HELP FOR PARENTS OF CHILDREN WITH ASPERGER'S & HIGH-FUNCTIONING AUTISM

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Asperger’s Teens as Aggressors

Many children and teens with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) are regularly victimized, and even more regularly misunderstood. Naturally, they and their parents feel that they are unjustly treated and inappropriately discriminated against. They are the victims of a society that puts a considerable premium on reciprocal social relationships.

Considering young people with AS and HFA as aggressors seems to fall-in with exactly the kind of stigma that has led to the injustice in the past. Nonetheless, aggression is a common problem, as many moms and dads will privately admit (in one survey, 40% of parents of autistic children reported “hitting other people” to be a problem).

Warning signs that an AS or HFA teen may become aggressive include:
  • Being cruel to pets
  • Fantasizing about acts of violence he would like to commit
  • Obsessively playing violent video games
  • Watching violent movies
  • Visiting websites that promote or glorify violence
  • Playing with weapons of any kind
  • Threatening or bullying others

Aggression in teens on the autism spectrum can develop for several reasons: 
  1. Membership card in a deviant group
  2. Special interest
  3. Defensive aggression
  4. Gaining ascendancy
  5. Outrage
  6. Retaliation
  7. Self-preservation
  8. Difficulties with emotional processing

Let’s look at each of these in turn…

1.  Membership Card—

Young people on the autism spectrum are often teased, bullied, and ostracized from their peer group. One option for someone who feels like an “outcast” is to ally himself with other marginalized or disruptive kids. By the time such a child becomes a teenager, his group membership may be in jeopardy, and he may have to behave more outrageously – and sometimes more aggressively – in order to fit-in. However, aggression is not usually the central method of staying in the group. This subgroup of teens may be engaged in other “normal” criminal and antisocial activities (e.g., alcohol and drug abuse, vandalism, theft of property, etc.). These are “typical” misdemeanors of adolescence, but are not usual misdemeanors in teens with AS or HFA. However, the autistic teen who carries out these apparent typical crimes, and who does so in a group, is often different from other group members. He will often be encouraged by the other members of the group to be the one who breaks the window or the one to drop the match. And, if property is stolen, the autistic teen will rarely know what to do with it or how to profit from it.

2.  Special Interests—

Some teens with AS and HFA become fascinated with powerful others. This may be expressed through an interest in worldwide wrestling or martial arts training. They may have a special interest in fire that can lead to arson. There is often a period of covert fire setting in the garden or in a local woods that precedes the incident that comes to public attention. AS and HFA teens who have such an interest enjoy looking at fires and feel satisfaction from setting a fire. They may use fire-setting to escape a situation (e.g., setting a fire in the classroom), or they may use fires to pay back others. An interest in fire may persist for many years. Special sexual interests also may be a problem for these “special needs” teens.

3.  Defensive Aggression—

Although there is no reason to suppose the families with an AS or HFA child are more troubled than those of anyone else, there is every reason to think they are as troubled. A teen or young adult on the spectrum who is brought up in a troubled family may have to fight back to defend himself, and this aggression may spill out into other situations. However, there is one kind of defensive aggression that occurs even in children with AS and HFA whose families of origin have been aggression-free. This is when aggression is intended to terminate an aversive stimulus (e.g., a high-pitched sound). There was a report of one man with AS who tried to strangle a little girl who was crying in a supermarket, because he could not bear the noise. There have been other reports of AS individuals who have become violent when hearing certain kinds of music. In addition, aggression may result if an AS or HFA teen's belongings are upset or if he is interrupted in an activity that is important to him. An example of this is a 12-year-old boy with AS who hit his sister with a baseball bat because she pulled the plug of the computer when he was immersed in a game. He broke his sister's arm, and still, some years later, thought that was justified.

4.  Gaining Ascendancy—

Some of the most serious acts of aggression are committed by AS and HFA teens who feel so isolated and so powerless that they feel they have nothing to lose. In these circumstances, an act of violence that makes others take notice can become the stuff of daydreams, and can then be translated into practice. This kind of aggression often has a detached quality, almost like an experiment. Indeed, the AS or HFA teen may sometimes say, “I wanted to see what would happen.” An example of this is a 16-year-old female with AS who lived with her father, his new wife and their newborn. This teen was left to look after the baby and wanted to see what would happen if she mixed ground glass into the baby's food, which she did.

5.  Outrage—

Entering the teenage years feeling lonely and powerless, struggling with learning difficulties, and having other people attribute both of these problems to personal shortcomings, are all unpleasant experiences. In this situation, two options often seem to present themselves:
  • Aggression is an easy route to outrage, although usually it is incidental to a wider strategy of disrupting a social situation. An AS or HFA child may just need to refuse to obey school rules, swear at the teacher, or knock down school furniture. As the child reaches adolescence, more serious acts may be necessary to produce outrage, and these can involve aggression.
  • Another option is to become the class joker who is prepared to do the craziest things to be a member of the gang or to become outrageous. Outrage has the advantage that other’s reactions to it are extreme, and therefore easier to read. It also provides a sense of power, at least if others are distressed by it.

6.  Retaliation—

Many young people with AS and HFA have strict codes of behavior that often include a dislike or even hatred of violence. However, even among them, aggression can be a problem when the teen or young adult becomes frustrated, feels unfairly treated, or feels excluded. The autistic teen can convince himself that aggression is justified in these circumstances. Aggression toward younger siblings may be a problem, as may aggression at school. But, the usual arena is at home.

This kind of aggression may be explosive, in which case there is often a sharp onset and a sharp offset. The teenager with AS or HFA may even be unaware of the impact of his aggression. As one parent stated, “He calmed down immediately, long before we could feel calm. He just seems to want to carry on as if nothing had happened. If we try to talk about the outburst, we can set him off again.” Outbursts of this kind may begin at an early age. Counter-violence makes matters worse, but it is a solution that often appeals to fathers. Withdrawal during the outburst, and then discussing how it felt to be on the receiving end of it, are often useful, but dealing with this level of aggression can be one of the most difficult aspects of living with a child on the autism spectrum.

7.  Self-preservation—

Young people with AS and HFA have a lively sense of self-preservation. They may therefore suppress an aggressive response to a bully or another aggressor, but turn the aggression on to a more vulnerable person later, who may have had nothing to do with the situation. The target of aggression is most likely to be the mother, or later in life, the spouse.

8.  Difficulties with Emotional Processing—

Emotional processing is difficult for teens on the spectrum. They can’t tell themselves to “just forget it” or “life's too short to worry so much.” They want answers – and they want justice. A teen who has a clinic appointment may start to worry about this for several days, and then may ask repeated questions about what will happen, the route to be taken, and so on. Outbursts may happen during this period of heightened stress. Incidents that have happened in the past (sometimes many years before) may linger in the mind of an older teen or young adult with AS or HFA, and may resurface at regular intervals. When they do, it is as if he is re-experiencing the episode over again, and he may become suddenly and unexpectedly aggressive.

Treatment—

The unexpectedness of the timing and of the target of aggression makes risk assessment particularly difficult. Treatment also can be difficult because the AS or HFA teen, lacking empathy for others' reactions to his violence, may continue to feel that violence is justified. When aggression is a symptom of irritability, treatment of an underlying mood disorder may be useful. In the rare cases in which aggression is a symptom, anticonvulsants may be useful. Many doctors use “mood stabilizing” drugs in the absence of a mood disorder. However, this is most often because it reassures the doctor and the parents that something is being done, rather than that the drug has a specific effect.

How Parents Can Help—

The challenge for moms and dads is to help their AS or HFA teen cope with emotions and deal with aggressive tendencies in a more constructive way. Here are just a few tips:
  • Try to uncover what’s behind the aggression. Is your teen anxious, sad or depressed? Does he have feelings of inadequacy because his peers don’t accept him?
  • Manage your own temper. You can’t help your “special needs” teen if you lose your temper too. As difficult as it sounds, remain calm and balanced no matter how much your teen provokes you. If you or other family members scream, hit each other, or throw things, your AS or HFA teen will naturally assume that these are appropriate ways to express himself.
  • Help your teen find healthy ways to relieve tension. Exercise or team sports can help relieve aggressive tendencies. Many “special needs” teens also use art or writing to creatively express their rage. Dancing or playing along to loud music can also provide relief.
  • Give your teen a place to retreat. When he is upset, allow him to retreat to a place where it’s safe to cool off. Don’t follow him and demand apologies or explanations while he is still raging. This will only prolong the anger, or even provoke aggression.
  • Establish rules and consequences. At a time when both you and your teenager are calm, explain that there’s nothing wrong with feeling anger, but there are unacceptable ways of expressing it. If he lashes out, he will have to face the consequences (e.g., loss of privileges, police involvement, etc.). AS and HFA teens need structure and consistent rules more than “typical” teens do.
  • Be aware of warning signs and triggers. Does your AS or HFA teen get headaches or start to pace before exploding? Does a certain teacher or class at school always trigger rage? When your teenager can identify the warning signs that his temper is starting to boil, it allows him to take steps to defuse the rage before it gets out of control.

Dealing with an aggressive AS or HFA teenager is not easy, and it can be hard to trace back the original causes of aggressive behavior. If parents are concerned about their teen’s aggression, they should seek advice from a professional. Oftentimes, teens on the autism spectrum who demonstrate aggression towards others simply need help developing social and communicating skills.

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