Many autistic children have bouts of anger. I liken the behaviors to a two-year-old who is unable to verbalize his needs and who has little control over his emotions. The child expresses his feelings by acting out in anger at being unable to communicate that he is tired, scared, or hungry.
Now imagine an autistic child who is being bombarded by sensory stimuli that he cannot process normally. The lights may be too bright, the people are talking too loudly, or his shirt label is itching him. Add in the the frustration of not being able to express his emotions, and you have a child ready to explode in frustration.
A note about my son's behavior
I wrote of my son's rage and anger when he was six. He is 10 now, and this extreme behavior is much less frequent. My son is usually happy and good-natured, but yes, he still has his moments of anger.
The anger and defiance in my son may seem extreme to an outsider, but the frequency of Lee’s rages is diminishing.
And no, you cannot spank the autism out of a child.
Do you hate goldfish, Mom?
A little anecdote about goldfish and hate
Do you hate Goldfish, Mom. Do you? Do you hate them? Crush them!" This is my son's response after I had said "no, thank you" when he offered me a Goldfish cracker. Now he wants to know why... If I don't want to eat one, he thinks I must hate them.
At eight-years-old, my son is trying to figure out emotions such as love and hate. In his mind, if someone shows any negativity towards something or someone, then hate must be involved.
If I tell him to stop smacking our German shepherd, I will hear "Do you hate me, Mom? Hit me, kill me, Mom." The same thing happens when I correct the dog: "Do you hate him, Mom? Hit him, kick him."
It is exasperating to have to explain that no, I do not hate whatever, nor do I want to hurt it, kill it or throw it in the garbage. It also confounds me that he equates rejection or discipline with anger - anger so profound that whatever is being rejected must be destroyed.
This is the most frustrating part of my son's autism right now. I wish I could peek into his brain and read his thoughts. Where does the violence come from? Why can't he understand that the world is not black and white? Emotions do not come down to just love or hate. There is a whole world of grays I wish he could see.
Until then I must patiently explain that no, I do not hate Goldfish. I just do not care to eat one right now.
My son’s first self-injurious behavior as a toddler was head-banging. He would bang his head against walls, floors or furniture, and he would do it for 20- 30 minutes at a time. I sometimes knew what set him off, but at other times I had no clue as to why he was hurting himself. He had not been diagnosed with autism at the time.
Many children exhibit head-banging as toddlers, but after a few incidences of not getting parental reaction, they will usually stop. I ignored my girls when they did this and it worked well. Not so with my son. “Lee” has a seemingly high tolerance to pain, and as long as he doesn’t bleed, he can tolerate injuries that would make a normal child cry.
PUNCHING, SLAPPING, AND CHOKING
As Lee has matured, the head-banging has become self-injurious slapping, punching, scratching, and trying to choke himself. When things have devolved to this point, I wrap him in a blanket and let him scream and curse until he calms down. It may take up to 30 minutes for his emotional meltdown to play itself out.
According to the National Institute of health, researchers looking at those with autism spectrum disorder found that approximately 50% engage in some form of self-injurious behavior.
Lee’s anger is directed outward, too. Frustration with a toy will result in the toy being thrown or beaten on the floor. If the toy is broken in the process, Lee will then break down and cry over the broken toy. He’s also put holes in walls, marred furniture, and broken dishes during a rage.
My 130 pound German Shepherd is also a source of my son's violent outbursts. When the dog knocks over a toy, my son must be kept from beating on the dog while he yells, "Stupid waggle-tail. I'm going to kill you!"
Intolerance to minor annoyances
The magnitude of my son’s anger over seemingly insignificant occurrences astounds me. If he cannot get his building blocks just so, he will slap himself. Tripping over a truck causes him to get angry at the truck. If he runs into the wall, it is the wall’s fault and he will slap and yell at it. In Lee’s world, everything must be perfect or it upsets his equilibrium. There is only black or white in his world – no grays.