Young people with Aspergers (high functioning autism) respond with anger mostly because they feel frustrated – they feel helpless to understand the situation fully, and helpless to change it.
Parents need to understand that anger is not the same thing as aggression. Anger is a feeling, while aggression is a behavior. Anger is a temporary emotional state caused by frustration; aggression is often an attempt to hurt a person or to destroy property. Explain to your Aspergers child that anger is OK – aggression is not.
Dealing with an Aspergers child’s anger requires first finding out what he is feeling. Ask him what happened, what went wrong, what he wants, and what he is feeling. He may - or may not - be able to tell you very clearly, and he may need your help to label his feelings.
Contrary to some popular opinions, punishment is not the most effective way to communicate to Aspergers children what we expect of them. Explaining, modeling, and setting rules are far more effective. However, expect your child to break a rule three or four times. This is how he learns which rules are serious ones, which ones you will enforce, and which ones can be broken under certain circumstances. Breaking rules often isn’t done in anger, but is a way of learning, of testing out the world around them.
Here are some tips for dealing with angry children on the autism spectrum:
1. Encourage Aspergers children to see their strengths as well as their weaknesses. Help them to see that they can reach their goals.
2. Ignore inappropriate behavior that you can tolerate.
3. Keep in mind that hugs can often make strong emotions less difficult for an Aspergers child. You don’t hug to make the anger go away though; hug to let the child know you understand his anger and that you take it seriously.
4. Limits should be explained clearly and enforced consistently.
5. Provide physical outlets and exercise. Aspergers kids need physical activity to let off steam.
6. Recognize failures and setbacks are part and parcel of life.
7. Say “NO” clearly and firmly as needed.
8. Sometimes Aspergers children do get aggressive or destructive when frustrated by difficult tasks, like studying. Parents can move in, acknowledge the difficulty of the task and the feelings of frustration or failure it causes, and offer help.
9. Take an interest in your child’s activities. Attention and pride can often make negative emotions easier to deal with. Failures and frustrations often mean less when a child knows his parents love him and are proud of him for others things he does and knows.
10. Use bargaining as needed. We, as parents, often control our own behavior by doing this (e.g., “After a day like this, I deserve a really good meal”). This reward system may help us curb our own temper when needed. This is not the same as bribery or blackmail. Know what your Aspergers child likes and what is important enough to him to serve as a good motivator to manage anger.
11. Use humor. Teasing or kidding can often defuse an angry situation and allow a child to “save face.” Don’t use humor to ridicule your child; use it to make fun of the situation.
12. Use modeling. Moms and dads should be aware of the powerful influence of their actions on a child’s behavior. If you curse when angry, don’t be surprised when your child does. If you count to ten when angry, don’t be surprised if your child follows this good example too.
13. When you decide to bend the rules and say “yes,” explain why that moment is appropriate. Knowing when it is acceptable to break the rules is just as important as knowing when it is not.
14. While spanking likely won’t help an Aspergers child, other physical interventions might. Sometimes the child can’t stop once a tantrum has begun, and physically removing the child from the scene or intervening isn’t a type of punishment – it’s a way to help him stop his behavior long enough to gain some control over it.
15. Observant and involved parents can find dozens of things they like about their Aspergers child’s behavior. Comment on your child’s behavior when it is good, for example:
- “I appreciate you hanging up your clothes even though you were in a hurry to play outside.”
- “I know it was difficult for you to wait your turn, and I’m pleased that you could do it.”
- “I like the way you come in for dinner without being reminded.”
- “I like the way you handled your brother when he took your stuff.”
- “I like the way you’re able to think of others.”
- “I’m glad you shared your snack with your sister.”
- “Thank you for telling the truth about what really happened.”
- “Thanks for sitting in your seat quietly.”
- “You were really patient while I was on the phone.”
- “You worked hard on your homework, and I admire your effort.”
The Role of Discipline—
Good discipline includes:
- explaining the rules and sticking to them in a neutral way
- setting limits, but being flexible when needed
- setting your own anger aside as much as possible
- understanding why the Aspergers child is angry and responding appropriately
Bad discipline involves:
- punishment as a means of exacting revenge
- punishment which is unduly harsh
- punishment which is unpredictably meted out
- raging at your child
- sarcasm and ridicule
Tips for Children with Aspergers and High Functioning Autism—
You can learn to handle your anger in several ways. Remember that some angry episodes take longer than others to solve. Here are some ways to help you when you're angry (or about to get angry):
1. DO SOMETHING PHYSICAL. Do something with your body such as stomp your feet, run around the house, or punch a pillow. You can also play with play dough, clay, or bread dough, which can be rolled out, pounded, twisted, and pulled apart. Any of these physical activities can help you focus your anger on something else and help you to calm down.
2. TALK ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS. Talk to a parent, brother or sister, grandparent, a child care provider or a friend about what is making you angry. Talking helps some people work through their anger so they can accept what is making them angry, or solve the problem in a positive way. If you can't or won't talk to a person, then you can talk to a family pet, a puppet, or an imaginary friend.
3. SING A SONG. Make up words to a song or poem that expresses what you are feeling. Words from a favorite song can be substituted with this "un-mad" song. For example, the words "I'm so mad 'cause I can't play. Go away, go away, day!" can be sung to a familiar or made-up tune.
4. ASK OTHER PEOPLE HOW THEY COPE WITH THEIR FEELINGS OF ANGER. Collect ideas from other people on how to cope with anger. Decide which ones might work for you. For example, some people take a fast walk to drain off anger, while others take deep breaths when they get angry.
5. DRAIN THE ANGER FROM YOUR BODY. Relax with some water play activities or finger-painting. You can also scribble as hard as you can on a scrap of paper and throw the paper away as if throwing the anger away. Or you can write a story about what has made you angry and give the story to an adult and have the adult read it back. Then you can crumple up the paper and throw it away.
My Aspergers Child: Preventing Meltdowns