A parent asked me to write an article about ‘Aggressive behaviour and Autism’, so this is going to be the first in a series of thoughts on the subject. As always we here at the Autism Treatment Center of America believe that attitude is one the most important ingredients in successfully helping our wonderful friends on the Autism Spectrum. So this article will primarily be focusing on a perspective to adopt that is unique to The Son-Rise Program.
When a parent describes their child as ‘aggressive’ they mean that they are hitting, biting, scratching, pinching, pulling hair, spitting in peoples faces etc.
Below are a few of the most common thoughts that parents and professionals have expressed to me about how they feel and what they think their child is feeling when they do these behaviours.
“My child does not like me.”
“My child wants to hurt me, he knows that it hurts me and he wants to see me hurt.”
“I am so worried that my child will grow up to be an abuser of others.”
“I am frightened of my child, I think he is mean.”
“He seems to think it is funny , he likes hurting other people.”
“He has no feelings at all, as he has no remorse of hurting me. Thus I think he must be an inherently bad person”
“He does not know that it is bad, I have to show him what is good behaviour and what is bad behaviour.”
“He should know better.”
In the dictionary ‘Aggressive’ is defined as follows:
“characterized by or tending toward unprovoked offensives, attacks, invasions, or the like; militantly forward or menacing: aggressive acts against a neighboring country.’
Here at The Autism Treatment Center of America we do not think that children are attacking us in an unprovoked manner as the word suggests, or that they are somehow inherently bad. Nor that they are mean and actually want to hurt other people. We believe that they are trying to take care of themselves in the only way they know. Thus we do not label this behaviour as ‘aggressive’, we call it “intense energy”, because these words have none of the judgmental associations that the word ‘aggressive’ has and more accurately describes what is happening.
Your child may be taking care of themselves in this way for the following five reasons:
Autistic children often times experience their senses in a very different way from nuero-typical people. They may have energy that is building up inside of themselves that they do not know how to successfully release. The action of biting, or pinching actually helps them to release this energy helping them organize themselves physically.
Signs that your child may be using biting and pinching to do this are:
Do they jump up and down intensely right before they bite/hit/pinch you? Have they been tensing up any part of their body more? Or have they just banged any part of their body more vigorously, either themselves, or on the floor or with an object?
2.They are communicating
Signs that your child may be using hitting/biting/scratching to communicate are as follows:
They pinch/hit/bite/punch right after you have told them that they cannot have something or they are having trouble making their wants understood.
What can happen is that people around them usually start to move faster and ‘understand’ more, the adult suddenly becomes more responsive because they want to avoid getting hit. Thus a child can start to think – ‘ok so this is the way to get more of what I want , if to hit then everyone tries to understand me more.’
3.Self preservation and a gaining of control:
Most Autistic children have difficulty communicating their wants and desires to us nuero-typical people, and most nuero-typical people do not understand that autistic children have very different needs than nuero-typical children. Sometimes hitting and punching is the last resort some children use to gain much needed control in their lives.
For example I watched a very wonderful and well meaning Mother play with her 4 year old daughter named Ellie who has Aspergers. She was playing on the top of a slide with a collection of stuffed animals. She was very intently and exclusively talking to each of the animals and creating a story where the animals were bathing in a river. She was paying no attention to her Mother, only to her story and the stuffed animals. Her mom was wanting to get her child’s attention, thus she kept trying to get in on the action. Firstly she moved really close to her daughter and said, ‘Hey Ellie look I have a lovely duck, hey look, look the duck is so lovely.’ Ellie did not respond in anyway, she kept playing on her own. Then trying harder to get Ellie’s attention, she picks up one of the stuffed dogs that Ellie was playing with and moved it slightly making a ‘woof’ sound. Ellie takes the dog and places it again where it had been previously, all without looking at her mother. Then the Mom picks up the dog a second time and puts in on Ellie’s head, to which her daughter takes it off and put it down where it had originally been, again without saying a word. Her Mom picks it up again and slides it playfully down the slide, to which her daughter looks at her says ‘no’ and then goes and picks up the dog and puts it where it was. Her Mom then picks up the dog and pretends that it is licking Ellie’s face, to which Ellie pushes it away from her face and says no. Then her Mom takes the dogs and rocks it in her own arms, saying, ‘oh this dog is so happy it wants to lick your feet.’ To which the Ellie says ‘no’, and moves her feet underneath her so that her Mom cannot get them, then takes the dog away from her Mom and puts it in its original placing amongst the other stuffed animals. Her Mom then picks up the dog and makes the dog tickle Ellie’s arm pit, to which Ellie takes the dog and pinches her Mom’s arm.
At that point her Mom moves away from her and stops moving Ellie’s animals.
When her Mom came out of the play room, she said to me – ‘See that, I don’t understand why she pinched me- it came right out of the blue.’
Often times we cannot see that we are actually in fringing on our children’s need to create an ordered predictable and controllable world. This is very important for our children to feel a sense of safety in a world that is very confusing for them. So when this world is repeatedly interrupted by others who are trying to stop them from doing the very thing that is helping them, our children may feel a need to go to all measures to defend their own well being.
4.To get a reaction.
They may hit/pinch/spit to get a reaction from the adults around them. Sometimes this is the only time when the adults around them are lively and interesting and actually paying attention to them. For instance when our children are playing quietly in the living room either by themselves or with their siblings, we may be in the same room as them reading the newspaper or doing something else, paying no attention. But when someone gets hit/pinched etc we start to pay a lot of attention to the person who is doing the hitting. we may raise our voices, put on grave interesting facile expressions, wave our arms and hands around, and proceed to give a lecture. All of this may be the most animated we are at any point during the day. So if our children want our attention they may be doing this to get it.
I am not a doctor nor any kind of medical professional, what I share here comes purely from my experience of working with over a 1000 different children and their families. We live in a world where medication is freely and widely given for a variety of different ailments. You only have to switch your TV on to see many adds for medications. Even just 10 years ago this was not the case.
I have worked with a few families whose children where experiencing a lot of intensive energy, having long outburst of screaming, hitting, biting, not only other people but themselves. These children also had been on 4-5 different medications for a long period of time – 4-5 years. Once these children where weaned of some of these medications with the help of their doctor, their bouts of intense energy disappeared – I do not feel that this was a coincidence.
The first thing for you to do is to identify which of the five reasons above fits your child. Don’t be surprised if your child fits two or more of these categories, this is not unusual.
Then see if you can embrace the idea that your child is doing the best that they can to take care of themselves, that they are not being bad or mean.
Then look for more articles. Over the next couple of weeks I will write about actions you can take in each of these circumstances that will help you help your children to use another way to take care of themselves instead of hitting/biting or pinching.