My 4 year old son has autism and no verbal language, and a tendency to hit or scratch us (adults) when he gets frustrated. We try to tell him (with verbal language and signing) "no" or "stop", and show him with actions, eg. moving his hands away from us. He doesn't seem to understand that hitting hurts other people and that it's something he shouldn't do.

Any ideas or similar experiences?


Our almost-four year old still hits and bites some, particularly when frustrated, so I can sympathize. We have made some strides with him, though, which show us that it is possible to overcome it.

Our son hits basically for one reason: lack of ability to deal with frustration, particularly frustration over a lack of control. So, we focus on two things: how to deal with frustration, and how to help him feel like he has some control.

Gaining control over situations is important for children at this age. They need to have the sense that they have some control over their environment, or else they feel frustrated easily. At four, you're still told to a large extent what to do, and when and where to do it. But they're also developed enough to be able to feel like they could manage on their own - and frankly, odds are they could to some extent. They don't need mommy telling them when to go to bed, or what to eat, or when to potty - all of those things they're big enough to do on their own, or at least they are in their minds.

As such, we try to give him control when he can. We don't really bug him to go to the bathroom any more, and when we do it's a question, followed by information as to why we're doing it ("Hey, want to go to the bathroom with me? We're about to get in the car and it'll be a few hours before you can go again."), rather than a command.

When we can't, such as bedtime (which he'd never do in an appropriate manner, sadly), we try to build in options and choices so that he has some control. He can choose his pajamas (or choose no pajamas and sleep in his underwear). He chooses his toothbrush and which toothpaste. He chooses the order of operations to some extent [potty, toothbrush, pj's, in any order, before stories]. He chooses which toys to bring upstairs.

That doesn't completely eliminate his frustrations, of course, which leads to the other side of things: how to deal with being frustrated.

This is quite a challenge, in particular with children who have difficulty expressing themselves. Mine has no such difficulty about normal things, but about emotions he can have significant difficulty. We've spent some time roleplaying with him and giving him an emotional vocabulary, and that's certainly helped; but it's still a long way off.

What does seem to work is in the moment role playing. The steps are roughly:

  1. Defuse. Figure out something that defuses him so he's able to pay attention. Think of a buddhist "Ommm" mantra (or similar). For ours it's count to {some number}; it both engages his rational mind, and adds a bit of levity, because his mantra response is "1,2,3,{some number}" with a giggle.
  2. Reiterate what's frustrating him. This is important, because it shows that you are paying attention and understand him, and confirms that you actually have the right problem - sometimes you won't.
  3. Remind him of the right way to respond. Show him with roleplaying, and by giving him tools to deal with it.

D, it seems like you're frustrated because you're bored with bedtime.

I'm soo bored. Bedtime is boring. I want to play!

Totally understand that. However, hitting is not the right answer here. Hitting hurts daddy. Instead of hitting a person, when I'm frustrated, I like to hold my hands really tight, like this. Then I tell the person I'm frustrated at that I'm frustrated. "Mommy, I'm frustrated that you won't let me watch my sports game with the guys, and instead I have to do the dishes." (giggles)

Daddy, I'm frustrated that I have to go to bed.

Okay, that's much better! Now let's find you a solution to your problem. What can we do to make you less bored. Let's think of a good bedtime activity.

Jumping on the bed!!

No, no, that won't work at all. Something you can do while lying down. Here's your airplane book, and here's your booklight. What about reading?


That doesn't always work for us, but it usually helps get him out of 'hitting' mode and into 'solving' mode. It's definitely helped over time - whether that's just maturation or something more I couldn't say, but he's hitting and biting less now than he was a few months ago.

Note: I don't know enough about autism or language delay-resulting disorders to say how they factor into this, so I'm answering primarily from the point of view of a parent of a preschooler who is fully capable of communicating. Some of the issues here are certain to be exacerbated in children less capable of communicating with their parents, and there are likely specific solutions to help them communicate their needs, wants, and frustrations. Hopefully some value is still in this for a parent of an autistic or language-delayed child.

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