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Autism and anger: how are they connected?

Autism and anger: how are they connected?

If you’re a parent or a close family member of a child with autism, you are probably already aware of the unique attributes that come with caring for a child with autism. Every child with autism is different, and for many of them, the world may feel too chaotic, too loud, and just ‘too-everything’. 

When stressed or overwhelmed, many children with autism may not have the mechanisms and ability to maintain self-control, so they might burst into tears, start screaming or, in a worst-case scenario, hurt themselves or others.

It's very important to first understand the reasons behind these fits of anger, and then help your child learn to cope with stressors. For more complicated cases, it’s necessary to seek professional help.

Autism and anger: what does it typically look like?

When a child with autism is stressed out or overwhelmed, they might react very strongly. 

They might give vent to anger through:

  • Crying
  • Screaming
  • Throwing objects
  • Kicking
  • Scratching
  • Self-injury

Some children with autism thrive on routines and take great comfort from repetitive behavior. 

If you have a close family member or a friend with autism, you may have seen it already. For parents, it can be extremely stressful to watch their child cry, scream, and go through difficult episodes. These outbursts often happen in public as well and can then be even more difficult to deal with. 

Luckily, research shows that these aren’t indicating there’s a bigger issue that you need to deal with. Yes, your child is probably tired, hungry or triggered, but they often just want to feel seen.

Why do children with autism get angry?

Family members, teachers and friends of children with autism often fail to understand these anger outbursts. It’s very stressful to witness these unexpected tantrums, especially if you don’t know a lot about autism. But, if you learn what causes these tantrums, you can be better equipped to deal with these situations. 

Verbal Frustration

Some children with autism aren’t able to use speech at all, while others have very limited communication skills. 

For many children with autism, it’s very difficult to express their needs and frustrations. It gets even more challenging for those who aren’t able to use gestures meaningfully. Also, people around them aren’t always patient when trying to communicate with them. 

As a result, they can easily become enraged when their needs aren’t being met, they may feel alone and misunderstood. They may reserve to expressing anger ‘to show the world how they feel’.

Multi-tasking

Children with autism may become overwhelmed when asked to deal with multiple tasks at the same time. What might seem minor to the average person, can be extremely overwhelming to a child with autism. 

They function best when asked to finish things following an orderly schedule or a plan, especially if they are allowed to choose their own pace and strategy.

Sensory stimulation

Most children with autism are sensitive to any kind of sensory stimulation – loud sounds, strong lights, and crowded and busy surroundings. This means their senses can easily be overloaded with stimuli, and once overloaded, they can become stressed and overreact. 

For example, if a child with autism enters a classroom full of children running around and making noise, they might feel overwhelmed. Additionally, if the teacher enters, turns the lights on, and starts shouting, they can feel so overwhelmed that they turn to violence or self-harm.

Bullying

Children on the autism spectrum have difficulties handling a variety of social situations. 

One of the reasons is that it is difficult for them to understand other people’s intentions and emotions. Thus, it’s a challenge to catch someone’s sarcasm or light humor. A child with autism can take offense easily and respond with anger.

If you suspect that your child is being bullied by their peers in school, ask your child, and then work with teachers in order to solve any issues they have with other classmates.

Feeling ignored

For some children with autism, especially at a very young age, it can be hard to understand why their parents may be busy. They enjoy being the center of their parents’ attention and feel alone and left out when ignored. 

Broken routine

People with autism tend to function best with a well-planned and structured routine. It’s impossible for them to avoid all triggers, but it’s always helpful to have a positive coping mechanism to rely on. 

For most children with autism, this coping mechanism is their routine; the order in which they get dressed in the morning, their favorite snacks, or the bedtime stories they love. These help them reduce stress and foster a sense of order in their life. 

If their day-to-day routine is suddenly disrupted, you’ll probably get an immediate reaction.

Anger management for children with autism 

It’s not easy to deal with frustration, both for children with autism and for the people around them. When asked what to do when a child starts having meltdowns, most parents and experts say they respond instinctively. What does that mean? It means that every child is different and every situation is different, which makes it hard to think of ‘a perfect strategy’. 

Some say they let their children vent, others console them. It’s always helpful if you can offer an alternative (jumping on a pile of pillows, running around the garden).

If your child tends to become particularly violent and self-harm, you should make sure they don’t have access to any sharp or heavy objects.

Learning to manage anger and frustrations is a long-term journey, but is also very rewarding. 

A first step would be to learn about their anger and sympathize with their needs. Children with autism deserve to be seen and feel understood. 

You should also identify their triggers and try to reduce the number of potentially stressful situations. However, it is far more important to consider some kind of treatment or therapy to help them learn to cope better with anger.

Here are just some of the techniques that can help your child with autism manage anger:

Communicate clearly

Some children with autism can have a hard time with difficult and overwhelming tasks. If you change the way you communicate the task, your child might perceive it as ‘easier’. 

It is recommended to use shorter sentences and speak clearly. 

Also, children with autism learn better and faster with help of images and videos, or by imitating you. Instead of explaining, it may be helpful to show them how it’s done.

Don’t rush them

As mentioned, children with autism find comfort in finishing tasks ‘one after another’ and in a clear order. That’s why it is recommended to let them work at their own pace, not to create pressure that can trigger anger or frustration. 

Routine makes a world of difference

Maintaining a routine can help your child reduce their stress levels, so feel free to use timetables, charts, or any other visuals that they can turn to when stressed. 

Try not to disrupt their routine, and if you have to introduce something new, do it slowly and with patience. If you think they are ready for a new hobby, you should choose the one they like or show interest in! 

Show them praise them for ‘being flexible’ and showing up despite feeling anxious.

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