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Aggression: Understanding Alex

  • Posted on April 8, 2013 at 10:05 AM

Kathleen and Kim wrote a post for The Autism Channel about aggression. I followed it with an initial post of my own about my son Ben. Now, I want to focus on Alex.

Alex is a more difficult “puzzle” to solve when it comes to aggression. For those who’ve been following along with my family for a while, you may remember that Alex used to be a very happy, contented child, who was also rather oblivious to his surroundings. When Willy and Alex were little and would “compete” over the same stuff, Alex refused to compete. If Willy took a toy from Alex, then Alex was content without it or would simply get something else. If we tried to give it back to him, he’d often simply set it aside and Willy would claim it. The only thing Alex was ever particular about was VeggieTales videos—which ones to watch, which parts to watch, ect. (He was also particular about touch, sound, and people, but not things.) Alex was genuinely, consistently happy.

At first, Ben’s birth changed little. Willy soon outgrew the toys that captured Alex’s interest. They veered further apart developmentally. Meanwhile, Ben was slowly catching up to Alex. At some point, Ben’s and Alex’s interests overlapped and there was once again “competition.” Ben would take from Alex and Alex would turn to something else.

Then, one summer, from seemingly nowhere, a switch was flipped. Alex started asserting himself. We encouraged this, because we had become quite concerned about how easily Alex could be taken advantage of without adult oversight and interference. A little assertiveness would be a good thing for Alex. Except, with Ben and Alex both having very limited verbal and social skills, this battle of assertiveness escalated rather quickly. At first, Ben was always the aggressor. The strife between them continued to escalate despite our interference and Alex “figured out” that aggression could help him get his way. Now, they both act aggressively when they want the same thing. They can go from being completely uninterested in each other to full-scale battle in a few seconds, skipping all the steps in-between.

We’ve developed strategies—mostly separating them and ensuring we have two of any highly desirable items, like Kindles—that reduce these incidents. Though they’re both still significantly delayed, Ben has surpassed Alex in language and social skills development. So, unless he’s having a bad day, Ben is usually able to avoid instigating incidents. Unfortunately, Alex is intentionally (or so it seems) instigating incidents, and not only with Ben.

Several months ago, Alex took up pinching—seemingly as a pastime. Even though we are people who understand that behavior=communication, we’re stumped as to what Alex is trying to communicate. Sometimes the message is obvious: You’re bugging me, get away. But sometimes it’s not: Like when he “greets” me by grabbing the underside of my arm and pinching me with his whole hand. I’m not the only target, but at home I seem to get the brunt of the “happy pinching,” meaning him pinching me when he’s happy and smiling as if in greeting. He’ll even echo “stop, no pinching.” It doesn’t seem as if he understands the words, but as if that’s the response he’s trying to get and he’s happy to have gotten it.

It’s not just happening at home, either. He’ll pinch anyone, from people who are helping him to random strangers. In the last few months, he’s added biting. If he can’t pinch, he’ll try to bite. I’m at a loss of what to do with this. I’ve worked with the school, but they don’t seem to be making any progress either. We don’t know what Alex is trying to communicate, nor do we really understand the function(s) of the behaviors. The only resource in our area that we haven’t tried that I’m aware of involves signing my child over to CPS, which is not going to happen. Ever.

I look back on the Alex we used to know, who was always happy, always peaceable, always so easy to please. It’s not that I really thought that could last, but… Aggression can escalate and become an even bigger problem than it already is, especially with puberty, and that’s exactly where Alex is right now—starting down the path of puberty. I fear if we can’t solve this problem soon, then it’s going to get worse, possibly much worse.

The lack of support is a big problem, but what’s worse is the lack of understanding and the tendency to place blame. Nothing is simple, certainly not aggression.