Having autism does not always mean having great difficulty in life. In fact, there are many adults and children who have high-functioning autism and can navigate their days independently and with ease. However, high-functioning autism and anger can also coexist, and this behavior can often lead to unpredictable outbursts. This can cause confusion for those who witness this type of behavior, especially peers and non-familial adults.
This may not be easy for parents or guardians to resolve on their own. However, building an understanding of the relationship between high-functioning autism and anger can help in managing outbursts your child may have.
Here’s everything you need to know about high-functioning autism and anger.
What is High-Functioning Autism?
First, we must define what high-functioning autism is. This is a term that is colloquially used to describe individuals with autism who do not require much support to live daily life. When we say high-functioning autism, it pertains to children (and adults) who can speak, read, write, socialize, and manage daily tasks independently. Their condition does not create too many disruptions in their life, whether that’s in their profession, education, or relationships.
Symptoms of High-Functioning Autism
Although kids with high-functioning autism can live quite independently, they still experience symptoms, such as:
- Repetitiveness in behaviors, interests, or activities
- Social difficulties
- Emotional sensitivity
- Language peculiarities (e.g., using formal language over slang)
- Sensory difficulties
These symptoms interfere little with daily life, but they still cause some struggles for children with this condition.
Understanding High-Functioning Autism and Anger
Children with autism disorders can be prone to anger outbursts, including those who function well most of the time. They may have what is called an “on-off” quality, where they are calm one moment and have an outburst of anger the next.
Dealing with both anger and autism may be difficult for family members and peers due to a misunderstanding of this behavior. Similar to aggression in ADHD, parents, guardians, and others may see actions like temper tantrums, a refusal to listen, and high irritability in children with high-functioning autism.
That is why understanding the causes of anger in children with high-functioning autism is necessary.
Causes of Anger in Children with High-Functioning Autism
Anger outbursts do not just occur out of nowhere for those with high-functioning autism. There is a connection between autism and anger in children that can make them feel certain ways and act out. To understand this, here are some of the common causes of anger in children with high-functioning autism:
Disruptions in order and routine
Since autism causes individuals to function differently, order and routine are very important ways of coping with unpredictability and uncertainty. Autistic rage may result when this routine is disrupted because it interrupts a child’s way of coping with the world. For instance, how a child’s room is organized may matter greatly to them. Moving something in this area can greatly disrupt their comfort zone and may lead to angry outbursts.
Stress and anxiety
Stress and anxiety are great triggers for angry outbursts in children with high-functioning autism. This is especially true for children who have not yet honed their anger management skills. Many individuals with autism, whether high-functioning or not, can benefit from learning how to process their stress and emotions.
Knowing the underlying issue behind your child’s anger is the next important step after understanding. To prevent outbursts from occurring in the first place, those living around a child with autism can be more empathetic and consistent with their behavior to help reduce stress. This creates a better environment for everyone involved.
Critical of imperfections in others
Anger in autism may also manifest as being overly critical of the imperfections of others. Children with high-functioning autism may hold others to a much higher standard than they do themselves, which leads them to having physical and mental stressors indirectly caused by others. High-pitched voices or even different appearances are just a couple of examples pet peeves that children with autism might have.
The behavior of others
The behavior of other people may easily irritate and/or trigger children with high-functioning autism. For instance, being ignored or subjected to insensitive comments may make children feel angry.
Multi-tasking has become an essential skill in today’s fast-paced society. However, people with autism may struggle with juggling several tasks as it involves engaging many different senses. As a result, children who get overwhelmed and experience sensory overload. This is when one or more senses gets too much stimulation, and it can be extremely stressful for children with autism.
Difficulties in relationships
Relationships with family, teachers, schoolmates, and friends can be difficult for some children with autism. Sometimes, it may feel like their needs are being met. It can also feel like their attempts at friendship or communication are misunderstood or rejected. Children with autism may also feel that their talents and capabilities are overlooked or unappreciated.
How to Help Children with High-Functioning Autism Manage Their Anger
Although children with high-functioning autism can go through most of their daily tasks without much difficulty, they may still struggle with managing anger from time to time. Here’s how you can help:
Listen to your child to understand their feelings
Autistic anger can be difficult to understand, but by listening carefully, you can determine what exactly is causing your child’s feelings. This can be challenging if your child struggles with communicating their feelings or desires, which is where you can step in and guide them with helpful questions. It can help to create a communication device or strategy that works well for your child, such as a visual board.
When parenting an angry child, it also helps to pay attention to when outbursts occur. They may be happening at around the same time every day, which can give clues to what the trigger may be. Once the trigger is identified, managing the anger becomes a bit easier. You can alter your child’s immediate surroundings or shift their focus to something else to help diffuse their anger.
Give your child a safe space to express their anger
When anger is unavoidable, it is crucial that your child has a safe space to express their emotions without hurting themselves or anyone else. Try offering them a pillow to punch or scream into. They can expend their energy in a healthier way if given a safe space.
It also helps to teach your child different ways of expressing themselves. They can scribble their frustrations away on a piece of paper. Sometimes ripping up the paper helps. Other children respond well to drawing a picture or even just talking about their feelings without judgment. These efforts will allow your child to express their anger more constructively.
Teach your child how to compromise
Children with high-functioning autism may sometimes get angry when they cannot have what they want at that moment. In these cases, try to reach a compromise with them. For instance, your child might want dessert before eating their dinner. You can compromise by saying that if they eat their dinner first, then they can have a bit more dessert.
Rewarding and praising your child for following the rules will also help reinforce good behavior. Positive reinforcement can go a long way in teaching children how to manage their anger. It can be as simple as earning gold star stickers on a chart, which is then followed by a reward after collecting a certain number of them.
Provide toys that ease anxiety and stress
Physical objects that can ease anxiety and stress can help tremendously for anger. A fidget toy allows a child to redirect and focus their attention on something else. It can also prevent their anxiety from escalating into an outburst.
You can also provide your child with toys that can be squeezed, stretched, or squished to promote a sense of calmness. Toys such as slime are perfect for alleviating feelings of tension, stress, anxiety, and anger.
Encourage physical activity
One reason that children with high-functioning autism get angry is because they have excess energy. A great way to prevent this energy from escalating into an angry outburst is to expend it through physical activity. Help your child find an activity they enjoy, such as running, walking, and even dancing or playful wrestling. Such activities cause the brain to release endorphins and increase feelings of happiness and well-being.
When to Seek Professional Help
If your child’s high-functioning autism is causing anger that is disruptive, it may start to affect school, relationships, and daily functioning. This may be a good time to seek professional help.
Frequently Asked Questions
People usually have many questions regarding high-functioning autism, especially since it may manifest differently from children elsewhere on the spectrum. Here are some of the most commonly asked questions regarding high-functioning autism and anger:
Does high-functioning autism become more severe with age?
No, autism does not worsen with age. However, the symptoms may change over time depending on several factors, such as how the condition is managed, the child’s environment, and individual differences. Some of the most common triggers may include sensory stimulation, changes in routine, anxiety, and communication difficulties.
Is autistic anger the same as tantrums?
Tantrums can occur in any circumstance, whether a child is hungry, bored, or exhausted, but there is always a purpose for this behavior. The source of an autistic meltdown, however, is excessive overload rather than a specific objective. It shows that the child is not yet equipped enough to handle certain situations.
Can children develop coping strategies for autistic anger?
Yes, they certainly can. Some children with autism learn compensatory coping mechanisms to deal with their challenges. They can manage social circumstances and involve other people by using their non-social skills, such as their attention to detail, logical reasoning, and by having unique hobbies.
The Bottom Line
All kids get angry, and they often don't know how to deal with such a strong emotion. A child with high-functioning autism must overcome numerous obstacles every day, which can cause irritation and, occasionally, anger. Harmony and relief will result from helping your child learn how to handle their anger and providing them with the right resources to manage it.
Thank you so much for your comment! If your son has autism, I would definitely consider ABA therapy in this situation. An ABA therapist should have the therapeutic tools to support your son and your family. You could also consider a mental health therapist or family therapist, but if you choose this option, I would encourage you to search for someone who has specific expertise in working with kids on the autism spectrum.
Michael Vallejo, LCSW
Thank you for the article. We are struggling with my kids rage. He is only triggered by his sister. Her whistling can cause him to fly into a rage. What kind of professional help should we seek? ABA therapy? Psychologist?
Thanks for your help
Hi, I’m parent of child with autism.You have written a very useful comment or advises on how to aproach a child with autism.