Hitting is considered an aggressive behavior in autistic children, but it is more often a form of communication. Read on to learn how to identify what the hitting means and how to stop your autistic child from hitting.
How to prevent hitting in children on the spectrum
Understanding why autistic people hit to communicate
Invasion of personal space
Autistic and similarly neurodivergent individuals value their personal space. A reflex in autistic children is to push out unwanted sensory input.
If you enter an autistic person’s space without permission, you have removed their autonomy. Autonomy is the ability to self-govern oneself. An example is if you tried to force an autistic child to hug you and they reacted similarly to a cat that doesn’t want to be held.
Hitting you is their way of enforcing their boundaries. From an autistic perspective, you were in the wrong and they were in the right.
Oftentimes, non-autistic parents invade their autistic children’s space during autism meltdowns or autism shutdowns. These meltdowns are perceived as tantrums because of the hitting, but it is a survival reflex.
By respecting your autistic child’s personal space, you can avoid being hit. You do not need to be right in front of them in order to make a point.
Autistic, ADHD and similarly neurodivergent individuals are often overstimulated and overwhelmed by external stimuli.
There could be an immediate sensory aspect disrupting their self-regulation, which is easy to pinpoint.
More often, however, there is a distant sensory aspect that is harder to figure out. You will need to investigate every aspect of the environment they are in where they are hitting.
At a previous job, my anger instinct was to slam my hands on the table. My office was hot, my coworkers were “scared” of my rocking back and forth stims, and the servers in the room buzzed loudly.
When I was on the sales floor, these feelings didn’t go away. I wanted to throw product, which I couldn’t do. I couldn’t do anything I needed to properly self-regulate. My issue wound up being my employer’s constant technology issues that I couldn’t fix myself.
Although it was not ideal, I had to remove myself from the situation completely in order to avoid self-injurious stimming behavior. It took me months to realize this was the top root of my issue.
Have patience, and you will eventually find what is causing your autistic child to hit. In some environments, you may be able to remove stimuli or move them to a sensory-free room where you slowly reintroduce stimuli.
If the behavior is happening at school, work with their teacher to determine what is happening in the classroom overall during the behavior. Sound can set off autistic people in a snap, especially if they’re already overwhelmed.
How to redirect children with autism who hit
Don’t immediately explain why hitting isn’t okay. Wait until they’re relaxed and not hitting. Don’t require eye contact while you explain, either.
Consider sensory options like Playdough, Kinetic Sand, Mad Mattr, or Thinking Putty. It gives autistics something to hit without harming themselves or others, and without destroying property.
How to teach autistic children not to hit
Reading books that teach emotional regulation and how to identify feelings will help equip autistic children with the tools they need to communicate their needs. Since hitting is communication, you need to help them find alternative ways to communicate their needs.
An autistic child may find a classmate’s constant jokes disrupts their senses and default to hitting, which they may have learned means to stop doing something. (This is one reason why you shouldn’t spank your autistic children, as they cannot distinguish why it’s okay for you to spank them as punishment but it’s not okay for them to hit someone as punishment.)
Figure out what stimuli is causing the hitting, since it is most commonly a reactionary behavior than something done out of malice. Then find a solution to prevent it in the future.
With everything, respect their personal space. If you get hit because you entered their personal bubble, it is on you. They could have been trying to stim, and you were too close for them not to hit you.
While autistic people may struggle with spatial awareness when it comes to them invading other people’s personal space, they do not miss the fact that someone else has entered their personal space. Stimming includes hand flapping and arm swinging, which can be mistaken for hitting. Stimming increases aggressively the more stimulated an autistic person is.
Autistic children who are hitting themselves are typically directing their frustrations caused by the above reasons inwardly, onto themselves. This is most common in autistic children who undergo Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy.
Every autistic person is different. If you need help identifying why your autistic child is hitting, comment below with your situation for a more customized answer.