Have you ever wondered about autism spectrum disorder and its relationship to anger? What can cause anger outbursts in children with autism? How can we help children with autism deescalate from anger? We will answer these questions and more, but first, let’s consider autism symptoms.
The symptoms related to autism spectrum disorder vary greatly among individuals. In addition, these symptoms fall along a spectrum, with some children demonstrating more severe symptoms compared to others. Generally speaking, individuals with autism will experiences some degree of the following symptoms:
Anger is often an emotion that is associated with autism spectrum disorder. Most children with autism do not express their anger in the same way as typically-developing peers. This anger can be directed towards others, or towards themselves (called self-injurious behavior). Anger may manifest into aggression and could include hitting, kicking, biting, or throwing objects.
There are several reasons children with autism may experience intense anger or aggression, including:
Once there is a more thorough understanding of where the source of anger and aggression is, it is easier to identify potential strategies to address anger and aggressive behaviors. In this article, we will highlight our best strategies for dealing with autism and anger.
It is estimated that at least 80% of children with autism have some type of sensory processing disorder. Sensory processing involves taking in information from the environment, processing that information, and then meaningfully responding to the information.
Imagine you are in a classroom and someone calls your name. You are able to hear your name being called, recognize that it’s your name, and then respond as you feel it is appropriate. For children with a sensory processing disorder, this process is interrupted in some way within the brain.
For many children with autism, stimuli within the environment is over-processed or processed more intensely than it is for typically developing children. This is why many children with autism experience sensory sensitivities. They may be sensitive to any type of environmental stimuli, but some of the most common include loud noises, bright lights, crowded or busy places, etc.
To better understand how anger is related to sensory processing, let’s consider the analogy of filling an empty cup.
Consider a child with autism who has just arrived at school and is told that he has to wait in the gym with his peers before entering the classroom. This child has sensory sensitivities and his morning included: waking up late to his loud alarm, putting on a shirt that was a little bit too tight, and being rushed through his morning routine because he was running late. Little by little, the empty cup we are referring to is filled by each sensory challenge he experiences. When he arrives at school and has to wait in a crowded, noisy gym, he has reached his capacity and his cup is now overflowing. This child will likely react with anger, as his environment is too over-stimulating and his ability to cope has been maximized.
In order to address sensory processing concerns, it is best to visit with an occupational therapist, who can work with each individual child to develop a unique sensory diet. A sensory diet is an individualized plan that outlines a child’s sensory needs and ways to get needed input. A sensory diet might include things such as:
As mentioned before, each child will have their own unique sensory needs and a sensory diet is often the first place to start when addressing potential anger or aggression issues.
In general, children with autism have difficulty with emotion regulation. This skill set involves recognizing an emotional state or feeling that is occurring, being able to evaluate the outcome of reacting to the emotion, and moving forward by reacting and being able to cope with any negative feelings associated with the situation.
Children with autism often have difficulty with planning and judgment skills and therefore, emotion regulation can be challenging. In addition, being able to seek out appropriate coping skills when encountering an intense emotion is another skill set that can be tricky for children with autism.
When regulating emotions and subsequently utilizing coping skills is a challenge, anger and aggression are common behaviors.
Here are some of our best tips for helping kids with autism address emotion regulation and coping skills:
It is important to note that a child is likely to be most successful when they are given the right tools or vocabulary to address what they are feeling internally.
Research has shown that body cue identification is crucial for addressing coping skills, especially for children with autism and other special needs.
A trained professional, such as an occupational therapist, can help develop a systematic treatment plan to ensure the child’s sensory needs are being met and that emotion regulation and coping are complementing the unique sensory needs.
Anger is often associated with autism, however it is important to consider the complexities related to why a child with autism is expressing anger. In general, sensory processing and emotion regulation abilities are the root causes of anger and aggression in children with autism.
A trained health professional, such as an occupational therapist can assist with assessing and making recommendations related to autism and anger or aggression. We hope this article provided you with valuable information related to autism and anger, including seeking out additional expertise if needed for your child.
Cibralic, et al. (2019). A systematic review of emotion regulation in children with autism spectrum disorder. Research in autism spectrum disorders, 68
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