The Hidden Side: Aggressive Behavior and Families in Need

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Kathleen and I have seen and read a lot in our years navigating autism-land, and one of the things that gets hidden away is the issue of aggression. We feel strongly that individuals struggling to communicate and lashing out with aggression and their families need support, need tools to help them resolve aggression issues in a healthy, productive way. Our community needs to build bridges to help these families, to help all of us find meaningful community. Together, Kathleen and I explore this hidden side and the need to suspend judgment while offering support  — Kim


Photo Credit @RCGates

From Kathleen

Physical aggression and violence.  We rarely see it discussed by parents in the online autism community.  Perhaps it is because this is a subject that isn’t easily spoken about-maybe because it is uncomfortable, or there is a stigma attached to it.  Either way, it is a topic that appears to be taboo.


Far too often, we have seen someone try and talk about the difficulties involved in raising a child who is aggressive or self injurious, only to watch them be shot down by the people that they call community.  “How can you talk about your child this way?” “One day they might read this-how do you think they will feel?!”…”It is obvious that you are a bad parent…or abusive..or don’t deserve children!” They are the kind of statements guaranteed to shut a discussion down.  They serve no purpose other than to pass judgment-thus ending a conversation that needs to be had.


There is nothing that any one of us would not do to help our children. Nothing. Our love for them is unconditional. But what does someone do when that love is simply not enough? When that child, that person, that human being behaves in such a way that they are a danger to both themselves and those around them?  Who do you reach out to?  Where do you go for help?


Living with a child who is aggressive or violent is like walking on a tight rope. A constant balancing act of fear for and fear of your child-of desperation and of hope. Tipping heavily one way or another depending on the day. This week, we read two different posts by parents going through this right now. They love their children. They value them. They are being honest and open in their writing.  We ask that you read them with this in mind. To respect their experience and to put aside your judgment or criticism and maybe try to walk in their shoes. If you can-offer some support, or helpful advice. This is something that very much needs to be spoken about-openly and honestly.

From Kim

We ran across the first blog by accident, seeing a comment from an individual to a friend on Facebook about this very problem of putting out their reality, their fear, their desperate need for help and how that had been attacked by some. Fortunately, the outpouring of support, both emotional and financial, far outweighs the attacks. Kelli Stapleton is by all appearances and accounts a loving mother who desperately wants to help her beautiful daughter Issy gain control over her aggression, aggression that often manifests as physical assaults on her mother. Finally, after several years of looking for help, enduring attacks that resulted in a hospital stay recently for a closed head brain trauma, the family found a treatment center and their insurance paid for one month of care. One month isn’t enough to provide this family and Issy with the tools they need, and fighting the insurance company wasn’t doing any good, so Kelli took her plea to the online community.


As many of the comments attest, it is all too easy to lay blame and offer suggestions with a certainty bordering on arrogance. Kelli admits she needs help, that she needs training, that she’s traumatized by the abuse, and it is abuse, even if Issy would never intentionally hurt another.


It’s too easy to believe we would never be in the same situation and that if we were we could fix it easily. Sometimes, though, there’s no easy fix, no easy answers. We have to be honest enough to admit that, to suspend judgment and offer support.

We don’t like to do that, period: suspend judgment. It’s hard to do, maybe even impossible in some situations. I’m not sure, honestly, how you get past that, quiet that very loud part of your mind that can’t help but shout out, “yeah, but what about…”


Families like Issy’s shouldn’t go through this alone. They shouldn’t struggle for answers. They shouldn’t be denied help. Beautiful girls like Issy (and all of our children are beautiful) shouldn’t be locked into a cycle of lashing out because sensory issues and demands have overwhelmed her ability to respond without violence. She needs tools to help her communicate, to help her self-sooth, to help her grow into the young woman she’s meant to be, whoever that is.


This isn’t about seeking out a way to make our children neurotypical. It’s about seeking out ways to help them reach their potential and live happy lives of their own choosing.


It isn’t just mothers who are on the receiving end, though. Even veteran police officers can face violent meltdowns: Greg Lucas writes candidly about his family and their disabled son, who can be aggressive.


These are just two families, reaching out and sharing their stories. These are stories we often don’t want to hear, don’t want to believe could be true. We don’t want to believe it could happen to us, or in some cases, admit that it does.


Kathleen and I have both experienced aggressive behavior when our children were younger, and we acknowledge how lucky we are and our children are that this aggression stopped. We’re not vain or foolish enough to think we’ve got the answers to this problem, that it was our remarkable parenting skills that allowed that aggression to resolve. We did the best we could. We muddled through. We, I dare say, despaired at times. We ached for our children and we didn’t take the aggression personally. But the questioning, the soul searching, that doesn’t go away, nor does the second-guessing.


Sure, that’s a normal part of  being a parent, but it’s a painful part. As you, in your adventures in the real world and online, run across families struggling, rather than leaving a judgmental, disparaging comment, why not simply let them know you care, that they are not alone, and that there are people who want to offer their support?