sentence.

Forceful holds that pin your child down to the ground? Those don’t keep your child safe. But doing nothing while they kick you until you’re bruised? That’s also not safe.

The three best ways to keep people safe during aggression are:

  • Separate by removing other people from the aggressive child
  • Buffer by adding a physical barrier around the other person
  • Redirect by directing the aggression to an object rather than a person

Step Three: Find the True Cause of the Aggression

Now that you have a plan for exactly how you’ll keep everyone safe during aggression, you can start to find out why the aggression is happening in the first place.

Because remember, aggression doesn’t ever happen without a reason.

And before I dive into how to find that reason, I want to make something really clear.

Just because aggression has a reason doesn’t mean aggression is warranted or deserved. And acknowledging the reason for aggression doesn’t mean you are okay with it or accepting it.

With that out of the way, how do you find out the reason for aggression if your child can’t tell you?

It’s all about looking for and noticing patterns.

Start paying attention to when your child tends to be aggressive, and avoid the assumption that it “comes out of nowhere”.

Look for patterns like the time of day, sensory environment, location, people involved, or even day of the week.

As you notice these patterns, you start to get clues to what is actually causing the aggression.

When we remember that aggressive behavior is communicating, we can look at the patterns with a new lens.

Look at the patterns you’ve noticed and ask yourself: what about this might be triggering my Autistic child’s aggression?

Step Four: Solve the Actual Problem (hint: it isn’t the aggression)

Now you get to solve the actual problem!

We might think that aggression is the problem, but it’s actually just the consequence of whatever is triggering it.

So this step is about making a plan for the trigger you’ve identified in order to solve the real problem, allowing us to avoid the aggression.

This plan will vary depending on what’s causing your child’s aggression.

In general, you’ll want a plan that either avoids, accommodates, or manages your child’s triggers.

A plan that avoids a trigger might include avoiding certain situations that lead to aggression.

A plan to accommodate might include adding a tool or strategy that helps your child get through situations that lead to aggression.

And a plan to manage a trigger might include changing your approach to a situation that typically leads to aggression.

Step Five: Re-Evaluate as You Go

Now you have a plan for how you’ll handle the aggression when it happens, and a plan to solve the actual problem and avoid the aggression altogether.

But we aren’t quite done.

See, there are a lot of things that can get in the way of our perfect plan.

  • We might not be quite right on the trigger.
  • Our plan for solving the problem might make the problem worse.
  • We might find out that our plan isn’t practical.
  • Our child might not like the plan we have in place.

Basically, all of this means that you will need to re-evaluate this process as you go.

But I don’t want you to get discouraged. Every time you create and try out a “not-quite-right” plan to avoid aggressive behavior, you get one step closer to finding out the perfect plan for your Autistic child.

It can take a while to get this exactly right, and you might get frustrated or discouraged along the way.

But you don’t have to do it alone.

In fact, I help my coaching clients handle aggressive behaviors without ABA-tactics all the time, and I can help you too.

Click here to learn more about working one on one with me.

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