Anger-Management "Tools" for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

"Is it common for children with high functioning autism to be highly explosive? My daughter can fly off the handle in a heartbeat for what seems to be rather trivial matters (to me anyway)."

Children with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) often have a difficult time controlling their anger as compared to “typical” children, which is due to the fact that they have problems understanding their emotions and their impact on others.

In addition, they aren’t living in a void in which they don’t understand that they’re different from other kids. Often teased and rejected by their peers, they can have emerging anger they don’t understand and can’t easily control.

Helping these children with anger problems requires direct communication about the effect of their anger on others as well as methods of improving their low self-esteem and poor sense of self-worth, which is often at the root of the youngster’s anger.

Anger that’s acted-out badly needs to be treated like any other unwanted behavior. Some form of reasonable consequence directed at getting the point across that the behavior is wrong needs to be combined with a pragmatic discussion of the meaning behind the anger and other ways to control it. Remember that effective discipline for the HFA child can be much different from the discipline that works for other children.

If the anger seems to be a part of your daughter’s frustration over how she is being treated by others or from depressive feelings, finding better avenues to discuss what is really going on can help her deal with the issues without using anger as an outlet. Most children on the spectrum are of greater than average intelligence and have the resources to understand the relationship between their anger and the underlying social issues their dealing with.




Creating an Anger-Management Plan—

The basic idea in developing an anger-management plan for kids on the autism spectrum is to try many different strategies and find the management techniques that work best for them. This is an ongoing process. As working strategies are identified, they can be added to the anger-management plans and used when the youngster starts to feel angry.

Children on the spectrum should be encouraged to refer to their anger-management plans as their “toolbox” and the specific strategies they use to manage their anger as their “tools.” This analogy can be very helpful. You can take this even further by creating a physical box for your HFA daughter to put the strategies in (i.e., written on pieces of paper).

You could be really creative and have the pieces of paper shaped like various tools. Also, discuss how different tools should be used for different situations (e.g., point out how a screwdriver can be very useful, but not for pounding in nails).

Again, it’s important to identify the specific strategies that work best for your daughter. These strategies should be put down in a formal anger-management plan for referral when your daughter encounters an anger-provoking event. It’s also important to explore how different techniques may be used at different times.

For example, your daughter may feel better after running around in the yard, but this may not be possible when she is getting angry at something in the classroom. Strategies need to be in place to handle the different situations that may arise.

An effective strategy that many kids on the spectrum use is to talk about their feelings with someone that they can trust (e.g., parent or other family member). By discussing anger, they can begin to identify the primary emotions that underlie it and determine whether the thinking and expectations in response to the anger-provoking event are rational.

Often an outsider can see the event from a different point of view, and offer some guiding words of wisdom. HFA kids can sometimes view an event as un-winable or un-escapable when there is a very simple solution which can be reached.

As one mother of a child with Asperger’s stated:

“My son struggled with anger problems throughout elementary and most of middle school. He is now 15, and through many talks, discussions and maturity, he seems to be controlling his anger/frustration rather well. I have always been open and honest with him about how others can be, why they can be that way, and how he is ‘different’ than most kids his age. In time, he grew into his own, better understood himself and his own actions - and I'm so proud of him. I would explain to him why things would affect him the way they do, but he was never to use having Aspergers as an excuse to not be in control of his own actions and emotions. We have an open relationship and he knows he can talk to me about anything. That has been our biggest tool I think. He also did receive consequences when he would misbehave. I don't treat him differently just because he has Aspergers. They get treated differently enough as it is.”

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