The Relationship Between Autism and Impulse Control

By sandra.caplesc…, 22 December, 2022
Little boy playing bowling.

Living with an autistic child is a rewarding experience yet challenging. While they surprise us in interesting ways sometimes, other times, their behavior can be odd, confusing, and even dangerous. You might be chatting with a friend, and suddenly, your child with autism spectrum disorder reacts out of character without seemingly apparent triggers.

Impulse control is a great challenge for many people on the spectrum. Most parents, teachers, or caregivers working with autistic children have experienced lightning-fast changes in mood or behavior.

The reason behind impulse control problems and autism is related to the part of the brain responsible for executive functioning. The purpose of the executive function is to manage tasks such as organization, reasoning, multitasking, planning, and problem-solving. People with autism struggle with this, and it can result in impulsive behavior. This is called executive dysfunction and can translate into:

  • Shortened attention span
  • Lack of flexibility of thought and perception
  • A small working memory size

This article will help you discover the reasons behind impulsive behavior and what you can do to help them overcome these impulsive desires.

Read Discipline Strategies for Children with Autism.

What Does Impulsive Behavior Look Like?

People with impulse control problems cannot hold themselves back from something they feel they need to do. Some of the most obvious signs of impulsive behavior are tantrum behaviors, aggression, and an extreme reaction to minor issues.

However, impulsive behavior can show in less drastic ways, such as interrupting conversations, getting easily distracted, or having problems following directions. This lack of control can lead to behavioral issues at work, school, or home.

While all humans have moments when impulsive behavior takes control, for people with autism, this daily occurrence causes embarrassment and even emotional pain. In these situations, parents or teachers will try to curb the behavior, which can cause further issues like meltdowns.

What Is Impulse Control?

Impulse control problems refer to difficulty in someone stopping themselves from engaging in certain behaviors. For example, you need help knowing how to proceed with an issue, which causes frustration and stress. You usually step away from the situation and tackle it later. It’s also normal to feel overwhelmed when something isn’t working.

However, for children on the spectrum, feelings of frustration and anger that neurotypical people easily handle can be overwhelming. As a result, they lash out and have difficulty resisting impulses.

What Causes This Lack of Impulse Control?

Often, people with autism spectrum disorder can hyper-focus on an activity or object. This passionate affinity for particular things can lead to them prioritizing that passion over anything else that might be going on in their lives. With the right trigger, they might forget everything else in an instant.

Either positive or negative stimuli trigger impulsivity. A child with ASD might want to get away from an activity or participate in that activity. Some triggers might be caffeine intake, light or sound sensitivities, the need to partake in repetitive behaviors, etc.

How to Recognize Impulsivity

It’s important to remember that not every autistic person has executive dysfunction, and not every person with executive dysfunction has autism. The two, however, are often associated with one another.

People who struggle with impulsivity might exhibit the following signs:

  • Has trouble taking turns
  • Has trouble remembering and following instructions
  • Interrupts conversations
  • Has angry outbursts
  • Gets easily distracted or has trouble paying attention
  • Blurts out words

What Is Aggression?

Some children with autism might experience maladaptive behaviors such as self-injurious behaviors, aggression, or tantrums.

Aggression can be defined as acting out in anger that can translate into hostile or violent behavior. The frequency of this behavior is influenced by environmental (large groups of people, loud noises, etc.) and physiological factors (sensory stimuli, a pain your child is trying to communicate, etc.).

Aggression can impact a child’s quality of life.

There are three types of aggression:

  • Reactive aggressiveness: can be verbal or physical.
  • Reactive-inexpressive: comes in the form of hostile behavior.
  • Proactive relational aggression: it’s a damaging form of aggressiveness that harms someone’s social status or relationship.

What Causes Impulsive Aggression?

The cause of impulsive aggression is related to executive dysfunction. Difficulties with executive function cause various behavioral issues. You can see impulse control issues when autistic children struggle with regulating emotions such as frustration, anger, or sadness.

What’s the Relationship Between Impulse Control Issues and Autism?

There are several challenges that autistic people struggle with when it comes to executive functioning:

  • Communication Issues: The problems can range from a lack of understanding of dialogue to saying and doing improper or offensive things.
  • Organizational Problems: Children with autism get overwhelmed when they set goals and plan to execute those goals. They also have trouble remembering and following through with daily tasks and following a schedule without reminders or prompting.
  • Gets Easily Distracted: Many children with ASD have trouble focusing on their tasks. They might also have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that can add to the inability to concentrate.
  • Struggle with Verbal Cues: Autistic children might have issues with grasping and understanding when someone gives them verbal instructions.
  • Impulse Control Problems: Autistic people have trouble with self-control and other harmful behaviors.
  • Struggling with Adapting and Flexibility: When you have rigid thinking, looking at things from a different perspective is hard.

All of these challenges make it difficult for people with autism to complete daily tasks, which in turn creates stress.

Strategies for Impulse Control

For children with autism, battling impulse control daily can have devastating effects on their self-esteem. It also impacts their relationship with peers and parents—and it’s often daunting not knowing how to help.

Children with autism can work on their social skills and executive functioning to improve their overall quality of life. The struggle is real, but luckily, there are strategies that children with ASD can use to overcome these challenges.

Try Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

ABA is a popular form of therapy for autism and offers a concrete and thorough plan of action for treating impulse control. The goal is to manipulate the behavior from one that is maladaptive to one that allows your little one to engage effectively with the world around them.

Continue Reading: Tips for Choosing Your ABA Therapist.

Encourage Stimming Behavior

Everyone needs to stim, be it clicking your pen when you’re focusing or shaking your leg underneath the table. It’s mostly behavior that is unconscious. Stimming behaviors indicate a need to self-soothe that can offer information about an impulsivity trigger.

Stimming helps people with autism and impulses calm down and feel grounded. It meets an innate need for regulating physical and emotional experiences. Self-stimulatory behavior can come in various behaviors, such as hand flapping, rocking back and forth, or “zoning out.”

Explore Triggers

By knowing which stimuli trigger impulsiveness in your autistic child, you can plan accordingly in the future. Build a plan around these triggers to avoid unpleasant situations and improve impulse control skills. Pay attention to your surroundings and see what the potential influences are.

Build on Memory Skills

You can try different memory games such as:

Try Impulse Control Activities

You can try to play impulse control games such as board games and activities. You can ask your child to help you make lunch or think of any activity that requires patience, curbs the need for instant gratification, or improves self-regulation.