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Aggression A Struggle For 1 In 2 With Autism


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More than half of kids and adolescents with autism are physically aggressive and new research suggests that sleep, sensory and other underlying issues may be responsible for the behaviors.

In a study of 1,584 children with autism ages 2 to 17, researchers report this month in the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders that about 53 percent were aggressive.

The report is based on an assessment of children enrolled in the Autism Treatment Network, a nationwide network of care centers for kids with the developmental disorder. Parents were asked whether or not their child intentionally hit or bit others or demonstrated similar types of physical aggression. Then, researchers analyzed other clinical assessments and parent-submitted data on the children to identify trends differentiating those who were aggressive from those who were not.

While the race or gender of a child did not appear to impact their odds of displaying challenging behaviors, the study found that other characteristics did. Specifically, children were most likely to lash out physically if they engaged in self-injury or had sleep or sensory problems.

Younger kids were also more likely to be aggressive than older ones, researchers found, though they said the problem behaviors remained present at an “alarming rate” in the teenage years, with nearly half of adolescents in the study exhibiting aggression.

Other factors including the education level of a child’s caregiver and the presence of gastrointestinal issues, communication and social skills deficits were also linked to the presence of aggression, but to a lesser degree.

“Overall, the results of the current study indicate that aggression is markedly prevalent among children and adolescents with ASD, and that some sets of co-occurring problems may place individuals at risk for aggression,” wrote Micah Mazurek of the University of Missouri and her colleagues in the study. “The results suggest that increased attention should be given to the identification and treatment of sleep problems, self-injury and sensory problems, in particular.”

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Comments (16 Responses)

  1. Autistic says:

    50% of parents reporting their kid is aggressive is not 50% of Autistics are aggressive.

  2. Tacitus says:

    A lot of us have to deal with aggression from other people, including take-downs for stimming, or otherwise behaving like we’re autistic. I got labelled “aggressive” because I defended myself against being tackled. This study is badly flawed. The information is passing through too many filters.

  3. Dadvocate says:

    The risks that travel hand in hand with aggressive behaviors are not understood or appreciated by most in our own community. School, legal, and personal safety risks are enormous v typical peers. I think risk management training and tools (risk can’t be eliminated) should be learned from the time of diagnosis. This issue impacts all aspects of life from childhood throughout the entire lifespan and shouldn’t be minimized, even if the issue is uncomfortable for some advocates to acknowledge.

  4. autismUXB says:

    While aggression is an issue with any human being, the primary reason for aggression is the lack of language for severely autistic individuals. Picture yourself in a problem situation and not being able to express yourself in any way other than physically.

  5. Lynn says:

    I have an 11 year old son with autism (non-verbal) who went through a period of extreme aggression two years ago. I learned that I contributed to his aggression, because I would try to talk him out of it. I wanted him to know that I was there to help but it only pissed him off more. So, I learned to calmly say, “I don’t know why you are upset and when you are ready, we can work together to figure it out. Until then, I’m going to do ……” My simply leaving the room cut down tremendously on his anger and we have learned to communicate more effectively.

  6. Carolyn says:

    Here we go…..another study that may stigmitize individuals with ASD and something that parents have known….but we know the real reason for causation in the majority of cases. It also is not agression per se and we need folks to stop using that word. It is challenging behavior caused by frustration due to illness, the inability to communicate needs, etc. Aggression occurs when someone wants to be physically violent and do something to destroy property or harm another person or one’s self. That is not what transpires in the majority of those with autism who have such challenges. Much of this also happens due to a child being ill and being unable to verbalize that. Behavior is often a means of communicating something and that too for individuals with autism needs to be realized.

  7. helen says:

    I would like to know how you are supposed to give more attention to the sleep problems, self-injury and sensory problems. My son has been on every kind of med known to help with his sleep, very structured setting and keeping him busy to hopefully make him tired at night.I have seen a bunch of terrific doctors end up stumped because they have exhausted every avenue to help him. He has always been aggressive due to his lack of communication and now that he is older, stronger and bigger, sometimes is too much to handle. He does talk a lot more but when it comes to expressing himself, he still has a hard time. It’s heart breaking not being able to help him.

  8. Phillip says:

    What has worked for the individuals I work with is to increase their vestibular experiences, which is done through activities such as walking, swimming, running, any activity that increases stimulation to the joints of the body or provides some means of perception of self. I have the majority of my clients going to the neighborhood activity center everyday after school. Traditional therapy such as OT can also help, but a good regimen of physical activity, where the individual chooses the activity to participate in, will go along way. All of my clients have reduced aggression as a result of their participation. We used a visual social story to introduce them to each activity and then after they were comfortable, allowed them to choose which activity to participate in.

  9. G Vallis says:

    I am the parent of an adolescent child with severe autism who is treated for gastrointestinal issues, and who often has difficulty sleeping. However, although it has cost me almost everything-my home, my work, my marriage-I have gotten him intensive intervention since he was three years old that has included a profound emphasis on social communications. For any behavioral issue that came up, we acted proactively to find its antecedent. Most of all, we were kind, and we helped him to communicate. At this time, my son, who is a teen in the 95th percentile in height and weight for his age, and who towers over most who meet him, is the most gentle person you will ever meet. He is trusting and loving. He exhibits no signs of aggression. I suggest that we might turn our attention to aggression as a sign of frustration in being unable to communicate, which is the result of an appalling lack of treatment in this country, and to treat aggression as a behavioral issue-not a physical manifestation of the disorder.

  10. KA101 says:

    Philip hits on a very important point, which I’d like to pull out for emphasis: the kids in the physical-activity program are able to

    *choose their preferred activity*.

    Autistics are generally spun as having “power & control needs”, which might be more accurately described as wanting stability in their environment, ideally w/o sensory or social violations. Non-autistics typically like stability too.

    Letting an autistic evaluate potential environments and determine which is most suitable will indeed go a long way to avoiding aggression or other fallout effects from stress/meltdowns…because it goes a long way toward eliminating the stress in the first place. Philip, if you aren’t doing so already, it’d be a good idea to get feedback on why your clients choose the activities they do. It’s possible that certain activities are preferable for reasons that you can carry into other, heretofore less-popular activities.

    (In case it isn’t obvious, you should at least let the autistics in the less-popular activities know about the planned change before you implement it. Depending on what you’re changing, it may or may not be a problem for them.)

    Thanks for being part of the solution there.

  11. Phillip says:

    I am a strong believer that choice for individuals with disabilities is something that has far been overlooked. My experience in this business shows me that we often tell individuals what to do and when to do it. I was told by a CEO once, that the only choice an individual with disabilities often has, is the ability to say “no”, and this is a sad thing. As a professional in this business, it is my responsibility to make sure that individual choice is the primary reason for doing anything.

    Another thing that I would recommend for those working with those on the autism spectrum, is to identify their strengths and use these strengths to help develop the delays. The individuals I work with are on the more moderate to severe form of the autism spectrum. A number of them are non-verbal and we use pictures to identify choices. I also utilize research on the autism brain to understand the areas of best practices for my interventions.

    I believe that the individuals I work with find the activities sensory pleasing, as to why they chose one activity over another.

  12. TJW says:

    Is this aggression or the inability to communicate what’s going on with them? Is this aggression all the time or only in certain situations. I don’t think we can can say that they are, across the board, aggressive. Many times it is a reaction to something that they feel is harming them. That’s my personal experience, anyway. WE need to take the time and effort to learn how to communicate with THEM better.

  13. Cynthia Patton says:

    Hmmm. When my daughter is in a classroom that refuses to deal with her sensory issues, they get lots of aggressive behavior, which then spills over to our home. When she is in a school program that has embedded sensory breaks, almost no aggression. I’ve always thought there was a link between the two, and apparently there is.

  14. paul johnson says:

    This appears to be wasted research money. I am on the ASD and I am a developmental Psychologist. When we read between the lines these are not symptoms of aggression per se. Rather we are talking about people being affected by meltdowns. To the untrained eye meltdowns appear to be aggression. Meltdowns are neurological reactions that manifest itself physically. Meltdowns like siezures come upon us with the proper condition and it is only known to happen when physical manifestations are observed.

  15. Kathleen Shaun Stahlman says:

    Any additional info on meltdown./neurological would be so appreciated. Thanks.

  16. Bonnie Low says:

    I have a son who was diagnosed as “developmentally delayed” 27 years ago but who would now fit under the autism spectrum definition.
    I am interested in the “gastrointestinal issues”of autism. My son is not able to verbally tell me if he is experiencing physical pain. He is physically aggressive toward property and others. I have always wondered if there was a physical issue with him that he is communicating thru his aggression. I would be interested to know what ‘gastrointestinal issues” other people have experienced with their children/adults.
    He will be going to inpatient services at the hospital in July for a routine dental cleaning/exam. I am wondering if there are tests we could have done while he is under anesthesia to rule out intestinal issues.

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