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Asperger’s and HFA Teens as Aggressors

"Any strategies for dealing with an angry 17 y.o. teenager (autistic - high functioning) who has been more and more aggressive towards us, the parents, and his siblings?"

Many children and teens with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) are regularly victimized, and even more regularly misunderstood. Naturally, they and their parents feel that they are unjustly treated and inappropriately discriminated against. They are the victims of a society that puts a considerable premium on reciprocal social relationships.

Considering young people with AS and HFA as aggressors seems to fall-in with exactly the kind of stigma that has led to the injustice in the past. Nonetheless, aggression is a common problem, as many moms and dads will privately admit (in one survey, 40% of parents of autistic children reported “hitting other people” to be a problem).

Warning signs that an AS or HFA teen may become aggressive include:
  • Being cruel to pets
  • Fantasizing about acts of violence he would like to commit
  • Obsessively playing violent video games
  • Watching violent movies
  • Visiting websites that promote or glorify violence
  • Playing with weapons of any kind
  • Threatening or bullying others

Aggression in teens on the autism spectrum can develop for several reasons: 
  1. Membership card in a deviant group
  2. Special interest
  3. Defensive aggression
  4. Gaining ascendancy
  5. Outrage
  6. Retaliation
  7. Self-preservation
  8. Difficulties with emotional processing

Let’s look at each of these in turn…

1.  Membership Card—

Young people on the autism spectrum are often teased, bullied, and ostracized from their peer group. One option for someone who feels like an “outcast” is to ally himself with other marginalized or disruptive kids. By the time such a child becomes a teenager, his group membership may be in jeopardy, and he may have to behave more outrageously – and sometimes more aggressively – in order to fit-in. However, aggression is not usually the central method of staying in the group. This subgroup of teens may be engaged in other “normal” criminal and antisocial activities (e.g., alcohol and drug abuse, vandalism, theft of property, etc.). These are “typical” misdemeanors of adolescence, but are not usual misdemeanors in teens with AS or HFA. However, the autistic teen who carries out these apparent typical crimes, and who does so in a group, is often different from other group members. He will often be encouraged by the other members of the group to be the one who breaks the window or the one to drop the match. And, if property is stolen, the autistic teen will rarely know what to do with it or how to profit from it.

==> Discipline for Defiant Asperger's and High-Functioning Autistic Teens

2.  Special Interests—

Some teens with AS and HFA become fascinated with powerful others. This may be expressed through an interest in worldwide wrestling or martial arts training. They may have a special interest in fire that can lead to arson. There is often a period of covert fire setting in the garden or in a local woods that precedes the incident that comes to public attention. AS and HFA teens who have such an interest enjoy looking at fires and feel satisfaction from setting a fire. They may use fire-setting to escape a situation (e.g., setting a fire in the classroom), or they may use fires to pay back others. An interest in fire may persist for many years. Special sexual interests also may be a problem for these “special needs” teens.

3.  Defensive Aggression—

Although there is no reason to suppose the families with an AS or HFA child are more troubled than those of anyone else, there is every reason to think they are as troubled. A teen or young adult on the spectrum who is brought up in a troubled family may have to fight back to defend himself, and this aggression may spill out into other situations. However, there is one kind of defensive aggression that occurs even in children with AS and HFA whose families of origin have been aggression-free. This is when aggression is intended to terminate an aversive stimulus (e.g., a high-pitched sound). There was a report of one man with AS who tried to strangle a little girl who was crying in a supermarket, because he could not bear the noise. There have been other reports of AS individuals who have become violent when hearing certain kinds of music. In addition, aggression may result if an AS or HFA teen's belongings are upset or if he is interrupted in an activity that is important to him. An example of this is a 12-year-old boy with AS who hit his sister with a baseball bat because she pulled the plug of the computer when he was immersed in a game. He broke his sister's arm, and still, some years later, thought that was justified.

4.  Gaining Ascendancy—

Some of the most serious acts of aggression are committed by AS and HFA teens who feel so isolated and so powerless that they feel they have nothing to lose. In these circumstances, an act of violence that makes others take notice can become the stuff of daydreams, and can then be translated into practice. This kind of aggression often has a detached quality, almost like an experiment. Indeed, the AS or HFA teen may sometimes say, “I wanted to see what would happen.” An example of this is a 16-year-old female with AS who lived with her father, his new wife and their newborn. This teen was left to look after the baby and wanted to see what would happen if she mixed ground glass into the baby's food, which she did.

==> Discipline for Defiant Asperger's and High-Functioning Autistic Teens

5.  Outrage—

Entering the teenage years feeling lonely and powerless, struggling with learning difficulties, and having other people attribute both of these problems to personal shortcomings, are all unpleasant experiences. In this situation, two options often seem to present themselves:
  • Aggression is an easy route to outrage, although usually it is incidental to a wider strategy of disrupting a social situation. An AS or HFA child may just need to refuse to obey school rules, swear at the teacher, or knock down school furniture. As the child reaches adolescence, more serious acts may be necessary to produce outrage, and these can involve aggression.
  • Another option is to become the class joker who is prepared to do the craziest things to be a member of the gang or to become outrageous. Outrage has the advantage that other’s reactions to it are extreme, and therefore easier to read. It also provides a sense of power, at least if others are distressed by it.

6.  Retaliation—

Many young people with AS and HFA have strict codes of behavior that often include a dislike or even hatred of violence. However, even among them, aggression can be a problem when the teen or young adult becomes frustrated, feels unfairly treated, or feels excluded. The autistic teen can convince himself that aggression is justified in these circumstances. Aggression toward younger siblings may be a problem, as may aggression at school. But, the usual arena is at home.

This kind of aggression may be explosive, in which case there is often a sharp onset and a sharp offset. The teenager with AS or HFA may even be unaware of the impact of his aggression. As one parent stated, “He calmed down immediately, long before we could feel calm. He just seems to want to carry on as if nothing had happened. If we try to talk about the outburst, we can set him off again.” Outbursts of this kind may begin at an early age. Counter-violence makes matters worse, but it is a solution that often appeals to fathers. Withdrawal during the outburst, and then discussing how it felt to be on the receiving end of it, are often useful, but dealing with this level of aggression can be one of the most difficult aspects of living with a child on the autism spectrum.

7.  Self-preservation—

Young people with AS and HFA have a lively sense of self-preservation. They may therefore suppress an aggressive response to a bully or another aggressor, but turn the aggression on to a more vulnerable person later, who may have had nothing to do with the situation. The target of aggression is most likely to be the mother, or later in life, the spouse.

==> Discipline for Defiant Asperger's and High-Functioning Autistic Teens

8.  Difficulties with Emotional Processing—

Emotional processing is difficult for teens on the spectrum. They can’t tell themselves to “just forget it” or “life's too short to worry so much.” They want answers – and they want justice. A teen who has a clinic appointment may start to worry about this for several days, and then may ask repeated questions about what will happen, the route to be taken, and so on. Outbursts may happen during this period of heightened stress. Incidents that have happened in the past (sometimes many years before) may linger in the mind of an older teen or young adult with AS or HFA, and may resurface at regular intervals. When they do, it is as if he is re-experiencing the episode over again, and he may become suddenly and unexpectedly aggressive.


The unexpectedness of the timing and of the target of aggression makes risk assessment particularly difficult. Treatment also can be difficult because the AS or HFA teen, lacking empathy for others' reactions to his violence, may continue to feel that violence is justified. When aggression is a symptom of irritability, treatment of an underlying mood disorder may be useful. In the rare cases in which aggression is a symptom, anticonvulsants may be useful. Many doctors use “mood stabilizing” drugs in the absence of a mood disorder. However, this is most often because it reassures the doctor and the parents that something is being done, rather than that the drug has a specific effect.

How Parents Can Help—

The challenge for moms and dads is to help their AS or HFA teen cope with emotions and deal with aggressive tendencies in a more constructive way. Here are just a few tips:
  • Try to uncover what’s behind the aggression. Is your teen anxious, sad or depressed? Does he have feelings of inadequacy because his peers don’t accept him?
  • Manage your own temper. You can’t help your “special needs” teen if you lose your temper too. As difficult as it sounds, remain calm and balanced no matter how much your teen provokes you. If you or other family members scream, hit each other, or throw things, your AS or HFA teen will naturally assume that these are appropriate ways to express himself.
  • Help your teen find healthy ways to relieve tension. Exercise or team sports can help relieve aggressive tendencies. Many “special needs” teens also use art or writing to creatively express their rage. Dancing or playing along to loud music can also provide relief.
  • Give your teen a place to retreat. When he is upset, allow him to retreat to a place where it’s safe to cool off. Don’t follow him and demand apologies or explanations while he is still raging. This will only prolong the anger, or even provoke aggression.
  • Establish rules and consequences. At a time when both you and your teenager are calm, explain that there’s nothing wrong with feeling anger, but there are unacceptable ways of expressing it. If he lashes out, he will have to face the consequences (e.g., loss of privileges, police involvement, etc.). AS and HFA teens need structure and consistent rules more than “typical” teens do.
  • Be aware of warning signs and triggers. Does your AS or HFA teen get headaches or start to pace before exploding? Does a certain teacher or class at school always trigger rage? When your teenager can identify the warning signs that his temper is starting to boil, it allows him to take steps to defuse the rage before it gets out of control.

Dealing with an aggressive AS or HFA teenager is not easy, and it can be hard to trace back the original causes of aggressive behavior. If parents are concerned about their teen’s aggression, they should seek advice from a professional. Oftentimes, teens on the autism spectrum who demonstrate aggression towards others simply need help developing social and communicating skills.

==> Discipline for Defiant Asperger's and High-Functioning Autistic Teens

Who should be responsible for helping teens and young adults with Asperger’s and HFA?

Jane, a 21-year old with Asperger’s, had worked as a secretary for her father when he was alive. But when he died and the company closed, she did not seek further work. She carried on living in the family home, which became more and more neglected. Jane enjoyed novels, and was reading Tolstoy's War and Peace when the author met her, but she did not know who to contact to change a broken light fitting or how to change it herself. So she read by candlelight.

Her neighbors thought her weird, and the various doctors who saw her found her uncooperative. They believed that she was simply unmotivated to change. Although none of them said it, there was a definite implication that she was lazy and difficult. Jane continues to be dismissed by professionals as having moral failings, but not impairments.

Adolescence and young adulthood are times of identity change and identity confusion. Understandably, teens and young adults do not want to define themselves in terms of impairments, but in terms of aspirations and desires. In telling a person that she has Asperger’s (AS) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA), it is important to make this an accommodating and not a restrictive intervention.

There is a balance to be struck between (a) being seen as a person with impairments and (b) being seen as someone with an unobstructed and sunny future. In other words, the AS or HFA individual needs to understand that she will have to work harder in certain areas (e.g., social skills acquisition) than her “typical” peers do, yet with appropriate interventions, she can thrive in most areas just as her peers can.

Who should be responsible for helping older teens and young adults with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism?


The first answer to this challenge is “moms and dads.” Parents readily accept this responsibility because they have felt extraordinarily responsible for their AS or HFA youngster from the time that they realized that she was different, and was in some way vulnerable to others' exploitation and influence.

Parents can – and should – be their child’s greatest advocate. The road to becoming your child’s advocate begins by being as informed as possible about AS and HFA. There are dozens of books, some more scholarly than others, that parents can read to help themselves understand that the autism spectrum disorder was not their fault and to learn patterns of behavior they have come to see in their child, but didn’t know what they meant.

The second part about being an advocate for your child is to pay careful attention to him. Learn his idiosyncrasies and pay attention to the things that work for him, along with the things that don’t. For example, if your child has certain obsessions or compulsions, understand what they are and find out ways to get around them, if needed and if possible.

The Teenager or Young Adult Herself—

Another answer is “the AS or HFA individual herself.” It is true that more and more young people on the autism spectrum are discovering alternative methods to empowerment. The Internet has provided many of these, enabling these teenagers to get in touch with each other by email, discussion groups, or through web pages. Even more helpful, the net provides a means of communicating with others that emphasizes technology know-how and de-emphasizes the subtleties of social interaction, both of which are advantages for people with AS and HFA.

Self-advocacy is another way for young people with AS and HFA to help themselves. Self-advocacy teaches these individuals to identify issues that mean the most to them. It helps them prioritize their hopes and dreams – and to make certain that nothing gets in the way of achieving their goals. Autism is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a part of who they are, but it does not define them. Once they realize this, and that they are capable and intelligent, young people on the spectrum should be able to step up and take on some of the responsibility of self-advocacy.

Self-advocacy is core communication skill. Being proficient at using this skill means that you express yourself effectively and stand up for your point of view, while also respecting the rights and beliefs of others. This skill can help with stress management, boost your self-esteem, and help earn others' respect.

One aspect of being a good self-advocate is to pay careful attention to yourself. Learn your idiosyncrasies and pay attention to the things that work for you, along with the things that don’t work.

Know your strengths. Young people on the spectrum are often gifted with an above average I.Q. It’s likely that you excel in one or more academic subjects. Also, you probably have an intense interest outside of academics (e.g., music or computers). Knowing your own strengths will help you gain much needed self-confidence.

Recognize and accept your weaknesses. Just as with your strengths, you must also be mindful of your weaknesses.


There are clinical psychologists, counselors, educators, employment specialists, neuropsychologists, occupational therapists, psychiatrists and others who have made themselves into specialists. But there is no group that has accepted that AS and HFA is part of their mission. This means that parents and their “special needs” children are constantly the subject of turf wars in which they find themselves being referred back and forth until someone takes responsibility for their care, or until they give up and break contact with services altogether.

AS and HFA are neurobiologic disorders with a strong heritability. Twin studies suggest that genetic and environmental factors often may interact. In addition, outcome is influenced by social and emotional factors. Thus, AS and HFA would appear to be a psychiatrist’s “bread and butter” – disorders that require the combination of knowledge of brain development, environmental factors, and psychology.

Moreover, there is an association between AS/HFA and psychiatric disorder. One recent study showed that 32% of young adults with an autistic spectrum disorder had been diagnosed with another disorder, most commonly depression (56%). Although autism itself does not respond to medication, comorbid conditions do.

A range of medical disorders is reportedly more common in AS and HFA. These include epilepsy, disorders affecting brain development in childhood (e.g., hydrocephalus, tuberous sclerosis, neurofibromatosis), congenital perceptual disorders affecting early social interaction (e.g., congenital disorders of visual acuity and congenital causes of deafness), and disorders affecting motor control (e.g., myotonia and myopathy).

Given all these considerations, there is a strong case for psychiatrists to take responsibility for young people with AS and HFA. And not just any psychiatrists, but the same psychiatrists who deal with “neurodevelopmental disorders” (i.e., disorders that typically manifest early in development often before the youngster enters grade school, and those that are characterized by developmental deficits that produce impairments of personal, social, academic, or occupational functioning).

==> Launching Adult Children With Aspergers: How To Promote Self-Reliance

Communication Intervention and Social Skills Training for Kids on the Spectrum

"How can I help my child with high functioning autism to develop some important communication and language skills?"

For most children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA), the most important treatment strategy involves the need to enhance communication and social competence. This emphasis on social competence does not reflect a societal pressure for conformity, and it does not attempt to stifle individuality and uniqueness.

Instead, it reflects the clinical fact that most children with AS and HFA are not loners by choice, and that there is a tendency (as these kids develop towards adolescence) for hopelessness, pessimism, and oftentimes, anxiety and depression due to the child’s (a) increasing awareness of personal inadequacy in social situations and (b) repeated experiences of failure to make and/or maintain friendships.

The typical limitations of insight and self-reflection often preclude spontaneous self-adjustment to social and interpersonal demands. The practice of communication and social skills does not imply the eventual acquisition of communicative or social spontaneity. However, it does prepare the child with AS or HFA to cope with social and interpersonal expectations, therefore enhancing his or her attractiveness as a conversational partner or as a potential friend.

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

Below are some crucial suggestions intended to foster relevant skills in this area. These suggestions can be used by parents, teachers and therapists:

1. Encounters with unfamiliar people (e.g., making acquaintances) should be rehearsed until the AS or HFA child is made aware of the impact of his behavior on other’s reactions to him. Certain important strategies (e.g., practicing in front of a mirror, listening to his recorded speech, watching a video of his recorded behavior, etc.) should all be incorporated in a social skills training program. Social situations manufactured in a therapeutic setting that usually require reliance on visual-receptive and other nonverbal skills for interpretation should be used, and techniques for deciphering the most salient nonverbal dimensions inherent in these situations should be offered.

2. Explicit verbal instructions on how to interpret other’s social behavior should be taught and exercised in a rote fashion. The following should be taught in a manner not unlike the teaching of a foreign language (i.e., all elements should be made verbally explicit and appropriately and repeatedly drilled):
  • facial and hand gestures
  • non-literal communications (e.g., humor, figurative language, irony, sarcasm and metaphor)
  • the meaning of eye contact and gaze
  • various inflections and tone of voice

The same principles should guide the training of the child’s expressive skills. Concrete situations should be exercised in a therapeutic setting and gradually tried out in naturally occurring situations. All those in close contact with the AS or HFA child (e.g., teachers, coaches, scout leaders, etc.) should be made aware of the program so that consistency, monitoring and contingent reinforcement are maximized.

3. The effort to develop the child’s skills with peers in terms of managing social situations should be a priority. This should include:
  • ending topics appropriately
  • feeling comfortable with a range of topics that are typically discussed by same-age peers
  • shifting topics
  • the ability to expand and elaborate on a range of different topics initiated by others
  • topic management

4. The child with AS or HFA should be helped to recognize and use a range of different means to interact, mediate, negotiate, persuade, discuss, and disagree through verbal means. In terms of formal properties of language, the child may benefit from help in thinking about idiomatic language that can only be understood in its own right, and practice in identifying them in both text and conversation. It is important to help the child to:
  • anticipate multiple outcomes so as to increase the flexibility with which she both thinks about - and uses - language with others
  • develop the ability to make inferences
  • explain motivation
  • predict

5. The child with AS or HFA should be taught to monitor her own speech style in terms of adjusting, depending on proximity to the speaker, context and social situation, naturalness, number of people, background noise, rhythm and volume.

6. Spoken language may be odd. Sometimes, AS and HFA kids don't have the local accent, or they are too loud for a situation, overly formal, or speak in a monotonous tone. If the youngster has a good level of spoken language, parents and teachers should not assume his or her understanding is at the same level.

7. Metaphors (e.g., “food for thought”) and similes (e.g., “as fit as a fiddle”) have to be explained, because these “special needs” kids tend to make literal and concrete interpretations.

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

8. In some cases, language acquisition (i.e., learning to speak) can be delayed. These children make much use of phrases they have memorized, although they may not be used in the right context. A certain amount of translation may be needed in order to understand what they are trying to say.

9. Both verbal and nonverbal communications pose problems for children with AS and HFA. Spoken language is often not entirely understood, so it should be kept simple to a level they can understand. Take care to be precise.

10. Lastly, here are a few additional tips parents and teachers can employ to help the autistic youngster better understand the world - and in doing so - make everyone's lives a little easier:
  • Try to get confirmation that the child understands what you are talking about or asking. Don't rely on a stock ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers.
  • Limit any choices to two or three items.
  • Keep instructions simple. For complicated jobs, use lists or pictures.
  • Keep all your speech simple to a level the child can understand.
  • Explain why the child should look at you when you speak to him. Give lots of praise for any achievement - especially when he uses a social skill without prompting.
  • Don't always expect the AS or HFA child to “act her age.” These kids are usually immature, so parents and teachers should make some allowances for this.

One of the most significant problems for young people on the autism spectrum is difficulty in social interaction. But AS and HFA also create problems with "mind reading" (i.e., knowing what another person may be thinking). “Typical” children can observe others and guess (through a combination of tone and body language) what is "really" going on. Without help and training, AS and HFA kids can't. This "mind blindness" can lead even the highest-functioning child to make social blunders that cause all kinds of relationship difficulties.

Without knowing why, the child can hurt others’ feelings, act oddly, ask inappropriate questions, or generally open himself up to teasing, bullying, hostility – and eventual isolation. But, by using the suggestions listed above, parents, teachers and other professionals can help AS and HFA children to develop some much needed communication and social skills that will alleviate a lot of these problems.

More resources for parents of children and teens 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

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

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

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

My child has been rejected by his peers, ridiculed and bullied !!!

Social rejection has devastating effects in many areas of functioning. Because the ASD child tends to internalize how others treat him, rejection damages self-esteem and often causes anxiety and depression. As the child feels worse about himself and becomes more anxious and depressed – he performs worse, socially and intellectually.

Click here to read the full article…

How to Prevent Meltdowns in Children on the Spectrum

Meltdowns are not a pretty sight. They are somewhat like overblown temper tantrums, but unlike tantrums, meltdowns can last anywhere from ten minutes to over an hour. When it starts, the Asperger's or HFA child is totally out-of-control. When it ends, both you and your child are totally exhausted. But... don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. At the least provocation, for the remainder of that day -- and sometimes into the next - the meltdown can return in full force.

Click here for the full article...

Parenting Defiant Teens on the Spectrum

Although Aspergers [high-functioning autism] is at the milder end of the autism spectrum, the challenges parents face when disciplining a teenager on the spectrum are more difficult than they would be with an average teen. Complicated by defiant behavior, the teen is at risk for even greater difficulties on multiple levels – unless the parents’ disciplinary techniques are tailored to their child's special needs.

Click here to read the full article…

Older Teens and Young Adult Children with ASD Still Living At Home

Your older teenager or young “adult child” isn’t sure what to do, and he is asking you for money every few days. How do you cut the purse strings and teach him to be independent? Parents of teens with ASD face many problems that other parents do not. Time is running out for teaching their adolescent how to become an independent adult. As one mother put it, "There's so little time, yet so much left to do."

Click here to read the full article…

Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism

Two traits often found in kids with High-Functioning Autism are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the youngster’s ability to empathize with peers. As a result, he or she may be perceived by adults and other children as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

Click here
to read the full article...

Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and HFA

Become an expert in helping your child cope with his or her “out-of-control” emotions, inability to make and keep friends, stress, anger, thinking errors, and resistance to change.

Click here for the full article...