In a previous article, I discussed why the autistic person struggles so much with anger and rage. In this article I will discuss how the parent / caregiver or therapist can work with the person with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) who is angry.
It is important to remember that the child, teen or adult is angry for a good reason. Because the person with ASD has not had the benefit of an attachment, his feelings become dissociated. This means his feelings are separate from his intellect. Overtime his feelings became bottled up and he unexpectedly appeared angry. So we can say his anger is due to his accessibility to easily access to his feelings. This can be his general state of existence. As mentioned previously, people manifest anger in a variety of ways – passive, passive-aggressive, explosive / competitive and assertively. It is rare for a person with ASD to know how to assertively express anger because that would mean that he has what I call a “sense of self-agency.” This means he can use and express his feelings with others. His ability to express feelings will depend on his functioning level. The higher the functioning level the more the person with ASD can access and express feelings.
What can we do to help the person with ASD cope with his angry feelings? The following are suggestion to use when working with an autistic person who is displaying anger: 1) a key skill is to listen to the anger. Listening to the anger of another helps the person to feel 'contained' and 'held' without legally holding and containing him or her. It is hard to listen to another when their anger is directed at us, but it is critical to listen at that time. It gives the autistic person a feeling of being seen, recognized and taken into consideration, 2) reflect back to the person what you think their anger is about. With autistic people it can be about something specific and at other times it may be about feeling bottled up. It will be up to you to decipher what you think he is angry about. Use your own instincts to judge what the anger is about and the person with ASD will let you know whatever he hears or not, 3) how can we recognize whether we have identified the anger? The person with ASD (even the nonverbal child) will start to quiet down, change his mood, nod his head or give you some nonverbal gesture that he feels heard. Each person with ASD is different so his or her nonverbal cues for feeling understood will vary, 4) in a few sentences tell the person with ASD what you think the problem is and finally, 5) problem-solve solutions to specific problems. Sometimes all the person with autism needs is to know is that you are listening and understand his predicament.
For people with ASD who are high functioning / Asperger's you may also want to do the following: 1) help him examine his triggers (what occurred right before his angry outburst), 2) have him own his feelings by encouraging him to use what is called “I” messages versus “you” or blaming messages, and 3) give him coping mechanisms such as – calling for a time out when he is feeling frustrated, encourage him to talk to someone before he gets triggered and teach him how to listen and reflect back the feelings of others.
These methods are important techniques to use in helping a person with ASD manage anger. As we know, the expression of angry feelings is important for the psychological well being of all people including those with autism. Because someone has autism does not mean he can not learn how to better manage and cope with angry feelings.