angry child

If you’ve ever struggled to maintain calm while watching your toddler meltdown, you might have an inkling of the anxiety caused by the aggressive outbursts of children with high-functioning autism. 

This article will look at the link between high-functioning autism and aggression and discuss solutions to make life easier for all involved.

Autism and Aggressive Outbursts

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by social and communication deficits and repetitive behaviors. Although people with ASD can be high-functioning, many still experience significant challenges in daily life. 

High-functioning autism is not a medical term, but it has been used to describe people with autism who can speak, read, write and manage basic life skills. However, these people may still have difficulty with social interaction and communication. 

In the past, children and adults with high-functioning autism were diagnosed as having Asperger’s syndrome, but recently this condition has been organized under the autism umbrella.

This means that those children and adults with Asperger’s or high-functioning autism are now medically categorized as having ASD Level 1

Some people with high-functioning autism can become aggressive, especially if they feel overwhelmed or frustrated. This can be a problem in school or work settings where there is a lot of social interaction. It can also be a problem in relationships.

Interestingly, while neurotypical boys tend to exhibit more instances of aggression than neurotypical girls, this is not the case for children with ASD. As it turns out, boys and girls on the spectrum are equally prone to aggressive behaviors.

Let’s look at the forms of aggression often experienced by children and families affected by high-functioning autism.

Forms of Aggression

Children with autism can exhibit aggression in many ways. It is important to remember that if you have a child with autism, they do not mean to be harmful to themselves or others; they simply don’t know how to express themselves more productively when they are overwhelmed or anxious. 

In other words, they lack the strategies and tools to identify why they are feeling the way they are and how to channel those feelings more appropriately. When overwhelmed, children with autism can express aggression in three ways:

  1. Physical aggression: This can manifest as biting, hitting, kicking, or destroying property. It can also manifest as self-harm, such as hitting themselves or head-banging. Other signs of physical aggression are the destruction of property.
  2. Verbal aggression: Yelling, screaming, or swearing. 
  3. Social aggression: Excluding others, spreading rumors, or making mean comments.

These aggressive outbursts can negatively affect the lives of the person or child diagnosed with autism and their families. Children on the spectrum with unmanaged aggressive outbursts are at risk for the following:

  • Increased risk of being a victim or perpetrator of violence 
  • Poor mental and physical health 
  • Difficulty sustaining friendships and relationships 
  • Decreased educational and social support
  • Lower educational attainment and employment prospects
  • Decreased quality of life

Aggressive outbursts don’t just take a toll on the child themselves, but they can often have a traumatic effect on family and caregivers. 

Parents of children with high-functioning autism report higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression than parents of typically developing children. They also report more difficulty in managing their child’s behavior.

In addition, there is a social stigma attached to parents of children on the spectrum. When aggressive behavior of children with ASD is witnessed by family, friends, or other parents, judgment often ensues as parenting skills are questioned. 

It is not uncommon for parents and caregivers of children on the spectrum to feel socially isolated and excluded, which can lead to shame and depression.

So, this all begs the question – why are these outbursts occurring? The “why” is a critical word in that sentence, as most parents of children with autism will tell you. 

Many children with autism have difficulty communicating, which can often lead to frustration and aggression. However, some children with autism can communicate effectively but may use aggression to get their message across.

Aggression as a Method of Communication

There are many reasons a child or adult with autism might use aggression to communicate. One reason is that the person may not be able to understand or express their needs in any other way. 

Another reason is that the child may be trying to get something they want or avoid something they don’t want.

It’s important to remember that aggression is a normal part of development for all children. Unfortunately, it’s often seen more frequently in children with autism due to their difficulty communicating.

Treatment and Prevention Measures

Many strategies can be employed to help identify, de-escalate and even prevent aggressive outbursts for people with ASD. The most important thing is to identify the signs that an eruption is about to happen. 

This can be difficult as every individual with ASD Level 1 will have different triggers and warning signs; however, some common signs include the following:

  • Withdrawing from social interaction or becoming isolated 
  • Changes in body language, such as fidgeting or pacing 
  • Increase in vocalizations or stimming behaviors 
  • Difficulty communicating needs or wants

The goal is to prevent meltdowns by identifying the warning signs. This may require extra work if you’re a parent of a child on the spectrum, but it is well worth the effort if it helps maintain peace in your household.

If prevention strategies are not working, treatments may help with aggressive outbursts for people with high-functioning autism. One of these interventions is Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA.

Applied Behavior Analysis to Manage Aggression

The most popular and most effective treatment for aggression in children and adults with high-functioning autism is ABA, which successfully reduces aggressive behaviors in individuals with autism spectrum disorder.

ABA therapy is a type of behavior therapy that focuses on changing specific behaviors. To change a behavior, the therapist must first identify the behavior’s function or “why.”

The function of a behavior is the reason why the behavior is occurring. Once the “why” of the behavior is identified, the therapist can create a treatment plan to address the behavior. 

ABA therapy successfully reduces aggressive behaviors in children and adults with high-functioning autism.

The success of ABA is because it works by teaching new skills and decreasing problem behaviors. The treatment uses positive reinforcement to increase desired behaviors and punish undesirable ones. 

Applied Behavior Analysis therapy is always individualized to meet the needs of each child or adult on the spectrum and produces results. However, it is not without its critiques.

Some of the criticisms of ABA therapy are:

  • The therapy only targets the symptoms of autism and not the underlying cause. 
  • As any struggling parent can attest, the therapy can be expensive and time-consuming.
  • Unfortunately, Applied Behavioral Analysis can be intrusive and stressful for the child. 
  • ABA therapy does not address the needs of the whole family, which are essential to take into account to provide a more holistic approach to dealing with aggression.

The most important thing you need to know as a person with autism or a parent of a child with autism is that no one size fits all when it comes to treatment or interventions. Listen to your instincts and find the treatment right for you. Let’s take a second to sum it all up.

Summing It All Up

Aggression and meltdowns are a real and often daily challenge for those affected by ASD, but there is hope. The first step is identifying when aggressive episodes might occur and recognizing their signs and symptoms.

Once you’ve deciphered this code, you can explore therapies like ABA to help control and replace these behaviors with more socially acceptable ones.

The journey for those dealing with autism isn’t easy. Still, the rewards for learning how to control aggressive behaviors and replace them with productive, healthy behaviors are worth the effort in the long run.

If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.

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