Aggressive Behaviors or Intense Energy?


When a parent describes their child as ‘aggressive’ they mean that they are hitting, biting, scratching, pinching, pulling hair, spitting in people’s faces, slapping, punching, kicking and generally using physical force. This term is also used if their child is biting their own hand, head banging or slapping their own head, and other self-injurious activities.

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.’

Thus when we use this word to describe our children’s behaviors we are saying that our children are out to attack us. When they are self-harming are we believing that they are attacking themselves in an unprovoked way?

‘Violent’ is another word that is used to describe the behaviors listed above. I often have parents seeking help from me who say things such as, “My child is becoming violent,” or professionals who say they are working with “a violent child.”

‘Violent’ is defined in the dictionary as follows:

‘Extremely forceful actions that are intended to hurt people or are likely to cause damage, using or involving force to hurt or attack.’

When we call our children violent we are suggesting that they are intending to hurt us. For me the word violent conjures up images of murder and war, not something that I would attribute to a child with Autism.

At the Autism Treatment Center of America, home of The Son-Rise Program®, we do not take the view that children are attacking us in an unprovoked manner as the word ‘aggressive’ suggests, they are not somehow inherently bad, or really actually want to hurt other people. We believe that they are trying to take care of themselves in the only way they know. We do not label this behavior as ‘aggressive’, or ‘violent’ we call it ‘intense energy.’ The label ‘intense energy’ has none of the judgmental associations that the words ‘aggressive’ or ‘violent’ have, and more accurately describes what is happening.

Below are two of the most common reasons why your child may have intense energy. Understanding the reason helps you to put into place the most effective strategies to minimize your child’s intense energy, as well as new thoughts and beliefs you can adopt to help yourself feel more comfortable with this aspect of your child.

Intense energy does not happen “out of the blue.”

Parents tell me that their children will hit them for no apparent reason that it happens “out of the blue.” In my 25 years working with children and adults with Autism, I have been hit, strangled, kicked, punched, pinched, bitten, slapped, head butted, scratched by little children and adults who were far taller and heavier than me. My training at the Autism Treatment Center of America taught me how to really observe a child and notice what is going on with them and the relationship between what I did and what they did. Since then I have never worked with or observed a child who did not give clear signs that they were about to hit me, the facilitator they were working with, or their parents.

This is exciting news for you because it means that all you have to do is observe your child, and become clearer at understanding and noticing what YOU do.


We know that our children’s sensory system is very challenged. They may have energy that is building up inside them that they do not know how to successfully release. When we have excess energy in our bodies we do some exercise to help release it, autistic children do not seem to understand what is happening in their bodies and so create unique and interesting ways to relieve the build up of energy. They bite, pinch and squeeze someone else with great determination and strength. The action of biting, or pinching actually allows them to release this energy, helping them organize themselves physically.

Try this exercise:

1. Find an object like a bouncy ball or a washcloth soaked in water.
–>Really bite into it. Yes I do mean that. Sink your teeth into it with all your might.
–>Do this three times, each time lasting at least 20 seconds.

2. Clasp your hands together and really squeeze them, again not half-heartedly but will all your might.
–>Do this three times, each time lasting at least 20 seconds.

3. Write down how it felt to do this.

What I feel and what people report is a release of any built up tension. It feels good to do this! And is helpful for the body. Our children are doing this for the same reasons. However, their need to release energy from their bodies is far greater than ours. The trick here is to help our child use something other than another person to release their energies.

They may also give themselves their own sensory input by banging their heads, biting into the soft part at the base of their thumbs, slapping their thighs, and banging their feet. In this case we see the children as acting as their own occupational therapists, trying to help their sensory systems balance.

What are the signs?

You may notice your child doing one of the following behaviors either right before they hit or pinch you, or you may have seen an increase in these behaviors for the 30 minute period prior to their intense energy.

–>Jumping up and down intensely
–>Tensing part of their bodies, for example tensing their face so much so that it may shake a little.
–>Bang any part of their body more vigorously with either their own hand or an object.
–>Run around the house or room with increased energy.
–>Yell sounds louder and longer than usual.
–>Becoming more intense and faster in reciting their scripts from movies or books.
–>Urgently fire questions at you when you know they know the answer.
–>Get into a contrary pattern, where they ask for something, then say no when you give it to them, then ask for it again then say no when you re-offer it, and so forth.

If you are not sure what your child does during the period of time just before they have intense energy, become a detective, take your note pad with you and begin to record what you see. Noticing what happens before and after your child has intense energy will give you valuable cues as to why they are doing this. Once we know why then we can apply the most useful strategies to help them. We want to take care of the underlying reason for your child’s “intense energy” rather than just managing the symptoms.

What to do?

The idea here is to give them the sensory input that they are seeking throughout the day, so that it does not build up to a moment when they will seek it from us using ‘Intense energy.’

You can do this by:

–>Initiating squeezing your child’s hands, feet or head.
–>Initiating a bear hug, you sitting behind your child and wrapping your arms and legs around your child so that you can give them a really big body squeeze.
–>Rolling a big therapy ball over your child, this is a useful way to give a ‘bear hug’ to a bigger or older child.
–>Encouraging your child to jump on a trampoline.
–>For an older child 14 and above, I would suggest that you make sure that they get a lot of exercise, such as swimming, jogging/running/long brisk walks, jumping on a big trampoline, something where they really exert themselves. Do this three times a week.

You can do any of the above suggestions. Pick one that you think your child will enjoy the most. While doing the first three suggestions, you should experiment with the intensity in which you offer the pressure of the bear hug, squeeze or roll of the therapy ball. Slowly increase the pressure while looking to make sure that your child is enjoying it. My experience is that children who are using intense energy because of their sensory needs will like very deep pressure.

How to respond to my child when they hit for this reason?

1. Think the following thoughts

–>My child is hitting me in an attempt to take care of their sensory system.
–>It means nothing about their love or respect towards me.
–>I can help my child by giving them more sensory input to help them balance their bodies.

These thoughts will help prepare you to respond in a peaceful, calm and loving way.

2. Squeeze their hands, head or jaw

–>If they are banging their head on you, offer to squeeze their head…if they are pinching you, offer to squeeze their hands…if they are biting you, offer pressure on their jaw line.
–>Explain to them that they do not have to hit, pinch or head butt you, and that you would be happy to squeeze them whenever they want it.

Now you know the warning signs you should be able to give your child the sensory input they are seeking before it gets to the stage of biting, pinching or hitting. Catch a hand before it reaches you to give it a squeeze! Give a mouth lurching towards you something to bite upon!


–>When I am working with a child who likes to bite oftentimes as they are hugging me they may sink their teeth into my shoulder, I will always have a small chew toy in my pocket I can offer them, or place pads underneath my t-shirt to guard my shoulders.

–>If your child manages to bite you move into the bite verses pulling away from it. For example if they are biting your arm push your arm into the bite, if you pull your arm away it will hurt more. Take your thumb and forefinger and push either side of your child’s jaw line, this will not hurt your child and makes them instantly open their mouth.


Hitting, biting, slapping, spitting, punching, head banging, biting themselves can just simply be your child telling you that they want something. This can be the case for a child who has yet to become verbal and for a child who is highly verbal. If they believe that the people in their lives will get them something quicker if they hit either the person or themselves, then they may press the fast forward button by doing just that.

What are the signs?

–>They pinch/hit/bite/punch right after you have told them that they cannot have something.
–>They are having trouble making their wants understood.
–>They hit within different games usually rough and tumble this can be your child’s way of re-initiating the game with you.

What happens is the people around them will start to move faster and ‘understand’ more when they hit, the adult suddenly becoming more responsive because they want to avoid getting hit. A child can start to think – ‘ok so the way to get more of what I want, is to hit then everyone tries to understand me more.’
In this instance it is important for you to become aware not only of when your child is using intense energy but also what YOU are doing in response to it.

Try this exercise:

Answer the following questions in the context of responding to your child hitting you when they want something or are having a challenge communicating to you what they want.

–>How is your body reacting? Does your heart beat faster? Do your hands start to sweat?
–>What are you feeling? Angry? Sad? Scared? Happy?
–>How do you move? Faster? Slower?
–>Do you give your child the object or activity they were asking for?
–>If you do not understand what they want, do you offer them many different things?

Then start observing your other family members interact with your child, how do they respond when your child hits them. Inquire at your child’s school or therapy program about how they respond when your child hits them.

If your child is hitting to communicate a want it is because somebody somewhere is responding fast to this communication.

What to do?

1. Think the following thoughts
–>My child is clever! He is trying to get what he wants by the quickest route possible.
–>This means nothing about me.
–>I know what to do. I can help my child by moving slowly and letting him know that I do not understand him when he hits.

2. Move slowly.

This is very important. We want to show our children that any form of intense energy will not help them get want they want quicker, in fact it makes people slower.

3. Explain

Tell your child that you do not understand what they mean when they hit you. Explain also that even if they hit you, it is not going to change the situation and you are still not going to take them to Blockbusters.

4. Move out of the way, and give an alternative.

Now that you know why your child behaves in this way be prepared. If your child wants something to which the answer is no:

–>Know that he may hit you.
–>Step out of the way, so he cannot reach you with his hands this will give you time to protect yourself by catching his hands and squeezing them, or offering something else for him to hit, like a ball or a drum.
–>If your child is an adult or bigger than you, always have a big therapy ball or a big cushion available that you can put between you and your child to protect yourself. If you think he may hit you put it between you so that it is ready for your protection. Believe that you are strong and hold it in place with all your determination, do not let it go.

5. Do not give your child the thing they hit you for.

This is very important! You want to help your child understand that intensive energy of any kind will not get them what they want. This is a very important skill to teach your child, one that will serve them socially in the years to come.

If you want to give your child the thing they just attempted to hit you for, make sure that you ask them to communicate in a different way before you give it to them. Ask them to point to it, or use an approximation of the word, or the word itself. Celebrate them for doing this and make sure you explain to them that you are giving it to them because they communicated in this different way, not because they hit you.

6. Be Persistent and Consistent.

You already have a history of moving fast when your child hits you thus it may take a little time for your child to realize that this is no longer the way you respond. Keep responding in the way outlined above until they get this concept.
If it is taking longer than two weeks, for your child to change this behavior make sure that you are following all of the steps outlined above. Maybe you have left one crucial step out? If not, it is most likely that someone other than you is responding in a fast manner. Be a detective and find out who that person is.

20 Responses

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I really like the suggestion to look at the child's behavior in a different way than being aggressive and to look to the activity going on before the behavior started. I also found that exercise or giving other tools to handle their behavior was very effective in my classroom. I found that slow but sure desensitization was very effective.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Oh my GOD,this is so incredibly helpful !
    I have been moving around the edges of some of these suggestions but now I've got all your really good reasoning-THANK YOU SO MUCH.
    This will help Larry and help me too.
    Lots of Love,

  3. THANK YOU! Finally. I've needed this so much. This was totally inspired timing.

  4. Anonymous says:

    This post is a complete treasure, Kate. Thank you so much!

  5. Gail Doukas says:

    We do some of these things, like recognizing that he is communicating a want or a need. He uses lots of echolalia but will throw in a word of what he may want. His reaction is to bite his hands and yell, growl, or use phrases, ie. metaphores. How do we protect him when he bites his hands. They are callused, cracked and sometimes bleed.
    Thank you for your help!

    • Todd says:

      My son is 15 and has turned very aggressive and it turns out like a light switch for no reason mostly during the night waking us up, hitting his head biting himself and as we try to protect him he tries to do these things to us.. I don’t know what to do anymore..

  6. Knowing at the young age can really help you maintain and lessen the chances of autism. Thank you very much.

  7. woodsy says:

    This is wonderful, Kate. I love how you help us to empathize with our children. It has always bothered me that Special Needs Children were the ones that were said to lack empathy when it is us who. being so capable, should be exercising it! Entering into their experience has been key to helping my 21 year old, very tall, very strong son deal with his intensity – which I now see as coming from a very great need for physical release and activity – partly for release but also to relieve boredom. He is a pacer….and I have just spent the last few weeks joining with him, which just yesterday developed into a delightful game of chase all around the house, where I catch and squeeze and tickle him. It has been very calming for him as it gives him the physical stimulation he must have been craving all these years. So he is now happy instead of aggressive!
    We put an old mattress in his Focus Room that we are now jumping on and bouncing on and it is becoming a part of the game of chase. I amhoping that this will segue us into using the Focus Room more. I still am wary just now about hair pulling, but am putting a hat to give myself time to get away if it occurs – which I suspect will not longer happen as I think all this activity and attention is what he was doing it for.

    I am going to have, Stephanie, the woman who is part of our SRP, to read this.

    Thank you so much for your post.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Great advice. My daughter is three and was diagnosed in May. The one thing that is really troublesome to me is that she pinches babies (only). She can't seem to resist. She likes it when they cry:(. She does this with her toy babies…shoves them in our faces and says "Babies crying". Then if she sees a real one, she pinches them HARD and makes them cry. I am so embarrassed by this and am CONSTANTLY apologizing to parents. Do you think this is the same issue? And should I deal with it the same? Any advice welcome.

  9. Thomas Hayes says:

    I will certainly live by this thanku so much!

  10. Cristina Galluccio Leonardis says:

    This is so helpful! Thank you so much!

  11. Michelle says:

    Sooo…what about the kid who throws and breaks all the dishes in the house?

  12. Farzana says:

    Wow…it was so helpful. My son loves to pinch all the time. He kinds of changes his expression and shakes a little, yes! Your were so right! He has all the energy in the world! Not sure how to help him change this habit, I’ll try what you suggested for sure!

    • Autism Treatment Center of America says:

      Hi Farzana, that’s great! We’d love to hear back how it goes when you implement the suggestions from the article. Keep us posted!

  13. Mariclare Thomason says:

    My daughter is 11 years old and we adopted her from China when she was 11 months old 15 pounds. Found out after three years she was Autistic, Non-Verbal, Development delay, Seizures. She is tantrum and taunting coming over by my husband and I and kicking hard. She wants her iPad. I knew she wanted it but we are starting “The Son-Rise Program”. My husband and I thought the iPad should be gone. She is not liking our decision. How can we get rid of the iPad and move on with life? I don’t know how to help her to communicate with us? We have been accepting sign language and pictures before we started this program. Now we are trying to get a sound and then a words from Emily. I feel very frustrated and hurt from her kicking both of us. What do you think we should be doing? Our daughter is very aggressive with both of us with all of her kicking, scratching and hitting us to the point we are getting bruises from her. We need help.

    • Autism Treatment Center of America says:

      Hi Mariclare – thank you for writing! Have you tried the tips provided in this blog post? If not, please start there and let us know how it goes. A few other options. Kate Wilde’s Book “Autistic Logistics” is very helpful for this. You can also watch our YouTube videos on this topic. Lastly, you can book an individual consultation with one of our teachers to get individualized help with this issue: We know this can seem quite challenging but you’re not alone and there are many things you can try. Best wishes!

    • Todd says:

      I feel your pain my son is 15 years old sweet little boy but we never know when the light switch will go off when he’s like a different person hurting himself and trying to hurt us.. this last two weeks been terrible as I think it may have something to do with being at our school for two weeks and not in his normal routine.. But yes it’s very difficult and frustrating.. most of the times it’s happening while we are sleeping and he explodes for no reason.. I am on my third iPod as he gets so mad that he snapped it in half and breaks it with his mouth.. And then at that point I need to get another one because he gets aggressive because he just realize he destroyed something that’s part of his life that goddamn device

      • Autism Treatment Center of America says:

        Hi Todd, we can help you with these challenges. If you would like to speak to one of our program advisors, please let us know, and we’ll have someone reach out to you soon.

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