August 18, 2014
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Autism research examines impacts of kids’ aggression

Andrea Ross
Jan 29, 2014

Kate James’ son was escorted from the Vancouver Aquarium after he fell to the ground and started screaming.

It was one of the 11-year-old boy’s worst public outbursts. Diagnosed with autism, his physical aggression started around the age of four, when he would push people away, throw food and frantically kick. But as the five-foot-three, 185-pound child continues growing, his physical aggression is becoming more difficult to control.

“My son outweighs me, but I’m the one who deals with this,” James said. “The triggers change of course from day to day, so we never know what could happen.”

Most children with autism don’t show aggression, but a pilot study from the University of Alberta has unveiled the impact this behaviour has on families of autistic children. Researchers talked to 15 families coping with children with varying levels of autism, and the small study revealed a big problem — nine families said their child’s aggression prevented them from accessing supports and services.

Sandy Hodgetts, lead author of the study and Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine said many parents involved in the study felt judged in public because of their child’s behaviour which included hitting, punching, biting and breaking household items.

“The reason this stood out to us is (because) we never ask them about aggression, we never use the word aggression in our questions,” Hodgetts said. “Autism and aggression aren’t synonymous, so it’s not the first thing people think of when they’re studying. You look at communication, you look at some sort of impediment behaviour.”

The study was published in the journal Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, and the research is part of a larger study of 300 parents and professionals, and how they access supports and services.

Many professionals trained to work with autistic children aren’t prepared to deal with aggression. It’s a recognized gap in the system, Hodgetts said.

James experienced this firsthand last summer when her son’s behavioural specialist arrived at their home to find the boy kicking and screaming. She barely made it through the front door before suggesting another time for the boy’s session, James said.

“That’s her job, to deal with the behaviours, and she walked away. It has gotten worse and it has impacted my family.”

Her son’s aggression is unpredictable. He has kicked holes through walls, broken TVs, dented the dishwasher and left his mother with bruises she’s had to explain to her boss. It impacts the time spent with her other children, who don’t have autism. James’ son has a quiet room at school for when he becomes too aggressive to focus.

“He will start kicking and screaming and then he will go in there himself or he will be escorted in there,” she said. “He will kick the wall so hard that on the other side of that wall he can open doors and cabinets will just swing open.”

The study opens discussion into the stigma surrounding autism and it’s varying symptoms, Hodgetts said. Greater understanding of aggression could help de-stigmatize autism and assist families dealing with social isolation and a lack of respite care and professional support.

“For those people who do display aggression, it’s not usually malicious,” Hodgetts said. “We don’t know why, maybe frustration communicating, but we don’t know.

“We’re learning lots and we still don’t know a lot about autism.”


I am a parent of a child with ADHD and ODD as well as epilepsy.  Many times in his life he was excused from daycares and schools. Many years of struggling with his severe aggression…major outbursts and flat out unpredictable behaviors have been the biggest struggle. My son is now 11 and his behaviors have improved..many years of professional help….glenrose outpatient programs and personal patience have proven worth it. The frustrations of feeling alone were having certain programs and supports offered ,,,, with no follow through.
Although our children have different conditions…us mothers suffer the same…I truly hope this story opens new doors for parents to get support at home. Many days I felt like giving up too…but then who would be there?
I say stop spending money on useless Artwork to display and get more funding for parents to utilize programs for Children with Diabilities!

Posted by Ricki Lea on Jan 30, 2014

I’ve known this family (the James’) since his diagnosis. I’ve seen many therapists and aids go through his life and I am saddened when I hear that Kate cannot get the help she needs from professionals because they simply are not prepared for his level of Autism. I’ve seen the bruises, holes in the walls, cabinet doors torn off, and other damages. I hope this article will help expose the more severe behaviour that Autism can bring to the surface.

Posted by Raven Tribble on Jan 30, 2014

“Most children with autism don’t show aggression…”  really?  i see you have a source for the 2nd part of that sentence but i do not believe the first part to be true.

Posted by valerie on Jan 30, 2014

My granddaughter sounds like the boy in this story.  It is heartbreaking as I have never seen two parents that work so hard to curb her behaviors.  They have had to fight for every service they have ever received.  It is a tragedy.  If my granddaughter would have received the therapies she rightfully deserved, she would be higher functioning.  I agree with the comments…forget about displaying artwork…give services…most children don’t show aggression…well, wait until they are teens. Especially, if they don’t get services early in the diagnosis.  These families need help and there is very little out there. Respite…ha!  My daughter and her husband get 2 hours twice a week…and that is if the respite worker shows up.  A vacation..never! I use to be able to take care of her, but as she is a teenager with autism and behavioral issues, I’m not able to take care of her alone anymore.  IT BREAKS MY HEART. She is my granddaughter and I love her.  The parents don’t have time to fight the system, they are dealing with a child they don’t have answers for.  I hope the autism organizations start looking for ways to help these families. It is shameful.

Posted by Andrea Capone on Jan 30, 2014

I’m curious how many of the families who have aggressive kids with autism have done any of the following? I’m asking, not blaming here, because I would really like to see a survey of aggressive kids and what treatments have been tried.

Here’s that list:

Put their ASD child on a diet free of gluten, dairy, & soy?
Have seen a doctor from MAPS or the former DAN! group?
Have done testing (blood, stool,& urine)and
Have taken action with medically-appropriate treatments, such as SCD diet, probiotics, vitamins and minerals to address deficiencies and MTHFR mutations, prescription anti-fungals, anti-virals and antibiotics, etc?

The reason I am asking is because the kids I see who are most aggressive are the ones who are either being over-drugged by mainstream medicine or have not had dietary and biomedical interventions. I’m not blaming parents, I am just sad that mainstream is so focused on denying these treatments work that instead of a GFCF diet, they persuade families to give their kids dangerous black-box cocktails of RX meds that have horrendous side affects (for instance- Risperdal, which causes obesity, type 2 diabetes, and male lactation/breasts)

Posted by Tami on Jan 30, 2014

I deal with aggression too.  Severe aggression. My son is 9 and severely autistic.  I have had my nose broken so many times that I had to have surgery.  I was kicked in the belly during a diaper change and lost my unborn son.  He bites, scratches, gouges, head butts etc.  My arms are completely covered in scars.  I had one bite that got so infected and I still have no feeling (almost 3 months later) in that area.  He goes after himself, his brother, me, and his father.  Mostly me though.  He is non-verbal so we never know what triggers the behaviors.  Sometimes it is something as simple as “no we cannot go for a walk right now” and then he comes after me.  Sometimes I have to hide.  I feel for this family in this article.  We go through it all the time.  I would be fine changing diapers, getting him dressed, cleaning up messes all day long for the rest of my life…it is the aggression that will one day make it physically impossible for me to care for him.  I hate the aggression so much.

Posted by Mommyhere on Jan 31, 2014

In response to Tami ‘s comment.  You name it and we have done it.  DAN doc ($20,000 in 6 MONTHS!), GFCF (for 2 years), HBOT (which did seem to always help his gut after a dive), SCD-boy is that one hard and strict diet, vitamins, supplements, genetic testing, blood work, SO many urine and stool samples tested…so many!  Not to mention therapies…AIT, RPM, OT, ABA etc.  We moved States to get better services.  So far…NOTHING has stopped the aggression.

Posted by Mommyhere on Feb 01, 2014

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