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Help for the Easily Agitated Child on the Autism Spectrum: Tips for Parents

“My son with high functioning autism will get so upset and frustrated to the point of meltdown. He becomes very aggressive and there is no calming him down or discussing things with him once he has crossed this line. And to make matters worse, there is no rhyme or reason to his explosions. What upsets him to no end one day doesn’t seem to bother him on another day. This makes it very hard to predict what’s coming. Help!”

Due to the associated symptoms, kids with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s (AS) are more likely to become agitated than “typical” kids. There are numerous issues related to the disorder that may contribute to your son’s distress, for example:
  • Difficulty handling changes to the daily routine
  • Fatigue
  • Impaired communicating skills
  • Strong reliance on fixed routines
  • Over-sensitivity to stimuli through the five senses 
  • Stress in the environment
  • Tendency to be clumsy
  • Difficulty identifying, understanding, and describing his emotions
  • Tendency to misinterpret or misunderstand gestures and facial expressions
  • Trouble interacting with others  
  • Underlying behavioral, developmental, or health conditions (e.g., ADHD)

Also, your son may be more likely to become agitated if you react too strongly to his behavior or give in to his demands.

All kids get frustrated and act-out from time to time, and there is no reason why young people on the autism spectrum should refrain from this stage of development. But how do you know whether or not an agitated child's behavior is "normal"? When the behavior escalates to the point of violence, is it still just simple agitation, or are there deeper issues that need to be looked at?

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management

Agitation and resultant “problematic behavior” (i.e., the child’s way of coping with distress) are very common problems in HFA and AS. The child may appear to go into a state of rage or anxiety for no apparent reason (e.g., screaming, crying, resisting contact with others, pushing others away, etc.).

Parents often have great difficulty calming their HFA or AS child once he or she has reached the boiling point. The youngster may seem inconsolable, and the episode can last a long time – and can even involve of more aggressive behaviors (e.g., hitting, biting, pinching, etc.). Also, the “emotional release” that typically accompanies the end of “throwing a fit” for non-autistic kids rarely occurs in the HFA or AS child. Similar episodes of anxiety and anger may be seen all through childhood, adolescence – and even into adulthood.

Paying attention to the things that trigger your son’s frustration can help you act before his emotions escalate beyond the point where he can control them. Identifying the cause of the behavior is very important. There is ALWAYS some “yet-to-be-unidentified” trigger that brings on difficult behavior.

As with such behavior in all young people, there are a number of possible causes. There may be underlying reasons (e.g., feeling upset, anxious or angry), and immediate triggers (e.g., being told to do something). But with kids on the autism spectrum, problematic behavior is usually directed by frustration and agitation.

Disruption of Routine and Structure—

As with most children on the autism spectrum, your son most likely relies heavily on ritualistic behaviors and structure. Structure is a method that helps him to define the world in terms of set rules and explanations, which in turn helps him function. Most kids on the spectrum find their own methods of imposing structure and maintaining consistency. They need this structure because the world is confusing to them; the world is complex and almost impossible to understand. The information your son receives through his senses is no doubt overwhelming and hard to bring together into a strong whole. Also, if he has a learning disability, it makes it especially hard to apply cognitive skills to all these areas at once.

When some form of structure or routine is disrupted, the world becomes confusing and overwhelming again (e.g., feeling homesick, losing a comforting toy when feeling alone, starting a new school year, etc.). This disruption of structure may be obvious to you (e.g., having a collection of objects disturbed, being made to go a different way to school, getting up at an unusual hour), or it may be hidden (e.g., subtle changes in the environment which the youngster is used to). Some of these triggers may be out of the control of your son, and some may be avoidable.

Problems with Communication—

Most children on the autism spectrum have difficulty understanding others and communicating with them. Thus, frustration, anger and anxiety often build-up. Also, their problematic behaviors often directly serve as a form of communication (i.e., they may act-out because a particular need is not being met, but they don’t know how to use their words to get what they need). Natural tantrums (e.g., in response to changes in routine, or requests to do something the child does not want to do) may well become usual over-reactions in the eyes of parents.

When to Seek Help from a Professional—

HFA and AS children who continue to act-out their frustration in destructive ways after the age of 4 usually need outside help learning to deal with their negative emotions. Problematic behaviors that continue (or start) during the school years may be a sign of other issues (e.g., learning difficulties, social skills deficits, etc.).

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management

Talk with a health professional if difficult behavior frequently lasts longer than 15 minutes, occurs more than 3 times a day, or is more aggressive. This may indicate that your son has an underlying medical, emotional, or social problem that needs attention. These are not considered normal child tantrums. Problematic behaviors can include biting, hair pulling, head-banging or inflicting self-injury, hitting, kicking, pinching, scratching, throwing or breaking things, etc.

It's especially important to seek outside assistance if:
  • Your son’s outbursts occur more than 3 times a day
  • They frequently last longer than 15 minutes
  • He hurts himself, other people, or objects when he is agitated
  • His behavior does not improve after 4 years of age
  • You have serious concerns about his destructive behavior
  • You have problems handling his behavior
  • You have concerns that you might accidently hurt your son when trying to hold him back or calm him down
  • You need help with learning to cope with your own feelings during his outbursts

This is where support is needed both in the form of direct interventions related to the behaviors, and in advising and helping you manage episodes in ways that can be applied at home. These difficulties can be improved slowly through education and other interventions.

In the meantime, you can help by making an effort to manage the environment so that your son is more comfortable (e.g., providing structure, avoiding distracting information when engaging in tasks, allowing personal space where necessary, etc.). When your son acts-out, this is his way of trying to communicate his needs. Therefore, the cause of the behavior (i.e., an unmet need) must first be identified before teaching and developing other means of communicating.

Think like this: “My child is behaving badly. So, he is trying to tell me something through his behavior, because he hasn’t learned to use his words yet. What might he need in this moment? How can we use this episode as a learning opportunity? And how can I help my child find the words to describe what’s going on as an alternative to acting-out his feelings?”

==> Crucial information on how to help your child deal with frustration...

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

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