Washington [US]: At least half of all autistic children exhibit aggressiveness, such as punching, kicking, or name-calling, while their parents are tasked with helping them in coping and social integration. However, the incidence and definition of aggressive behaviours in autistic children remain unknown.
To address this knowledge gap, researchers in the Family and Community Intervention Lab at the University of Arkansas compared autistic children to non-autistic children on different types of aggressive behaviours over three critical developmental periods and found that parents of autistic children reported more frequent aggression at greater 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.’
Between December 2020 and March 2021, Quetsch and her colleagues gathered quantitative and qualitative data on 450 autistic and 432 non-autistic children. The data were broken down into three age-matched groups — younger than six, six to 12 and 13 to 17. The children were compared on multiple caregiver-report measures of aggressive and disruptive behaviour across these critical developmental periods.
The researchers’ analysis of the data revealed higher levels of verbal aggression and disruptive behavioural intensity for autistic children across all three stages of development. Autistic children younger than six had more physical aggression than their non-autistic peers. However, these levels became equal to non-autistic peers as the children aged.
In the qualitative study, according to parents, non-autistic children more frequently expressed anger in a controlled manner, whereas autistic children were more apt to quickly lose their temper.
‘We surmise that this can be attributed to several factors,’ Quetsch said. ‘Frustration from regularly being misunderstood, challenges with recognising 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.’
Quetsch’s co-authors on the study were 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 U of A; Lindsey Aloia, associate professor of communication at the U of A; and Stephen Kanne, clinical pediatric neuropsychologist at Weill Cornell Medicine.
The researchers’ study was published in Autism Research, the official journal of the International Society for Autism Research.