As the holiday season begins comes to a close, school ramps back up and the new year begins, children, especially those who may feel dysregulated throughout this time of year, may exhibit some behaviors that point to the over-stimulation they may be feeling. For children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) anger can be a very common feeling and often, the result of them not knowing how to regulate that emotion, turns them to aggression. Outbursts of aggression can lead to some really difficult moments where challenging behaviors are present and will leave parents feeling frustrated and confused. BeamingHealth is a website dedicated to serving parents of autistic children and anyone in the special needs community. The site provides resources, articles, tips and links to find care in the form of various therapy options for parents and caregivers who may need assistance themselves or are looking for help. They published an article written by Taylor Thomas, the clinical director of functional assessment at Hopebridge Autism Therapy Centers, titled, "Autism and Aggression: 7 Expert Tips to Decrease Aggressive Behaviors." The tips in Thomas' article are particularly helpful for those who are hoping to better understand and manage aggression from their children, or whoever is in their care, with empathy. It is important to remember in challenging moments of aggressive expressions or actions that "behavior is a form of communication" and it is often displayed due to any difficulty that the child may be facing in vocalizing what they are feeling or wanting. Children may just default to aggressive behavior because they see it as the only way that their parent or caregiver will understand or give them attention. The first strategy that Thomas mentions for parents and caregivers to try at home is look for nonverbal signs of communication. These signals may be overlooked in moments of chaos, however, these gestures may be the key you need to figuring out what your child is trying to tell you, hopefully before the aggression comes. Next, you may benefit from running through a physical checklist. Think about what could be bothering your child... when did they eat or drink last, do they need to use the bathroom or get a fresh diaper or pull-up, is there a loud noise or bright lights or could they be overly tired or in some kind of pain. These are things that you may need to review regularly as you go about your day to avoid your child becoming distressed and feeling as if they need to communicate in other ways. The third thing you can do is use simple language. Even though, as adults, we may feel the need to go into detail to emphasize a point or use more descriptive words to articulate a specific message, keeping things short and simple can actually be a lot better for your child. This helps them to associate short phrases or words with feelings, things, and/or activities. This is also referred to as labeling. Specifically, children with autism can be overwhelmed by too much information at once, so using one or two word phrases can be very beneficial for communication. Another important tip is to set aside time to be present, but not intrusive, with your child. One of the best ways to do this is by letting them lead play. There is more on this subject in Thomas' article. But by being present with your children while they play and allowing them to engage in an activity with you close by but not guiding or teaching, you are actually showing them that you are interested in the same things they are and you don't have to be in charge all the time. Remind yourself that "there is no wrong way to play." Also it is important to remind yourself in moments of what seems to be chaos, do not take aggressive behaviors personally. Even though it may seem as though your child is pointing their aggression directly at you, that is typically not the case. Before jumping to any conclusions and getting wound up yourself...take a big, deep breath. This is the first step in these moments because we actually tend to hold our breath when we feel stressed; remembering to do this will help you regulate your self before responding to your child. If it's possible, you may also want to separate yourself from your child for a few brief moments. Again in doing so, you can regulate yourself, which means that your child, who is dysregulated at the moment of a meltdown, can draw from you renewed energy and calm down as well. Next, you can help them by redirecting their unsafe wants to more appropriate choices. If your child is expressing to you that they want something that is unsafe or inappropriate, you can redirect their interest to a game or activity instead. Thomas gives the example of playing "Duck, Duck, Goose" with children who enjoy running away because this is a safe and actively engaging game that also poses some opportunity for language development as well. When attempting to redirect your child, be sure to take the time to explain to your child why the thing they wanted was unsafe or inappropriate; use lots of empathy when doing so. The last and final tip is just that: show empathy in tough situations. When tantrums or meltdowns arise, try your best to show your child that you understand what they feel and validate their feelings. It is also important to explain to your child the why behind them not being able to do or have something. The key is to give them an age-appropriate explanation as to why you told them "no" to something. By doing this, you are teaching them how to handle discomfort and disappointment in a healthy way rather than just immediately fixing it for them. Fixing it for them every time something goes awry just inevitably sets you, and them, up for dysregulation in the future when you can't give them everything they want. What you really want is to teach your child how to regulate themselves instead of being totally reliant on you. It's important to teach them how to label their feelings with empathy, then guide them to moving onto better things. As you read about all of these tips and tactics for tackling tantrums and meltdowns, remind yourself that learning a new skill can take time and a whole lot of practice. Give yourself grace in these moments and rely on professionals and local resources as best you can to help navigate these scenarios within your family.
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