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How to Reduce Aggression in Kids on the Autism Spectrum

There are many sources of stress for kids and teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism (HFA). Some will deal with stress by becoming anxious, some by feeling depressed, while others become angry and rage against the frustrating situations – and people – in their day.

Some of these young people internalize their feelings and tend to blame others when things go wrong. Others externalize their feelings. Those who externalize their feelings have great difficulty in controlling their temper. There may be no particular rationalization or focus – just an aggressive mood or an excessive reaction to frustration or provocation. The provocation can be deliberate teasing by other kids.

Kids on the autism spectrum seem to evoke either the maternal or the predatory instinct in others. They often lack subtlety in retaliating. Other kids may wait for an appropriate moment to respond without being caught. The youngster with Aspergers or HFA can also lack sufficient empathy and self-control to moderate the degree of injury inflicted on others. The child is in a blind fury that gets him into trouble. The teacher sees the child being aggressive and may not be aware of the taunts by his peers that precipitated the anger.

It is helpful to use strategies to help the "special needs" youngster understand the nature and expression of specific feelings, particularly anger. It is also helpful to encourage self-control, and to teach the youngster to consider alternative options. Self-control can be strengthened by the traditional approaches of stopping and counting to ten, taking a deep breath, and reminding oneself to keep calm. Specific relaxation techniques can be practiced, and the youngster can learn cues when he must calm down and relax.

It is also important to explain the alternative option to hitting the other person. The youngster can use words, not actions, to express his anger. He can simply walk away, ask the other person to leave him alone, or seek an adult for help or to be a referee.

The level of stress that the youngster on the spectrum has been feeling may have been increasing for some time, and one incident can become the trigger that releases feelings that have long been suppressed. The angry moment can leave the youngster relieved at having discharged his stress in one brief episode. Thus the behavior becomes negatively reinforced, because it helps end an unpleasant feeling. When the incident is over, the youngster can be visibly relaxed, but confused as to why everyone else continues to be so distressed.

Strategies to reduce and channel aggression:

1. Activities that involve “creative destruction” can be particularly effective. If the youngster feels better after they have damaged or destroyed something, then ensure this becomes a productive activity (e.g., crushing cans or cardboard boxes for recycling, tearing up old clothing to make rags, etc.).

2. Comic Strip Conversations by Carol Gray can be used. A story-board approach is used, with a frame for each stage in the sequence of events. These are discussed, and the incident is used as an opportunity to learn the perspective of others, and to consider alternative actions and solutions.

3. Consequences of actions need to be discussed. Having the disorder is not a license to behave irresponsibly. It is, however, important for all the information and perspectives to be available before appropriate consequences are considered.

4. Construct a “menu” of activities to reduce levels of stress (e.g., listen to music, close eyes and imagine a relaxing scene, a massage, a soothing bath, lots of reassurance and compliments, etc.).

5. Construct a list of signs that indicate the rising of stress levels (e.g., bombastic gestures, rigid thinking, rude words, etc.), and draw the child’s attention to this list.

6. Explain to the youngster what to do should the situation arise again, with instructions to tell an adult of the provoking activity or comments. It is essential that the youngster learns alternative (preferably verbal) ways of dealing with the situation.

7. If the angry youngster will tolerate a discussion of why he is so angry, try to discover the cause. If it is an anger provoked by the actions of another, getting an apology (sometimes from both parties) can help.

8. Most kids on the spectrum will respond well if a situation is explained visually rather than verbally. In practical terms, this means using drawing materials (e.g., pens, paper, computers, paints, chalkboards, white boards) to illustrate the situation and to understand what happened.

9. Should the agitation become greater, attempt to “burn up” the tension and anguish with a rigorous physical activity (e.g., going for a run or bike ride).

10. The question “what’s wrong?” can make things worse, because the youngster may have difficulty in explaining the causes of his increasing anger. It is good to learn when it is tactful not to ask, and to divert the attention away from the causes, to more pleasant things.

11. To become equally angry just inflames the situation. Try to remain calm and rational – a model of what the youngster should be doing.

12. Video tape the child in a rage, and then when he is calm, play the video back for him in order to (a) allow him to see himself behaving “irrationally” and (b) discuss feelings and alternative responses to stressful situations.

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