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What to Do If (Or When) Your Child With Special Needs Becomes Violent

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For parents of children with special needs, saying that your journey is a difficult one is an understatement. Of course, you absolutely love your kiddo and would do anything for them—but that doesn’t mean the extra challenges are rosy. Especially if your child sometimes becomes violent. Do you (or would you) know what to do?

We spoke to Nagla Moussa of Moussa Autism Consulting, as well as Monica Piper, founder of Stepping Stones Consulting Services, about what parents need to know.

DFWChild: What are the best steps to take if your child becomes violent?
Nagla Moussa: Being proactive is the best solution to avoiding aggression. If you know what triggers your child, it’s a good idea to avoid the triggers or at least prepare the child for any upcoming events that might be construed as negative, or not preferred.

Give your child advanced warning of schedule changes, let them know what to expect and why there will be a change, and inform them that they can have a reward or reinforcement of a favorite activity or object after the activity or event is completed.

Another strategy is to use social stories or a social narrative to let them know what to expect in detail and what reward they will have after they are finished.

Monica Piper: I agree with Nagla’s advice on being proactive as much as possible. Understand what triggers your child to become aggressive.

In many cases, this is a change in schedule or routine. Working with the child to become more comfortable with changes or teaching the child how to manage change is very helpful.

In my own experience, sometimes talking to the child actually increases the aggression and intensity of the child. In many cases, staying quiet and allowing the child to calm down themselves is effective, while also making sure the child is not harming others or him/herself. Also, first responders should listen to family members on how best to interact with the child while they are exhibiting aggression.

C: At what point should you take action if your child’s emotions are starting to get out of control?
At the first sign of a child becoming upset, anxious or irritated, it’s important to attempt to diffuse the frustration and anxiety. Take a step back, let the child have some quiet and calming time, redirect them to something they enjoy and try again at a later time to do whatever demand that triggered them.

If you find the child having a sudden violent episode, give them some room, make sure people around them are safely out of their way—objects and walls can be repaired or replaced; people, including the child, are more important.

C: What if you think they might hurt themselves or others?
If the child is injuring himself and/or others, please call 911 and make sure to inform them the child has a disability of autism, and to send officers who understand autism and are trained to deal with individuals with autism. Tell them about your child and what works to calm them down and what they like. For example, if they like pizza, tell the officers that, so they can use it to calm the child down by talking about pizza.

C: What else should parents share with first responders?
NM: How old is your child, how tall they are and how much they weigh, what the emergency is and what triggered your child, why they are upset, what usually works to calm him/her down.

You can leave a favorite book, toy or game outside the door for the emergency personnel to bring in with them that might distract your child enough to calm them down.

Anything else you feel is important, like a health condition (seizures), a current physical state (if they have a cast on or a broken bone).

C: Should parents do everything they can on their own before involving others?
Parents know their children best. It’s important if your child has some aggressive behaviors to get help and training in how to deal with these behaviors prior to an emergency occurring.

MP: I think if parents feel they are able to handle a situation and diffuse it without extra involvement, they should do so. However, if a child becomes aggressive to the point of harming others or him/herself, and parents cannot control the situation, then others should get involved. They can call 911.

I agree with Nagla that it is very important that they communicate clearly to first responders that their child has autism and gets aggressive. Parents can also offer tips or strategies that they know work for their child.

C: Who can parents get help from to develop strategies that will work?
Ask for help from their school teacher, behavior specialists; ask for training from your school district in how to work with your child and diffuse aggression.

C: Let’s say the parents don’t want to involve the police, what about the fire department? Can they call them?
I think if it is an emergency you need to call 911.

MP: I agree with Nagla’s response to this. I think calling 911 is the best option. I do not believe the fire department would be trained or equipped to handle this type of situation.

C: Are there other resources parents should take advantage of?
There are many clinicians who specialize in applied behavior analysis (ABA) who can help your child and train you in behavior interventions.

Ask your school and school district for In Home Parent Training, and Parent Training to help with behaviors.

Contact your county MHMR agency—in Collin County it’s called Lifepath Systems; in Dallas County it’s called Metrocare; in Tarrant County it’s called Tarrant County MHMR—and request behavioral help for your child and parent training for yourself.

Find out if your insurance covers behavioral help like ABA therapy for your child. Find organizations like the National Autism Association of North Texas who can help you find resources, and network with other parents so you can feel supported.

Ask about the training your police department provides their officers for disabilities such as autism and contact their crisis intervention officer prior to any emergency to introduce yourself. You might even ask to meet with them and find out how they handle these types of emergencies.

MP: I agree with Nagla. ABA therapy can be effective in helping manage aggressive or other maladaptive behaviors. ABA therapists and BCBAs also provide parent training with tips and strategies to help manage their kids’ behaviors. These resources are critical in helping prevent behaviors from becoming uncontrollable for the parents.

I also believe that some police departments offer programs where families can register their kids with autism, so that they are already in the police department’s records. All of their information would be available to the police beforehand.

RELATED: The First Steps to an Autism Diagnosis and What Comes Next

This interview was originally  published in December 2020.

Image: iStock