Look, I know it’s hard. I live it every day of my life as a divorced single parent of two teenage boys, one with autism. However, imagine how frustrating it is for that disabled child struggling with how to function in a world that is so critical and judgmental of him.
Now further imagine that child doing it without the support he needs from an intact family unit suddenly stolen from him by his parent’s divorce.
As a parent my heart breaks when insensitive and unknowledgeable people point out my son’s many more perceived failures compared to his even many more real successes. As an education and behavior specialist who is also certified in special education, I also know that although we, as both parents and professionals, may experience intense frustration during times when children with autism exhibit aggression and are not exhibiting the “successful” behavior expected and demanded of them, there is never a place for blame, both inward and outward, in such stressful situations.
Yet the number of professionals, mental health and otherwise, who assign fault and then easily give up on these kids at such high rates is not only alarming but disheartening as well. Only by understanding why children with autism act aggressively can we successfully manage this behavior and hope to overcome the extra challenges imposed on them by their parent’s divorce, particularly the weakening of their family support system that occurs as a result.
Reasons for aggressive behavior:
1. Trouble with communication
When anyone, irrespective of disability, puts their hands on someone else in a way that is offensive, they are doing so because they are having trouble communicating. Even if while behaving aggressively these individuals speak in perfect sentences, display beautiful grammar and are extremely intelligent and organized, they are nonetheless experiencing difficulty communicating their true feelings and desires. Oftentimes a child exhibiting such aggressive behavior simply wants attention, as well as help being understood.
2. School professionals without proper training
Many parents feel the best solution is to leave an aggressive child in the hands of so-called professionals, i.e. those who are either ill equipped to deal with issues of aggression and/or those who believe these children will never make progress anyway so they do not make a concerted effort to help. What inevitably results is that the child with autism develops even more resentment and anger.
Sending that frustrated, and now angry, child back to his family only worsens the problem. Because the child is already agitated from consistently being forced to complete tasks that are too challenging for him rather than working on the communication breakdown’s cause, and the child’s parents are likely already at their own wits end as they watch their child restrained or forced to sit in a padded timeout room when such outbursts occur, the problem never gets resolved because the child never receives the help he needs.
The benefit of sending a child with autism to school is therefore lost when the school’s staff lacks the professional knowledge and ability to properly and successfully handle these displays of aggression.
3. Assignment of blame
Assignment of blame begins between the parents and then extends outward as the parents blame the child’s school. The ultimate irony comes when the professionals, unable and too often uninterested in making a difference, end up blaming each other! The truth is, there is never one person at fault when a child with autism continues to behave aggressively. Though we all have an ego we seek to protect and do our best to not assume our share of responsibility for our own perceived failures, the goal must be to leave our egos at the door and give that struggling child the help he needs and deserves.
Ways to help:
Step 1: Focus outward instead of inward
To be of true assistance to someone in need, the first step must be to let go of our ego and adjust our frame of mind to focus outward instead of inward. That means believing the person we are trying to help is capable of becoming successful in every way. Everyone deserves hope, no matter what they have been through. If we are lucky enough to have a person in our life that believes in us, it is best to cherish that person since he or she may be the key to our success. Be that to someone else and know we can change someone’s life forever.
Step 2: Listen first and speak later
Most people think that good communication begins with speaking but, in reality, good communication starts before any speaking occurs. Professionals as well as parents need to understand and accept that if a child is not learning and is not successful especially to the point of aggression, rather than panic and blame ourselves for it we must remain quiet and observe the situation to see why. This means NO SPEAKING.
An aggressive human being is lashing out as a cry for understanding and help. Even if the person behaving aggressively fears and dislikes punishment, the appropriate behaviors will only come when that person makes a conscious choice to behave.
Step 3: Take a step back
The next best thing to do with an aggressive learner is to give that person space. This was the first lesson I learned during my years of professional training at a psychiatric hospital on New York City’s Randall’s Island, and it works.
Step 4: Change the pattern
The mind always works in patterns and has an innate need to complete them. Did you ever turn off a song playing on the radio before it is over, yet you continue to think about it all day in your head? People with aggressive behaviors similarly replay traumatic events in their minds that most likely have nothing to do with the present.
Professionals must remove their egos from situations in which disabled children behave aggressively. It may be they have been hurt or traumatized from working with that child. Regardless, though, whatever trauma the professional experiences, it will likely never match that which the individual with special needs, as well as their family, experiences daily.
It is important to understand that the goal is not only to help a disabled child but, rather, to help that disabled child’s entire family. The unfortunate paradox here is that what the special needs child requires most is an intact family dynamic that, as in my case being a divorced single parent, will never exist. So any blame displayed toward others, even if it seems justified, will not help. Working together and believing in everyone’s success will.