When I was little, I was told that I had an ‘anger problem’. It was quite an understandable thing for people to think. I frequently got into aggressive screaming meltdowns for seemingly minor reasons.
Of course, the causes didn’t seem minor to me at the time. Even when I look back now, I feel myself getting angry about the situation as it happened. Mostly,I got angry when things weren’t fair. That covered a lot of possibilities:
- My ‘friends’ (and they are a story for another day) decided they didn’t want to play with me for no apparent reason.
- I had to do chores that my brother didn’t have to do.
- I didn’t get a say in a decision about something.
- I was punished for breaking a rule which served no purpose.
- I was told to do something without explanation.
As you can probably imagine, those are all things that happen quite a lot in the life of a small child. So, I got angry a lot. In the worst periods of junior school, teachers put me on a system where I got a reward if I managed to go a whole week without hitting anyone.
But being punished just made things worse – because I believed my behaviour was justified and so I was being treated unfairly. If my friends picked on me and I hit them in retaliation, I would get in trouble and they wouldn’t. So what was I supposed to do the next time it happened? I already knew that teachers wouldn’t punish them for picking on me, so I had to take justice into ‘my own hands’ (literally).
The problem with the way teachers treated me is that they didn’t look for an underlying cause. They didn’t even consider that there might be one. To them, I was just a mindless little kid who was acting out for no reason at all, and the only way to solve the problem was basic classical conditioning and punishment. But that wasn’t the case at all. In my small but extremely rational mind, my behaviour made absolute sense. Punishing me for it wasn’t going to change the fact that I had perfectly logical explanations for what I did – in fact, punishing me just contributed to my own reasoning.
I don’t remember if teachers ever really asked me why I’d hit someone. Probably even if they did, I wouldn’t have been able to express my logic in a way they could understand. But that’s not the point. Just because it’s difficult to understand a person’s communication, doesn’t meant you should assume they aren’t communicating anything. Can you see where I’m going with this, yet?
Yeah, it’s about autism. Autistic people – especially children – are assumed to be unable to communicate. Or worse, assumed that they don’t have anything to communicate in the first place.
I wasn’t a very ‘obvious’ autistic kid (otherwise I probably would have been diagnosed earlier!). But when I look back, it’s clear that a big chunk of the problem surrounding my behaviour and treatment at school was autism-related. My thought processes were different: that’s why I was bothered by things that seemed inexplicable or minor to other people. My emotions were different: that’s why I didn’t really have ‘degrees’ of anger which I could use to cool down. And most significantly, my communication was different: which is why teachers thought I was lying when I was telling the truth, and thought I wasn’t communicating anything even though I was trying my hardest.
When I look back, it would have been pretty simple for people to help me if they knew what to do. This isn’t necessarily advice for helping angry autistic kids (although if it helps, then all the better) – but it’s my thoughts about what would have helped this particular angry autistic kid.
- Ask me why I’m angry. Give me time to answer. Encourage me to think about it carefully and write it down in my own time. Believe the answers I give, even if you don’t think they make sense. Take them seriously, even if you think they’re silly or minor.
- Work with me to figure out why these things bother me. Can I find ways to understand them which will make me less angry? Can the situations be changed overall? Can they be prevented entirely?
- Explain the situation clearly. Explain if and why I’m being punished, and exactly how I can avoid being punished in future similar situations. Explain other people’s reasoning behind the things which are making me angry, even if you think it’s obvious.
- Tell me specifically what I should do when something bothers me. Tell me exactly why it’s a better option than my previous response of getting angry – for example, the problem will be solved more quickly and easily if I tell a teacher than if I try to deal with it myself. Then follow through on those promises, every time, no matter how seemingly small the things that’s bothering me.
- Give me a break. Being angry really takes it out of you. Don’t push me to join in with activities again quickly. Accept that I’m going to be tired and upset for a long while.
The funny thing is, I don’t get angry much these days. But it’s not because I learnt amazing anger management techniques from my teachers (hint: that didn’t happen). It’s because unfair things don’t happen to me much anymore. Because most of the time, people explain things to me, and assume that I can understand them, and believe me when I tell them things, and trust my reasoning. Those abilities haven’t changed much in the last ten years for me. Kids are clever and thoughtful and self-aware long before most people think. And I reckon that acknowledging that would solve a whole lot of problems in one go.