Reducing Hostility in Children on the Autism Spectrum

"When dealing with my autistic child (high functioning), I'm so often kept busy 'reacting' to his bad behavior - and it's hard to find the time to be proactive. I need a reminder about the necessity of this...just wish the schools would get on board and actually 'teach' our special needs kids what they 'should' be doing! In any event, my question is: how can I deal with my son's anger and rage?"

Hostility for many kids and teens with Aspergers or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) stems from the difficulty they have in communicating their needs to their educators, moms and dads, and peers. Aggressive behaviors are one way they have for conveying their needs and emotions to others. As their communication skills grow, continued violence may be the result of never having learned appropriate, non-aggressive ways of communicating when they were faced with a difficult situation. 

The cause of hostility may be due to any or all of the following:
  • Being placed in a stressful situation
  • Exhaustion
  • Extreme frustration
  • Inadequate speech development
  • Lack of adult supervision
  • Lack of routine
  • Mirroring the aggressive behaviors of other kids around them
  • Over-stimulation
  • Self-defense

The first step in managing hostility and aggression in kids with Aspergers and HFA is to understand what is causing it. Understanding the antecedents of a behavior (i.e., what happened before the behavior) will allow parents and teachers to better anticipate the likelihood a behavior problem will occur.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's
Here are some questions that need to be answered:
  • How is the aggression expressed? Is it through words or behaviors? Does the child become verbally aggressive first, and then physically aggressive, or is the first response to strike out?
  • What seems to cause the aggressive behavior? Is it triggered by frustration, anger, or excitement? Are there patterns? Does the child act this way when toys are involved, and when he or she is frustrated about sharing? Or does the child become aggressive when there is too much going on and he or she is over-stimulated?
  • Where and when is the youngster most aggressive? A youngster on the autism spectrum may have difficulty coping with stress in unfamiliar or noisy locations, or when he is tired or overheated. Understanding where and when he becomes aggressive can provide important clues as to why the aggression is occurring.
  • Who does the youngster act aggressively towards? Is the target of her aggression one person in particular, or will she act aggressively to anyone who is around her? If it’s one person in particular, try to find out if there’s a reason why she’s attacking that person. Is there anything that the person does when he or she is around the youngster that causes the aggression to occur (e.g., overly-aggressive play, poor match of personalities, lack of clear-cut rules, loud voice, etc.)?

Collecting and analyzing data by getting answers to these questions is essential in developing a plan for coping with – and eliminating – aggressive behaviors in kids on the spectrum. Understanding the “function” of a particular behavior is the first step to (a) helping the youngster to be more aware of his angry feelings, (b) teaching him to calm himself down, and (c) finding alternative ways to solve his problems. Once parents and/or teachers have figured out why the youngster is behaving violently, it’s time to intervene.

Here are some concrete tips for dealing with hostility in children and teens with High-Functioning Autism:

1. At the first sign that a youngster is about to become hostile, immediately step-in and remove him from the situation. Be careful not to give too much attention to the youngster so that you do not give any negative reinforcement for the unwanted behavior. It can be useful to make a point of consoling the victim and ignoring the aggressor. If the youngster can’t calm down, remove him or her from the situation without getting angry yourself.

2. As grown-ups dealing with a hostile youngster, we need to demonstrate how to respond appropriately in stressful situations. Raising your voice tends to add stress to a difficult situation and will frequently result in an escalation of the behavior you are trying to stop.

3. Build the child’s language. If you can't get the HFA individual to be verbal, he should learn some sort of signs or picture system to give him some control over his life to communicate with people. That alone should help with a lot of behavioral issues. A variety of alternative communication devices, like the picture exchange communication system and other assistive technologies, enable an autistic youngster to express needs and desires.

4. Find out if the youngster has a comorbid condition influencing the aggressive behavior. A psychological or associated condition could be the root of the aggressive behavior. If that's the case, the youngster's behavior may need to be sorted out with a medical professional. In addition to seeking help from medical professionals, moms and dads should seek support from their own peers. It is important for parents of autistic children to get support from other parents of such children.

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

5. Just because you have taught a youngster to cope with some stressful situations does not mean you should continuously place the youngster in situations you know causes him difficulties. This means knowing when to leave a potentially volatile situation or choosing to engage the youngster in a different activity to avoid angry confrontations. Also, if the aggressive behavior always happens during a certain activity, such as when it's time to go, then have the youngster bring a preferred item with him to make the transition easier. Look at the situation in which the behavior is occurring and see if there is a way to change the dynamic in a way that will be less stressful for the youngster.

6. Moms and dads should look at the reason why their youngster is being aggressive. Is it to get attention, or to get out of something he doesn't want to do, or to obtain something he wants? Look at the function of why he is expressing aggression in order to address the behavior. Also, remember that any sort of reaction you give to the youngster could also be making the situation worse.

7. There are a number of anger-control practices you can work on before, during and after hostile episodes. It can be useful to: (a) count to ten to provide the youngster time to calm down; (b) recognize the emotions behind the anger (e.g., “I know you’re angry, but we don’t kick”); (c) encourage the youngster to use his words by making statements like “I am really mad right now!”; and (d) teach the youngster how to do deep breathing in order to calm down.

8. There is no “one-size-fits-all” treatment to address aggression in kids with an autism spectrum disorder . Treatments should be carefully developed and based on each particular youngster's unique situation. Treatment should be implemented by a qualified professional. Many times, aggression can be worsened by a well-intentioned, but inexperienced therapist.

9. When you catch your youngster being good, be sure to praise her hard work and efforts. Look for and continue to praise good behavior as a way to motivate her to do better next time.

10. While it is easy to think that a 5-year-old will outgrow aggression – or there is time to deal with it later – moms and dads need to imagine their youngster as a 15-year-old engaging in the same type of behavior. When you are at this point, there will be a lot fewer options, and if your youngster were to hurt somebody, even fewer options will be available.

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

Tips for therapists who deal with hostility in children and teens with High-Functioning Autism:

Addressing hostile behaviors in kids and teens with High-Functioning Autism can be a frustrating and demanding process for therapists. The challenge is to teach parents to “respond” to the unwanted behavior in a systematic manner (i.e., using approaches specifically tailored to children and teens on the spectrum) instead of “reacting” to it.

When these kids exhibit aggressive behaviors, they may not be receiving adequate support in mastering their environments (e.g., home, school). Aggressiveness does not necessarily reflect willfulness. Often the youngster simply lacks the social skills needed to get his or her needs met in a non-aggressive manner.

HFA children with earlier ages of onset of aggressiveness are more likely to meet diagnostic criteria for ADHD during childhood than children with later ages of onset of aggressiveness. Anxiety disorders have also been found to co-occur with aggressiveness at ‘higher than chance rates’ in childhood and adolescence.

Aggressive children need help in altering the way they process social information so that they do not interpret violence as justified or useful. The development of “voice” is an important component so that the child’s emotions can be put into words leading to social skill development, identifying feelings, fostering cooperation, emphasis on empathy, conflict resolution, and assertive communication. If an autistic youngster or teenager is not behaving in a positive manner, it is irrational to assume that they know more favorable alternatives.

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

Cognitive problem solving is useful in addressing aggression in kids on the spectrum. This method focuses on each youngster’s unique outlook to discover possible social skill deficits resulting in violence. 

The steps in cognitive problem solving are:
  1. encoding
  2. interpretation
  3. goal formulation
  4. response search and formulation
  5. response decision
  6. enactment

Each step requires different approaches to discovering and linking the missing skills in social situations. Developmental deficits in cognitive processes are often associated with early aggression, and normal social development requires mastery of cognitive and behavioral skills for assessing social circumstances, communicating with others, and resolving conflicts without aggressive behaviors. These skills empower HFA kids to make friends, succeed academically, and excel in the social world.

1. Encoding: Attending to social cues that are often missed or misinterpreted by aggressive kids.

Therapeutic Activities:
  • Kids make videos of their own cues and then explain their feelings on the basis of cues demonstrated in the video including facial expressions, voice intonation, hand gestures, and other indicators of social intent
  • Help kids identify their own feeling states through self-report and observation
  • Enhance sensitivity to verbal and nonverbal social cues through games and role-play, teaching kids to identify social cues in body language and pitch of voice

2. Interpretation: Assign meaning to social cues.

HFA kids commonly interpret neutral interactions as threatening – and then respond aggressively. These young people are not born knowing socially acceptable behaviors, and the level of their required assistance depends on the social supports they receive and their ability to absorb information.

Therapeutic Activities:
  • With the help of videos of playground activities, kids should be taught to identify the sources of the problems with emphasis on correctly identifying friendly, as well as antagonistic, intent on the part of peers
  • Kids should learn to identify and classify social cues by friendly, neutral, and antagonistic categories of intent. Younger kids might practice this through puppet play, and older kids might practice by assuming the roles of other kids in disputes

3. Goal Formulation: Define goals that enhance social relationships with an awareness of the consequences of behavior.

Therapeutic Activities:
  • Kids are rewarded for having ideas about goals for various situations (goals might be rated as to whether they are likely to augment or harm interpersonal relationships with peers)
  • Kids should be given opportunities to practice identifying and attaching pro-social goals to various situations

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

4. Response Search and Formulation: Kids develop ideas about how to respond to each social circumstance they encounter.

Compared to neurotypical kids, HFA kids identify fewer alternatives and seem unaware of the various options that may be open to them when invited to participate in play or when confronted by a social problem. Remind parents that constantly telling kids on the spectrum what they are doing wrong is not beneficial, nor is it likely to improve future performance. Instead, these kids need help identifying their options and possible outcomes.

Therapeutic Activities:
  • Develop skills to control kid’s arousal and to create behavioral patterns in which aggression is only one of many responses
  • Increase a youngster’s skill in identifying alternatives to the use of aggression to solve social problems

5. Response Decision: Assess likely outcomes of aggressive behavior and select a response that can be characterized as assertive rather than violent.

Compared to neurotypical children, HFA kids tend to view pro-social responses less favorably. Thus, these young people are not behaving a certain way to annoy or harm others; rather, they are simply making decisions based on their limited of social skills.

Therapeutic Activities:
  • Evaluate the potential negative outcomes of each alternative
  • Evaluate the potential benefits of each alternative
  • Kids should be given opportunities to discuss likely gains and losses associated with each identified alternative in specific situations

6. Enactment: Apply a response.

This is where an aggressive youngster joins a group, offers and receives positive feedback, and learns to negotiate. Practicing these skills can be intimidating and challenging. Any attempts – successful or not – should be rewarded and reviewed to identify areas of strength, as well as areas for improvement.

Raising Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Parents' Grief and Guilt

Some parents grieve for the loss of the youngster they   imagined  they had. Moms and dads have their own particular way of dealing with the...