How to Deal with Asperger's Syndrome Violent Behaviors

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Different Children, Different Approaches

There are no hard and fast rules for treating Asperger’s syndrome, as each child exhibits different behaviors that require different treatment plans. For parents struggling with Asperger’s syndrome violent behavior, finding safe and effective ways to deal with it is difficult without help. Children with Asperger’s and other autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) seldom respond to traditional parenting techniques such as time outs or withholding privileges, leaving parents confused and desperate for fast-acting strategies.

Applied Behavioral Analysis

Since the 1960s, scientists, researchers, and therapists have studied the effects of therapies such as Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) in patients with autism spectrum diagnoses. Therapies based on ABA methodology are customized based on the child’s ability, environment, and the behavior most in need of correction. For children with a tendency towards violent behavior, these methods focus on analyzing what environmental factors contribute to the behavior. As factors are identified, therapists, teachers, and parents are able to use a variety of methods to help the child learn to replace negative behaviors with positive ones.

ABA methods include Discrete Trial Training, Pivotal Response Therapy, and Reciprocal Imitation Training, to name a few. Often these therapies begin on an intensive basis in the child’s home. The theory being that the child’s own home environment lends to more realistic behavioral assessment and modification. However, for children with excessively violent behaviors, there are ways for parents to begin positive correction prior to or during the initial behavioral assessment period.

Supervision and Observation

A child known to exhibit Asperger’s syndrome violent behavior obviously requires supervision at all times, especially when playing with younger children. However, supervision is not a safety-only mechanism. It is an opportunity to observe and record. Make note of what situations and factors most often precede violence. Factors can include frustration, anxiety about a new environment or person, or physical discomfort.

As parents note common triggers for violent behaviors, the opportunity for proactive solutions presents itself. For example, a child who typically throws objects or hits others when frustrated often shows warning signs of early frustration. These signs become a cue to redirect the child to another activity. Some parents argue that a child should prepare for life, rather than life being prepared for the child. However, the first step to correcting violent behavior is to reduce its frequency, which often requires controlling the child’s environment temporarily until the child learns how to self-regulate.

Preparation and Expectations

Children with Asperger’s and other developmental disabilities are understandably confused by and anxious during new or unexpected experiences. Planning ahead and preparing the child for a new routine, person, or environment helps ease anxiety. For children on the spectrum, this requires repetition. For example, a new playmate can be both exciting and a cause for anxiety. As such, repeating age-appropriate reminders may help ease anxiety.

Children crave security, no matter if they are developmentally challenged or not. Knowing what they should expect of a situation and what is expected of them helps them prepare, thus reducing common violent behavior triggers. Asperger’s children are no different in this regard, save their need for more repetitive exposure to expectations. In this regard, social skills training should begin early.

A parent or caregiver’s explanation of expectations cannot be vague like “play nice.” Instead, AS children need specific explanations of what “play nice” means. For young children, modeling and practice playtime is an excellent way to illustrate what is expected. For older children, short and easy to remember rules such as “no hitting” and “ask first” help reinforce expectations.

Start Small and Increase

Asperger’s children do better with shorter periods for new experiences. Whether a trip to the store, a play date, or new house rules, start with small changes and gradually increase duration as the child shows signs of being able to tolerate more. Play dates of a few hours may be more than a child who exhibits Asperger’s syndrome violent behaviors can tolerate. As such, limit play dates to only an hour or so. Be available to help guide activities and take advantage of redirection strategies. Be prepared to cut the play date or other experience short if the child exhibits signs of heightened frustration or anxiety, or other common triggers that could produce violent behavior.

Low Expressed Emotion

Asperger’s children are taught early to mimic behaviors seen in others when they do not understand or grasp a social situation. Modeling low expressed emotions during difficult or frustrating experiences helps an AS child learn to control their own response. For example, remaining calm and using a monotone voice no matter how frustrating or frightful a situation may be helps model a controlled response. No matter how hard the child tries to escalate a situation, remain calm, focused, and level headed.

For most parents, this is difficult to master. However, since AS and other children on the spectrum typically feed off the emotionally-charged responses of those around them, it is an imperative skill to learn and model. The more the parent and other family members model calm, peaceful responses to situations, the more likely the child will learn to model such behavior.

Other Useful Approaches

These approaches are based on the author’s experience with behavior modification therapies, including suggestions made by psychiatric, developmental, and therapeutic professionals over a ten year period. As a parent of a child on the spectrum with severe violent behaviors, these are the methods which worked best in her situation with her child. Many of the approaches are as much about changing the mindset and expectation of the parent as they are about correcting violent behavior. Naturally, every child is different and some approaches will work while others do not.

  • 10 Words or 10 Seconds. Corrective responses should be calm and limited to under 10 words or under 10 seconds. Short, calm responses are easier for a child in the grips of an emotional upheaval to register.
  • Rewards and Consequences. Increase rewards for positive behavior and keep them in the child’s preferred currency. If their favorite activity is coloring, use this activity to reward positive strides in their behavior. Minimize consequences to focus primarily on targeted behaviors. As positive changes progress, shift the focus of consequences to the next behavior on the list.
  • The Basket Approach. Determine ahead of time what behaviors are most pressing in terms of correction. Prioritize corrective measures according to the severity of the behavior. The most dangerous or troublesome behaviors belong in Basket A, while less imperative behaviors like hand flapping are Basket B or C. Focus only on correction of or consequences for Basket A behaviors. As the child conquers negative or harmful behaviors, choices from Basket B or C move up to Basket A.
  • Mood Journals. A daily diary of an Asperger’s child’s behaviors helps illuminate patterns that might otherwise go unnoticed. Make note of their moods, demeanors, and behaviors throughout the day, as well as responsiveness of the child to different corrective measures. Mood journaling not only illuminates patterns and documents progress, but also serves as a history for therapists.
  • Safe Rooms. Parents of children in the grips of excessive Asperger’s syndrome violent behaviors often find the child nearly impossible to reach. As such, there are times when parents must simply “ride out” a violent outburst. In such cases, having a safe room where the child can safely vent their anger or frustration allows everyone time to cool down. Safe rooms can be the child’s bedroom or other room in the house. The key is the room should be safe, with nothing the child can throw, damage, or otherwise use to hurt themselves or others.

A Child’s Best Advocate

It is difficult and emotionally draining to deal with a child who exhibits violent behavior. In rare instances, parents and medical professionals may find that adding medication to help relieve symptoms that lead to violent tendencies necessary. In other cases, parents may need access to emergency response professionals trained to help de-escalate violent outbursts in children with special needs. However, these measures are only necessary in a small number of cases where children exhibit Asperger’s syndrome violent behaviors.

The most important thing for a parent to remember is that they know their child best. A parent is in the best position to help the child overcome violent behaviors simply by listening to the child and responding on a level that works for him or her. As a parent, it is imperative to have supports in place not only to help the child, but to help the parent as well. Overcoming violent behavior in an Asperger’s child involves changes in parental response, being prepared, and modeling therapeutic principles taught during behavior modification therapy sessions. Above all else, the key to success is the parent and their willingness to advocate for the best solutions for their child.


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National Institute of Health

Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies

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