Dealing with Aggression and Autism

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Q&A Session 9 with the Director of The Son-Rise Program

Topic: Dealing with Agression and Autism

Q:
My daughter, Schaefer Archard is seven years old with a diagnosis of PDD with autistic spec., language disorder, EXTREME ADHD, she is very impulsive. She also has epilepsy. She takes tegretal and risperdol. She has not had a seizure since July 1997, since she began taking the tegretal. Our biggest issue we are having with her at this time is aggression. She will push and bite other children for no apparent reason. She is disciplined for this and will even tell us “No bite” but she continues to have problems with this. any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

A:
Many children will bite, scratch, kick, hit, and throw things unexpectedly at people, among other things. There are generally three things to check out right away with your daughter. They are:

How you (and the people around your daughter) react to the biting. When bit, most people react both outwardly (by yelling, making pained expressions on their face, pulling away quickly, among other things) and inwardly (getting mad, frustrated, annoyed, upset, or another kind of discomfort).
Many children will do behaviors specifically because of the reaction they get from the people around them. It can be very entertaining and interesting for some children to watch their parents gesticulate and have tremendous facial expression. You become like a cartoon, and most kids really like cartoons, specifically because of their exaggerated quality. We have found that whatever you react to in a child grows. Meaning, if your daughter bites you and you make a big deal out of it, she is more likely to continue biting you, because it’s fun to watch you make a big deal out of anything. Once you’ve been bitten, protect yourself from it happening again, in a calm and easy way. Do not try and discipline her right now… you are most likely just encouraging the behavior by yelling or speaking with an irritated voice, etc.
Also, your internal reaction is vital as well. It’s not that you are supposed to fake feeling calm, but that you actually do feel calm. This is important because we see repeatedly that children can sense how the people around them feel emotionally. If you feel bad (or sad, angry, frustrated, etc.), this counts as a reaction too! And you very well may be encouraging the behavior by having a discomfort. For ideas on how to feel comfortable when this is happening, I recommend the book, “Happiness is a Choice”, by Barry Neil Kaufman.

The second thing to check out is: Am I giving her what she wants when she bites? I once worked with a mother whose child would throw 75-minute tantrums every day. “What happens when he finishes his tantrum?” I asked her. “I take him to Taco Bell and get him soft tacos.” she said. “Why do you do that?” “Well, he’s cried for so long, I figure if he wants a taco that bad, I’ll give it to him”
Inadvertently, she was systematically teaching him that throwing a 75-minute tantrum worked really well to get what he wanted. This is just one example. The idea is to ask yourself, does the biting work to move me? Do I give her something because she bit me that I wouldn’t have otherwise given her? If so, it’s important that you change that. As long as a child believes that biting works the best to get things, that will be what they resort to when nothing else is working. So instead, when your child communicates in a way that you want, have that work the best!
As a side note: I am not encouraging you to give your child ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner if they ask for it in a nice way. You can still set whatever boundaries you feel are important.

Another thing you can try: if she starts to bite, or you see warning signs that it’s coming soon, offer her different physical stimulations. For example, squeeze her hands and feet, if she allows it, and even massage her jaw. Some children get bursts of energy, which can be released by your squeezes. You can also offer other kinds of physical activity, like doing a chase game.

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