How to Stop Autistic Kids from Hitting: Advice for Parents and Teachers
written by: Keren Perles
• edited by: Paul Arnold
• updated: 11/11/2010
With autistic kids, hitting is a common aggressive tendency that parents and teachers have to deal with. Understanding what is causing the autistic child to hit is the first step.
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Rule Out Medical Conditions
Before you begin taking steps to get your child to stop hitting, talk to a doctor to rule out any other medical conditions. When depression, epilepsy, or even allergies are ravaging the body of an autistic kid, hitting may be a response to the pain or discomfort. Hitting is their way of expressing negative feelings with their body, and fixing the medical issue can resolve the hitting problem as well.
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Why Is My Child Hitting?
As outlined above, an autistic child may be hitting in order to physically express pain or discomfort, or for other medical reasons. People often assume that, barring these issues, a child hits because...well...they have aggressive tendencies that cannot be controlled easily. Digging deeper can help you understand the child's true motivation for hitting.
For example, does your child smile while hitting? If so, they may think that the sensation of hitting feels good, or they may be trying to socialize with the person and not realize that hitting is an improper way to go about doing this. Does your child hit in order to get something? If so, you'll need to examine whether the child has been receiving something for hitting. Does your child seem excited by your over-the-top reaction to the hitting? If so, that is an important signal you will need to act on.
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If the child is hitting in order to get something, you will need to carefully examine the way you respond to the hitting. Using an ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) approach, you can use positive reinforcement for positive actions and negative reinforcement for negative actions in order to teach your child not to hit.
Make sure that if your child is hitting in order to get something, you do not reward the child with that object afterwards. In addition, if the child seems excited by your negative response - after all, your anger or frustration may make you look like a silly cartoon character in their eyes - tone down your response, and calmly remove the child from the situation and from any fun activity with a stern but brief comment. Make sure to give your child plenty of positive reinforcement, in the form of attention and excitement, when he or she is playing nicely and not hitting.
On the other hand, if your child is hitting for the sensory stimulation, try different activities to give your child the same physical feeling as hitting. This may mean letting your child bang on a drum, roll on the carpet, hit a pillow against a wall, or squeeze a ball of clay. These activities can both let out any excess energy and give your child the stimulation needed to avoid hitting others.
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If you have an autistic kid, hitting and other aggressive behaviors can often be controlled by some medications. Talk to your doctor about Risperdal, an antipsychotic medicine that has been shown to help tame aggression in autistic children. Other options include various SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and mood stabilizers.