At least half of all autistic children exhibit aggressive behaviour, such as punching, kicking, or name-calling, while their parents are responsible for assisting them in coping and social integration. The prevalence and definition of aggressive behaviours in autistic children, on the other hand, are unknown. To fill this knowledge gap, researchers at the University of Arkansas’ Family and Community Intervention Lab compared autistic children to non-autistic children on various types of aggressive behaviours over three critical developmental periods and discovered that parents of autistic children reported more frequent aggression at higher intensities than non-autistic children.
“Aggression represents a pervasive and serious problem faced by autistic youths and their families,” said Lauren Quetsch, assistant professor of psychology and lead author of “Understanding aggression in autism across childhood: Comparisons with a non-autistic sample.”
“While our knowledge about the unique needs of autistic children has grown exponentially over the last several decades, we still have a long way to go,” she said. “And understanding the role aggression plays in autistic youths’ lives can help us to better address our gaps in care.”
Quetsch and her colleagues collected quantitative and qualitative data on 450 autistic and 432 non-autistic children between December 2020 and March 2021. The data was divided into three age groups: those under the age of six, those aged six to twelve, and those aged thirteen to seventeen. Across these critical developmental periods, the children were compared on multiple caregiver-reported measures of aggressive and disruptive behaviour.
The data analysis by the researchers revealed that autistic children had higher levels of verbal aggression and disruptive behavioural intensity across all three stages of development. Autistic children under the age of six were more aggressive than their non-autistic peers. However, as the children grew older, their levels matched those of their non-autistic peers.
According to the qualitative study, non-autistic children more frequently expressed anger in a controlled manner, whereas autistic children were more likely to lose their temper quickly.
“We surmise that this can be attributed to several factors,” Quetsch said. “Frustration from regularly being misunderstood, challenges with recognizing emotions in others or expressing their own emotions to others, sensory overstimulation, and even co-occurring health challenges, such as physical discomfort from gastrointestinal issues and exhaustion due to irregular sleeping patterns, all likely contribute to aggression.”
Cynthia Brown, assistant professor of psychology at Pacific University, Harlee Onovbiona and Rebecca Bradley, doctoral students in clinical psychology in Quetsch’s lab at the University of Alberta, Lindsey Aloia, associate professor of communication at the University of Alberta, and Stephen Kanne, clinical paediatric neuropsychologist at Weill Cornell Medicine, were co-authors on the study with Quetsch. Autism Research, the official journal of the International Society for Autism Research, published the researchers’ findings.