Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) may be prone to anger, which can be made worse by difficulty in communicating feelings of disturbance, anxiety or distress. Anger may be a common reaction experienced when coming to terms with problems in employment, relationships, friendships and other areas in life affected by the disorder.
There can be an ‘on-off’ quality to this anger, where the teenager may be calm minutes later after an angry outburst, while those around are stunned and may feel hurt or shocked for hours, if not days, afterward. Parents often struggle to understand these angry outbursts, with resentment and bitterness often building up over time. Once they understand that their teen has trouble controlling his anger or understanding its effects on others, they can often begin to respond in ways that will help to manage these outbursts.
In some cases, these teens may not acknowledge they have trouble with their anger, and will blame others for provoking them. Again, this can create enormous conflict within the family. It may take carefully phrased feedback and plenty of time for the them to gradually realize they have a problem with how they express their anger.
The next step is for the teen to learn anger-management skills. A good place to start is identifying a pattern in how the outbursts are related to specific frustrations. Such triggers may originate from the environment, specific individuals or internal thoughts.
Common causes of anger in Asperger's and HFA teens:
- Being swamped by multiple tasks or sensory stimulation
- Build up of stress
- Difficulties with employment and relationships despite being intelligent in many areas
- Having routines and order disrupted
- Intolerance of imperfections in others
- Other people’s behavior (e.g., insensitive comments, being ignored)
Identifying the cause of anger can be a challenge.
It is important to consider all possible influences relating to:
- How well the teenager is treated by peers
- The environment (e.g., too much stimulation, lack of structure, change of routine)
- The teen’s mental state(e.g., existing frustration, confusion)
- The teen’s physical state (e.g., pain, tiredness)
Steps to successful self-management of anger include:
- Awareness of situations— The teen becomes more aware of the situations which are associated with them becoming angry. They may like to ask other people who know them to describe situations and behaviors they have noticed.
- Becoming motivated— The teen identifies why they would like to manage anger more successfully. They identify what benefits they expect in everyday living from improving their anger management.
- Develop an anger management record— The teen may keep a diary or chart of situations that trigger anger. List the situation, the level of anger on a scale of one to ten and the coping strategies that help to overcome or reduce feelings of anger.
- Levels of anger and coping strategies— As the teen becomes more aware of situations associated with anger, they can keep a record of events, triggers and associated levels of anger. Different levels of anger can be explored (e.g. mildly annoyed, frustrated, irritated and higher levels of anger).
- Self-awareness— The teen becomes more aware of personal thoughts, behaviors and physical states which are associated with anger. This awareness is important for the teen in order for them to notice the early signs of becoming angry. They should be encouraged to write down a list of changes they notice as they begin to feel angry.
A simple and effective technique for reducing levels of anger is the “Stop – Think” technique:
As the Asperger's or HFA teen notices the thoughts running through his mind...
1. Stop and think before reacting to the situation (are these thoughts accurate or helpful?)
2. Challenge the inaccurate or unhelpful thoughts
3. Create a new thought
A plan can also be developed to help a teen avoid becoming angry when they plan to enter into a situation that has a history of triggering anger. An example of a personal plan is using the “Stop – Think” technique when approaching a shopping center situation that is known to trigger anger.
- My goal: To improve my ability to cope with anger when I am waiting in long queues.
- Typical angry thoughts: ‘The service here is so slack. Why can’t they hurry it up? I'm going to lose my cool any moment now’. Stop thinking this!
- New calmer and helpful thoughts: ‘Everyone is probably frustrated by the long line – even the person serving us. I could come back another time, or, I can wait here and think about pleasant things such as going to see a movie’.
Other possible approaches:
- Cognitive Behavior Therapy
- Creative destruction or physical activity techniques to reduce anger
- Find anger management classes in your area
- Relaxation techniques
- Self-talk methods
- Use visual imagery (jumping into a cool stream takes the heat of anger away)
Coping with extreme anger:
It is hoped that teens with Asperger's and HFA can make use of these strategies when they notice themselves becoming angry and therefore avoid feeling extreme anger. However, this is clearly not always possible. For situations where teens feel they cannot control their anger, they can have a personal safety plan.
Possible steps in a personal safety plan:
- Avoid situations which are associated with a high risk of becoming angry
- Explain to another person how they can be of help to solve the problem
- Explore the benefits of using medication with a doctor or psychiatrist
- Leave the situation if possible
- Make changes to routines and surroundings e.g. avoid driving in peak hour traffic
- Phone a friend, or a crisis center to talk about the cause of anger
- Plan ways to become distracted from the stressful situation (e.g., carry a magazine)
My Aspergers Teen: Discipline for Defiant Aspergers Teens