How to De-Escalate Aggressive Behavior in the Developmentally Disabled

A developmental disability includes a range of mental disabilities that occur in childhood, and include mild learning disabilities to more severe disorders such as autism. Developmental disabilities may affect many areas of functioning including thought, behavior, speech and sensory development. Although most people with developmental disabilities are not violent or aggressive, some people with more severe disabilities may experience high levels of frustration, which can be expressed through both aggressive and self-injurious behaviors.

Model calmness. Both verbal and non-verbal techniques can be used to bring a sense of calm to the situation. Non-verbal techniques include displaying a calm, and relaxed body posture and limiting space by directing the person to another room or area away from others. You can express calm verbally using a soothing tone of voice. Avoid giving commands or making threats.

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Identify feelings. A person who is angry is likely feeling threatened and fearful. Help the individual to name these emotions, and any other emotions she may be having, underneath the anger. This may help her to gain insight into what is causing the angry feelings and de-escalate the anger.

Express empathy. Show him that you have a true understanding of what he is going through. You can display empathy by explaining that there have been times in the past when you have felt frustration, and even anger, this may help the person to feel understood and normalize anger and frustration as emotions everyone feels sometimes.

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Redirect and reward. When the person is starting to calm down, redirect to a different activity, preferably something she finds soothing. Reward this new behavior with praise, which will reinforce calm, non-aggressive behaviors as appropriate.


For people with autism, aggression may show in the form of self-injurious behaviors. These may be due to under or over arousal. In this case, the redirection would be to give the person the opposite: an activity that offers more stimulation if the person is bored or less stimulation if overly excited.


There is debate over the use of physical interventions or physically restraining someone who has become violent. Although these techniques are still used with children and people with mental illness with violent behaviors, they should only be done by people specially trained in the techniques, with minimal risk of harm.