5 Strategies to Help Navigate ASD Anger

Updated on November 21, 2017
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Christiansen's son, Jackie, is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). She is the author of Planet A: A Mother's Memoir of ASD.

Children on the Spectrum Can Have a Difficult Time Navigating Anger

Dealing With ASD Anger Can Be Time Consuming and Exhausting

As the parent of a high-functioning autistic child, there is one issue that I must face daily: anger. Because children on the spectrum struggle with filter use, many times feelings are revealed as they are experienced, with nothing to tame the beast of frustration and rage. It’s difficult to have a ten-year old melt down in the middle of a shopping mall because the food court ran out of a favorite snack. These bursts of anger can come from seemingly nowhere over issues that, to us as parents, are insignificant. It’s important to try to find ways to help your ASD child through this storm and the earlier the better. I have seen many ASD children’s behavior escalate into fits of room trashing and even violence upon themselves because they have nowhere else to direct their frustration.

Here are my top five strategies to help your ASD child work through his or her anger in a safe way:

1. Listen. It’s a simple concept but one that we can easily forget in the panic of the moment. Many times, when an ASD child’s anger comes on, it is exasperated because they feel as if they are not heard. It’s a respect issue and it’s difficult to not just react. My son would come home from school angry over a teacher’s assignment that he didn’t feel he should have to do. My first reaction would be, just do the assignment and get it done, but I kept that remark inside. Instead, I listened to his frustration and in those listening moments, I usually gleaned a better understanding of the issue. I discovered that his frustration and anger came from a much deeper problem, not just the surface issue of the moment.

2. Validate. Allow your child to feel the emotions of the moment. It’s healthy to express anger and frustration if it is in a safe place. Even if you feel that their reaction is over the top or you can’t quite understand it, remember that, for them, it is real. Try to find something they can relate toand let them know that you do understand how they feel. By giving permission to express feelings, you are allowing your child to release some of the negative energy and transitioning away from it will be easier. As parents, we can send a message that we care and that how our children feel is important to us.

3. Redirect. In our house, we have a friend called Mr. Pillow. Whenever I see a glimmer of anger beginning with my son, I gently remind him of Mr. Pillow. He might lose a board game and begin to rant about how unfair the loss was. The board game might be flipped into the air and I would then redirect him to his bedroom and Mr. Pillow. His bedroom became his safe place, and Mr. Pillow his punching bag. Over time, Mr. Pillow wasn’t necessary anymore and his bedroom became his place to calm down. It’s important that the redirection is not thought of as a punishment, only a strategy to keep your child safe and to allow feeling to be released.

4. Compromise. Teaching ASD children compromise can help navigate anger issues. It is a way to show that there are several ways to fix a problem. Compromise also teaches an ASD child how to work with someone else and that can really help their social game. If my son is angry because he can’t have ice cream for breakfast we might come up with a compromise. If he eats a healthy breakfast maybe he can have ice cream later as a snack. The compromise might include an ice cream outing to make it more fun. Learning compromise takes time and it centers around trust, so make sure you follow through. Through compromise, my son’s anxiety and anger have dissipated faster, knowing that there is probably a way to fix a part of the problem.

5. Truth. There came a moment is my life when my son became physical with me. He was ten and still a small boy but, in anger, he hit me. I began to imagine a six-foot teenager doing the same thing, and I realized that I had to work on the anger in that moment, and so I told him the reality of what his actions might lead to. We talked about juvenile detention and how I might, at some point in time, feel unsafe with him living with me. I didn’t want to scare him but I felt as if he needed to understand the truth. He has never hit me again. Though our ASD children are very reactive, it’s important for them to understand that their actions have real consequences and could take them to places they don’t want to see. The truth of their behaviors can help them socially as well. It might show them how they look to their peers, orhow they might hurt others’ feelings by their negative actions. Roleplaying is a great way to explore this. Gathering a few friends and acting out certain social scenarios can help others see from an ASD child’s point of view as well.

It takes a lot of work to raise an ASD child. Our job takes ten times more energy, creativity and patience. The most important piece in dealing with anger issues is to stay as positive as you can. Teach your child through your own behaviors, and by listening and validating what he or she is feeling. Show respect and teach compromise. Redirect to a more positive place and revisit the anger later, after your child has had time to decompress. Remember that there may be outside forces influencing your child’s behavior. Lack of sleep, over stimulation, and a change in environment can all cause outbursts of anger. Removing them from an unpleasant environment may be the first step. Above all, let your child know that you love them, even if they scream at you for hours at a time.

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