Aggression is the number one area of concern for the parents of the ASD children and teens I see in therapy. It really is understandable why this problem would be more common for ASD youth once you think about it. One reason is that ASD children may have difficulty with empathy and perspective taking skills. It is harder for them to intuitively understand and to predict what is going on in other people’s minds. This type of problem has been called “mindblindness.” This can lead to ASD children and teens feeling confused and stressed about what is going on when interacting with others. If what others do seems unpredictable and capricious, it makes it easy to see why anger might be the resulting emotion.
Also, people with ASDs have more difficulty seeing “the big picture.” Their natural ability tends to be seeing the details with extraordinary clarity. It is more of a challenge for them to see how the details work together to create an abstract whole that is more than the sum of its parts. If you think of how often we use abstract, big picture language to explain things, you might have greater understanding about why someone on the spectrum erupts with a lack of comprehension and with frustration.
Another reason that children on the spectrum are prone to anger, meltdowns and aggression is that the world can just be so overstimulating for them. Too many people, too many complex social situations that they are not reading accurately, too much sensory overload (light, colors, smells, tastes, sounds). All this can contribute to the “neurological storm” of a meltdown or an act of aggression. I remember really getting a feel for this in one of my favorite books about someone on the spectrum, which I recommend: “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time” by Mark Haddon.
Additionally, and very sadly, so many ASD youth have been victimized and bullied by others. They have often been emotionally and/or physically harmed by their peers, leading to more confusion, sadness, loneliness, anxiety and mistrust. They may have found that aggression works to back off others who are being threatening and to keep themselves safe, which leads to a change obstacle (as in the child will be less likely to change the behavior if it works for them).
The obsessive thinking that characterizes ASDs is another factor that makes it hard for an ASD youth to “move on.” He may get an obsessive thought stuck in his mind, and the same angry thought goes round and round, generating the same angry feeling over and over. Thus you may have an ASD youth “ranting” about the incident that triggered his anger, and this can be another factor contributing to aggression.
Then, oh yes, what about the ultimate challenge – a nonverbal child who is unable make her needs understood to others in a clear manner (which is normally how we use language!). This child will have all the factors mentioned above for other ASD youth but then has this additional confound. It would be as if one of us was dropped into another alien world where not only did we not know their language and they didn’t know ours, but also there was some special complication that made it so we might never fully understand this new language that was being spoken around us, certainly not well enough to communicate our needs. Therefore we couldn’t let the aliens know the times when we were tired, or hungry, confused or homesick, or that we did not intend them harm. We also wouldn’t be able to understand their needs or intentions, so that we couldn’t tell if they were trying to help us or harm us. It isn’t hard to imagine becoming aggressive under these circumstances.
Along with all these factors that can be just part of being on the autism spectrum, you have the fact that ASD children and teens also have a higher likelihood of having other differences or disorders that can end up contributing to aggression. Some of these are anxiety disorders, ADHD, and mood disorders (such as depression and Bipolar Disorder) just to name a few.
The reason for today’s post is to help develop understanding and acceptance of why aggression may be a bigger problem for someone on the spectrum then for a typically developing peer. This does NOT mean that we should just accept it or give in to it at those times when it is coercive. However, when we better understand, we are less likely to react in anger ourselves, which generally only makes things worse. In the face of anger and aggression from a child, adults need to try to stay calm, and make smart choices about how to help the child in question settle back down to baseline. It’s easier to do that if we understand how hard the world can be so terribly difficult for the child or teen at that moment. I’ll be making more posts in the future about what to do to reduce aggression, but in the meantime you might want to read some of my other posts under the category of “preventing meltdowns” or visit my YouTube channel for other ideas on preventing meltdowns/tantrums. Our main goal is to figure out what is triggering this behavior so we can reduce or prevent acts of aggression in the future.