The #1 Reason Your Child with Autism is Hitting

Autism, Behavior, Special Needs Parenting

The Most Asked Question


The number one question I’m asked when people find out I work with toddlers and preschoolers with autism and other developmental delays is, “How do I get my child to stop hitting?”  


I’m going to tell you exactly what you need to know to answer that question so you can start building your plan on how to decrease or eliminate hitting and increase more appropriate behaviors (such as using a word, signing, following the direction, etc). 


Before we discuss behaviors and strategies, I want to give you a disclaimer.  The information and strategies discussed in this post are not a substitute for a consultation with a medical and/or behavioral professional.  Only a professional who is familiar with your child and your situation should assess and give specific interventions/recommendations.  (Read my Terms and Conditions for more information).  


It’s Tough Being Little 


As soon as my son hit those teen months, my life drastically changed.  Before that time, he was pretty easy.  Eat, sleep, change diaper, play, repeat. 


Then he started walking, getting into everything, and having very definite likes and dislikes.


He was not afraid to let me know when my rules and agenda were ruining his life.


He hit, screamed, threw tantrums, and slammed doors.  


As a first-time mom, I did what the parenting books told me to do.


Stay calm (I tried).  Tell him what he did was wrong and then put him in time out (I did).  


This worked 10% of the time.  Maybe.  


When time out didn’t work, I’d get more stressed and frustrated.  His behavior got worse.  I cried.  He cried.  Things were rough.


(If you’ve seen my Bio, you know I didn’t take him anywhere for about a year.  It was just too hard.)


I could not figure out why all of the parenting books were not working.  What was I doing wrong?


(Put a pin in that for a minute.)


Why Hitting is So Common


Hitting (and other forms of aggression) are very common in toddlers, two-year-olds, and sometimes even into the preschool years.


Hitting is also very common in young kids with autism.  It’s not a part of the criteria for a diagnosis, but I see it a lot in my toddlers and two-year olds that have already been diagnosed or are in the process of an autism evaluation.


Hitting occurs a lot because:

  • It serves a purpose,
  • Our young kids lack the skills to problem solve and communicate effectively, and 
  • The ability to control impulses has not developed yet.


These three reasons form a perfect storm for hitting and other types of aggression.


Find Your Child’s Reason


Do you remember I told you time outs didn’t work?  Even though a dozen books told me to use them?


Using time out didn’t work because I didn’t look at WHY he was hitting.


I just used a general discipline strategy and hoped that it would make the hitting go away.


Four Functions of Behavior


Whether it’s hitting, biting, screaming, running away, or any other challenging behavior, they continue to happen because they work.  


These behaviors do not come out of nowhere.


Our very young children with autism and other developmental delays lack appropriate communication skills and have only a few behaviors that work for them.  


Generally, there are four main functions (reasons) for behavior:


  1. Attention
  2. Tangibles (get something)
  3. Avoid / escape
  4. Sensory




Many behaviors are done in the name of getting your attention.  Your child hits you because you are on the phone.  Your child hits you because you are holding baby brother.  Your child hits you because you are cooking dinner.


Your attention is elsewhere and your child doesn’t like that.  Hitting occurs.


And it works (more than we like to admit).  We get off the phone.  We put down the baby.  We stop cooking dinner.


We give them our attention.  It might be in the form of a reprimand, lecture, or yelling, but they still have your attention.




I want my blanket.  I need a snack.  I want to go outside.


When your child cannot communicate these requests with words, he or she will often resort to hitting or another challenging behavior because they know you will figure out what they need.


Escape / Avoid


Every time I change his diaper, he hits and kicks at me until I let him go.


During meals, she hits me over and over until I get her out of her chair.


Whenever I say “clean up” he hits me and runs away.


Hitting can be a very effective behavior when your child wants to avoid doing something or escape from something unpleasant.




This one can be tricky.  


How do I know if my son is hitting his head to get my attention or to get something or because he just likes how it feels?


My daughter hits her legs until I give her the iPAD and then she stops.  So she’s doing it to get the iPAD, right?


Many kids with autism do have some sort of sensory stimuli that they seek out at times.  Spinning, lining things up, watching things out of the corner of their eyes, rocking, humming, flapping their hands, etc.


Hitting themselves can also fall into this category.


But how do we figure out if he is hitting his head because you give him more crackers when it happens or just because he likes it?


One thing to look at is this…does your child flap his hands / hum / rock / bang head / etc. even when no one else is there?  If your child is alone, do you still see these behaviors?  


That can be one clue that your child’s behavior may be sensory related.


Know the Function, Know What to Do


Adults often make behaivors worse because we don’t address the function (reason) for hitting.  


Sometimes we are just doing what our parents did.


Sometimes we are just doing what the parenting books said to do.


The reason your child is hitting is based on his learning history and skills.


This is why we cannot pull any strategy out of a book, off a website, or from your neighbor and expect it to work for your son or daughter.


You have to know the #1 reason YOUR child is hitting in order to come up with an appropriate strategy to eliminate it.  


ABC’s of Behavior


To figure out the #1 reason, we have to become great observers of our child.  We have to watch him carefully.  When does he hit?  When does he not hit?


Does she hit when I give a direction?  Does she hit when it’s time for meals?


Carefully watching your child throughout the day and taking some simple data will give you the answers you need.


A common response from parents that I get at this point is, “You want me to take data on my kid?  Every time she hits me?”




I know.  When your son or daughter is hitting you and you’re both frustrated and upset, the last thing you want to do is grab a piece of paper and write out what just happened.


However, these behaviors are happening for a reason and we need data to get to a solution.


I created a simple data sheet that you can use.


Each time your child hits, you are going to write down 3 critical pieces of information:


  • This is what happened right before your toddler hit you. 
  • Did you say “no?”  Did you tell them to clean up?  Was baby brother too close?  Were you on the phone?


  • What was the behavior? 
  • Be specific.  Write down “screamed and hit” instead of “upset” or “tantrum.” 
  • What was the exact behavior that happened?


  • What happened immediately after your daughter hit you?  What happened right after your son hit his head? 
  • Did you yell?  Did you give him fruit snacks?  Did you give her extra time outside?  


See the data sheet I created for more examples.


Function First, Solutions Coming Soon


I know we all want to jump right to solutions!  


I want to help you figure out how to eliminate your child’s hitting.




We cannot jump straight to solutions or interventions without knowing why the behavior is happening in the first place.




If we do not know the function/reason your child is hitting and just guess or just use a general strategy, I guarantee the behavior will continue or get worse.


I promise you though, we will get to solutions soon!


Don’t Let Your Plan Fail!


Most behavior strategies and plans fail (or only work for a little bit) because we are missing the reason hitting occurs.


Knowing why your child hits is THE critical piece of information you need first to know how to stop hitting from happening in the future!


Download the data sheet and get started today!


Write down each time your child hits, along with what happened right before and after.


Do this for at least 10 occurrences of the behavior.  Then look for a pattern.  


Does hitting occur mostly around meal times?  Transitions?  When baby brother is around?


Being able to answer these questions will lead you to the most effective solution for you and your child!


Next week, we’ll talk about what to do once you have that information.


Have a question about this post?  I’d love to hear from you!  Send me a comment and I’ll get back to you.


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