While violent autistic teens aren’t common, they do exist and violence happens. So what do you do when it does? Here is a helpful guide for parents, teachers, and caregivers.
How to help your autistic teen who is aggressive
Teenagers mean puberty — ergo hormones causing behavior issues. Hormones can easily cause aggression, as can the emotions that accompany everything. That’s common, even in non-autistic teens.
Unfortunately, neurotypical society pathologizes — or deems abnormal — these same behaviors when they come from autistic people. Autistic teenagers might experience rage or aggression at a higher volume than their allistic peers due to heightened responses. Their brains process more information, after all.
Violence from teens may include:
- head banging into others
- attacking caregivers or other children
- destroying property
Teens in these situations may also withdraw including refusing to speak or running away (elopement) as a means of coping.
Here are tips to managing life with an autistic teen prone to violence.
1. Drop the functioning labels.
Functioning labels (high-functioning, low-functioning, mild autism, severe autism, etc.) and support levels are not accurate at all. These don’t tell anyone anything beyond how you experience their autism.
A “low-functioning” or “Support Level 3” autistic is no more capable of aggressive behavior than a “high-functioning” or “mild” autistic person.
Most often, parents are using those labels to describe autistic children who have other diagnoses, especially intellectual disabilities (ID). A common misconception is that autism explains everything and is “always the problem”, yet it’s not.
This entire concept originates from the “I Am Autism” commercial Autism Speaks released over 10 years ago. While negative narratives existed then, they have since become more harmful ever since because of that video.
Your autistic CHILD is not a demon due to being autistic. They’re your child. You’re their parent.
2. Consider their developmental capabilities.
Teenagers challenging their parents and teachers, and struggling with emotional regulation is a lesser-known development milestone.
Remember that this happens in cultures where children:
- are expected to be seen, not heard
- stifle their feelings and pretend to be okay
- should grow up or mature as quickly as possible so as not to be an inconvenience
Parents who have trauma of their own might also forget in the moment that their teenage children are individuals with minds and experiences of their own.
3. Look for triggers.
If you’ve been through an aggressive episode with our autistic child, consider these questions:
- Was your own trauma triggered and cause them to push back?
- Did you jump to conclusions, assuming your perspective of the situation was everything you needed to know?
I’m not gaslighting you. I’m posing these questions because I’m autistic, have Tourette syndrome, and I was considered “violent”. Back then, I didn’t have the vocabulary or ability to articulate what I was going through or my actions.
Certain smells, the sensory input of clothes (especially socks), sounds, and lighting would set me off fast. Coming home from school, where I had to fold myself up like an origami crane and act unbothered by sensory stimuli and other stresses of the day, meant unfolding and feeling that wave of everything I’d endured throughout the day. That was the worst time to talk to me about anything, but it was the time my guardians wanted to talk to me the most.
My own rage was often triggered as a result of people not listening to me or taking me seriously. What I said never mattered, because they’d already had their minds made up about me, my truth, and my experiences. Looking back, that side of my trauma could have been avoided.
Other people only witnessed a small part of my violence. I’d hit people who wouldn’t get off of me when I didn’t want hugs as a reflex, and even bite them when they wouldn’t let go.
“I SAID NO!” is what I’d shout, only to be punished.
Maybe your child’s situation isn’t like this, but how do you know? Sensory overwhelm and certain sensory input is a known cause of violence in autistic people, especially teens. However, autistic adults often speak of these experiences as acting reflexively, meaning without conscious thought.
Look for possible triggers with an open mind. Always listen with open ears. Drop the toxic concept of needing to control children. They are entitled to their own boundaries, and autistic children need their autonomy.
4. Consider medication.
Despite being anti-medicating kids, I make an exception for aggressive teenagers, especially when autism is involved.
- Autistic people know they’re different.
- Non-autistic people know autistic people are “strange”.
- School children are mean.
Depression is extremely common during puberty. It’s also one of the most common mental illnesses teens experience.
Symptoms of depression in teenagers include:
- Irritability, agitation and anger, even over the tiniest things
- Disinterest in spending time with friends and family, or only wanting to spend time with friends instead of family (this is a common sign of abuse and insecure attachments as well)
- Low self-esteem
- Prefers to be in their room all the time (also a sign of not feeling safe around parents)
- Extremely sensitive to rejection or failure and needing constant reassurance (also a sign of rejection-sensitive dysphoria)
- Ongoing belief that life and the future are pointless
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating and remembering
- Insomnia or extreme exhaustion
- Eating less or more than usual (not to be confused with growth spurts or sensory eating)
- Restlessness (not to be confused with stimming)
More specifically, depressed autistic teens may:
- Stop maintaining personal hygiene
- Stim less or more (sign of extreme stress)
- Be more sensitive to external stimuli or much less bothered than previously (numb)
- Engage in more harmful self-regulatory behaviors, including head banging, scratching or cutting themselves, biting their fingers or lips until there’s blood, pulling their hair (trichotillomania), etc.
- Increased number of meltdowns or shutdowns
Autistic people frequently have to be in crisis in order to receive diagnosis, because this is when non-autistic people begin to realize something is off. If your autistic teenager seems “less” or “more” autistic than usual, something is likely wrong, such s stress, depression, anxiety, or being bullied.
Behavior is communication, so if your autistic teenager is also violent or aggressive towards you, that’s them communicating in the only way they know how. What are they trying to communicate? If you don’t know or have the patience to sort it out, delegate the responsibility to someone else.
Check with your teen’s school counselor to see if they have mental health resources you can utilize, if you don’t already have access to a therapist. They might also know about support groups, which can be helpful as well.