Autism and Aggressive Behavior - General and Preventive Intervention Strategies

Behavioral interventions designed to reduce problem behavior based on why it is happening rather than what it looks like when it does occur are the most effective in suppressing it.  Such interventions need to be created and supervised by trained professionals working in conjunction with a child and his family. In the absence of a formal problem behavior reduction plan, there are techniques others can utilize when presented with a child’s aggression. While these techniques may not eliminate aggressive behavior a child displays, they can help safely end aggressive episodes, and more quickly re-establish an engaging teaching environment.

Neutral Redirection

Neutral redirection is the most common response to aggressive behavior.  It consists of stopping the child from engaging in the aggressive behavior, and guiding him to perform a functionally appropriate behavior. For example, a child who hits others as a means to gain attention may be neutrally redirected to appropriately tap another’s shoulder and say “excuse me” when he wants to talk, instead of hitting.  While the adult implements neutral redirection, it is imperative that she refrains from talking to the child while he is engaging in the aggressive act (i.e., she refrains from reprimanding or scolding the child, or asking him to top); making eye contact with the child, and providing a physical reaction, such as flinching or scowling.  For example, if a teacher asks a child to clean up his art project, and he wants to continue working on his project and shows this by hitting the teacher, she will simply guide him to clean up his materials without looking at him or talking him through the task.

Praise and Attention

While neutral redirection is a common response to aggressive behavior, preventive measures also exist.  One such preventative measure is to provide the child with praise and attention for appropriate behavior (i.e., “catch him being good”).  In addition to rewarding appropriate behavior, keeping the child’s environment rich with preferred activities and providing the child the opportunity to choose the order of tasks he will complete may also prevent the occurrence of aggressive behavior.  Finally, identifying what motivates a child and using items or activities that the child finds rewarding is an essential key to successful teaching.

More Preventive Measures

In addition to the suggestions above, the following are recommended as preventive measures and general intervention strategies for managing aggressive behavior in a child with ASD.  These suggestions are not meant to take the place of a formal problem behavior reduction plan devised by a professional, nor do they encompass all strategies listed above that could be employed:

  • Provide the child with an area filled with preferred and appropriate activities to engage in when it is not time to work.
  • Keep the child’s work spaces free of distracting or extraneous items that are not immediately needed for teaching.
  • Set up the designated work space so that the child is positioned on one side of the table, and the adult is positioned on the other.
  • Provide the child with a written or visual schedule of activities to complete, and allow the child to choose the order in which the tasks will be finished.
  • Reward the child often for appropriate behavior he displays (“catch him being good”).
  • Identify items or activities that are motivating to the child, and use these items as rewards during teaching opportunities.
  • Vary the items or activities reserved as the child’s rewards, to keep them new, exciting, and motivating.
  • Wear clothing to keep covered areas of the body likely to be targeted during displays of aggressive behavior (including keeping long hair tied up close to the body).

It is important to be mindful of situations wherein the child is most likely to display aggressive behavior, and be prepared for aggression to occur when these situations arise. When a child displays aggressive behavior, remain calm and neutral and avoid providing him attention. Any type of reaction (a change in facial expression or in body language) or any type of scolding or reprimand could exacerbate the problem.

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