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Does autism aggression get better with age?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental condition that affects how a person communicates, interacts, behaves, and learns. Autism is called a “spectrum” disorder because there is wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience. While autism is often thought of as a childhood condition, it is a lifelong disorder.

One of the key characteristics of autism that can significantly impact quality of life is difficulties regulating emotions and behavior. Many autistic individuals struggle with aggression, self-injury, tantrums, and meltdowns. Understanding whether these challenging behaviors improve, persist, or worsen with age is important for parents, caregivers, and autistic individuals themselves.

Do the core symptoms of autism get better with age?

The core symptoms of autism, such as social communication challenges, sensory sensitivities, and repetitive behaviors, tend to persist through one’s lifetime. However, many people on the spectrum do make significant improvements and progress in these areas with age and proper support.

With effective early intervention and ongoing therapy, many autistic children gain important social, communication, cognitive, and adaptive skills as they grow older. Areas such as speech, reading comprehension, self-care, and school/job performance often improve over time. Social skills may also progress with age as autistic individuals learn techniques to better understand nonverbal cues, hold conversations, and build relationships.

That said, autism is a lifelong condition, and the core symptoms typically do not fully resolve. Even autistic adults who are high functioning and independent likely still face challenges related to social interaction, communication, sensory sensitivities, and maintaining flexibility. But the hope is that with age and experience, appropriate coping strategies and skills are developed to better manage these difficulties.

Do autistic meltdowns and tantrums reduce with age?

Autistic meltdowns are intense emotional outbursts involving loss of behavioral control due to feeling overwhelmed. They are common in younger autistic children but tend to improve with age. Multiple factors contribute to this pattern:

  • As language and communication skills develop, children gain greater ability to express needs, feelings, and frustrations through words rather than meltdowns.
  • With maturity comes better emotional regulation and coping strategies for handling upsetting situations before reaching a meltdown state.
  • Caregivers learn over time how to identify triggers, intervene early, and create an environment that minimizes situations likely to cause meltdowns.
  • Developmental maturation of the brain leads to overall better regulation of emotions and behavior.

So while autistic individuals of any age may experience meltdowns under high stress, they usually peak in early childhood and improve with age. However, the propensity to meltdowns and ease of triggering remains higher across the lifespan compared to neurotypical individuals.

Does aggression and self-injury get better with age in autism?

Many autistic children exhibit aggression like hitting, biting, kicking, and throwing objects. They may also demonstrate self-injurious behaviors like head banging, skin picking, eye gouging, or hand biting. Unfortunately, research shows challenging behaviors like aggression and self-injury tend to persist from childhood into adulthood more so than meltdowns.

In one study tracking autistic children over 10 years:

  • 50% continued to display self-injurious behaviors from childhood to adolescence.
  • 41% continued aggressive behaviors long-term.
  • Only 11% experienced a complete loss of challenging behaviors with age.

While the severity and frequency of aggression often lessens with maturity, it remains a significant lifelong concern for many on the spectrum. Contributing factors include:

  • Persistent struggles regulating emotions and sensory sensitivities.
  • Ongoing communication challenges increase frustration and misunderstandings.
  • Cognitive rigidity and difficulty coping with change/transition.
  • Psychiatric comorbidities like anxiety, ADHD, and bipolar disorder.

Without proper support, the stress of increasing responsibilities and expectations in adolescent and adult life may worsen behavioral issues. Targeted interventions involving communication training, coping strategies, functional behavior analysis, medication, and environmental adaptation are key to improving outcomes.

Does the onset of puberty impact autism aggression?

The hormonal changes of puberty appear to exacerbate challenging behaviors in many autistic teens. Researchers have found:

  • Autistic adolescents experience higher rates of aggression compared to autistic children and adults.
  • Age 13-14 seems to be the peak for aggressive behaviors.
  • Self-injury also increases at this age, particularly in autistic girls.
  • After puberty, aggression tends to gradually decline but often persists at higher than childhood levels.

There are several reasons why puberty may amplify aggression and self-injury:

  • Hormonal surges directly impact mood and emotional control.
  • Cognitive rigidity increases distress with the physical and social changes.
  • Growing sexual urges are difficult to understand and manage.
  • Greater peer rejection arises from widening social skill gaps.

Parents and caregivers should be alert to these risks and seek professional help at signs of worsening behavioral issues in puberty. Supporting autistic teens through this turbulent transition is key.

Does aggression relate to level of autism functioning?

Autism severity level Associated aggression risk
Mild or “high-functioning” Lower risk of aggression
Moderate Moderate risk
Severe Highest risk of aggression and self-injury

Research consistently shows autistic individuals with more severe impairments in cognitive function, communication, and adaptive skills are most prone to aggressive and self-injurious behaviors. Contributing factors include:

  • Greater challenges communicating needs and regulating emotions.
  • More rigidity and difficulty coping with change.
  • Higher likelihood of intellectual disability and psychiatric disorders with aggressive tendencies.
  • Increased caregiver stress and difficulty providing adequate behavioral support.

Targeted intervention approaches tailored for different ability levels are key. But even lower-functioning individuals can make progress reducing aggression over time with appropriate support.

What is the impact of language level on autism aggression?

Autistic youth with limited to no verbal language skills have the highest rates of aggression and self-injury. Studies show:

  • Up to 61% of autistic children who remain nonverbal after age 5 display self-injurious behaviors.
  • Minimally verbal school-aged children have a 6 times higher risk for aggression issues.
  • After puberty, minimally verbal youth have aggression rates triple those of verbal autistic peers.

Lacking language as an outlet for frustration and difficulty communicating needs greatly increase vulnerability. Evidence-based interventions for nonverbal and minimally verbal autistic children include:

  • Functional communication training using pictures, signs, devices.
  • Functional behavior analysis to decode causes and purpose.
  • Early intensive applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy.
  • Occupational therapy addressing sensory issues.
  • Alternative or augmentative communication systems.
  • Assistive technology aids.

Gaining a reliable method of expression is key to curbing aggression risks.

What other factors reduce autism-related aggression?

Research shows several other factors can help minimize aggression and self-injury behaviors in autistic individuals as they mature:

  • Early intensive intervention – Starting ABA, speech, and occupational therapy in preschool years when brain plasticity is highest.
  • Special education supports – Having an IEP plan tailored to the child’s needs through high school.
  • Social skills training – With direct teaching of appropriate behaviors and coping strategies.
  • Positive behavior supports – Reinforcing wanted behaviors instead of just punishing problem behaviors.
  • Caregiver/family training – To better understand causes and consistently implement support strategies.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy – To develop tools to better regulate emotions and control reactions.
  • Medications – In some cases to reduce aggression risks by treating underlying mental health issues.

A comprehensive, team-based treatment approach offers the best chance of improvement over time.


The core social, communication, and behavioral symptoms of autism tend to persist across one’s lifetime. However, targeted interventions can help autistic individuals make significant progress controlling issues like aggression and self-injury, even if some vulnerability remains. While challenging behaviors typically peak in early childhood, puberty poses a risk period where aggressive issues may resurface. But better language and coping skills gained with age and experience provide tools for learning to manage emotions and outbursts. For adolescent and adult autistic individuals continuing to struggle with aggression, professional supports remain key to improve quality of life over the long term.