The door was flung open. On the doorstep stood a congenial fireman. It is 8:45 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. “You’re not suppose to be here,” my husband says, exasperation clear in his voice. “The appointment is for 09:15 a.m. and you are not suppose to be here now.” The fireman asks if he can enter. “No, you’re early, I am not ready, it is not 09:15 yet.”
The congenial fireman is calm and laid-back. “You’re absolutely right, I am half an hour early. I will come back on time.” He turns, walks to his car, climbs in and sits, waiting. The door is slammed shut (the door is always slammed shut because it doesn’t shut unless it is slammed, but the fireman doesn’t know that).
I wonder if he knows someone with Asperger Syndrome. I sure hope he does.
Everyone experiences the emotions associated with anger. Irritation, confusion, feeling overwhelmed, indignation, resentment and eventually anger that may lead to an outburst of rage. It happens to us all. It does not happen in quite the same way for those on the Autism Spectrum and Asperger Syndrome. From an observer’s point of view, there is just the explosive outburst with none of the build-up and it often feels as if the situation does not justify that level of emotion.
I have lived with someone who has Asperger’s for 12 years and anger is a very complex emotion. I cannot begin and wouldn’t want to try and jot down a how-to-solve-all-anger-issues in a few paragraphs, but here are a few quick pointers that summarize our basic approach to minimize anger outbursts.
Plan, think and stop before it starts
Anger outbursts may seem to appear out of nowhere for both the person with Asperger Syndrome as well as people nearby, but just because the build-up is invisible, does not mean it isn’t there. Anger outbursts usually does not happen instantly. At times we may all have a shorter fuse, like when we are particularly stressed, unwell or not getting enough sleep, but even then, there are still time to avert a melt-down by paying attention.
For those with Aspergers:
- Recognize stressful situations and be prepared for the emotions it may trigger. Employ coping and calming strategies (see ‘Have a Plan’ below) even before stress registers.
- Try to pay attention to recognizable signals that stress, frustration, indignation and anger is building and take some time out when it happens.
- Employ a previously worked out coping strategy to manage anger.
- Find a quiet, safe and comfortable environment to relax for a little while or if that isn’t possible, have something calming or relaxing to look at or do.
For neurotypical friends, colleagues and family
- Talk about it when everyone is calm and rested. Work out a good strategy or ask what strategies they have to deal with anger outbursts. Get professional help if required.
- Check in regularly and ask how they are doing. The occasional, “Doing okay?” can stave off many a crisis.
- Help create a safe environment for chilling out. Have a space at home, work and if possible when out (we have a Motability van with tinted windows) that is always available as a quiet, safe and familiar environment. Encourage using it at any time and be supportive about it.
- It’s extremely difficult to reason with anyone having an anger outburst, whether they are 3 or 50, autistic or not. Don’t even try. Employ the coping strategies jointly put in place and take a step back until things are calmer.
- Leave analytical conversations about how, what or why it happened for another day. Move on for now or run the risk of repeating the whole experience over and over for hours, days or weeks.
Have a plan
We have a set routine and system. It applies to everyone, those with and without Asperger Syndrome, including our three year old. Our plan looks something like this:
For the person doing the yelling
- Stop yelling, stop talking, stop rambling, stop seething, just stop. Hit the pause button (metaphorically speaking).
- Take a deep breath, or two or ten.
- Retreat to a quiet place of your choice.
- Do something you find relaxing – play with a stress ball, play with sand, turn on some flashy lights or look at glow in the dark planets and stars on the ceiling, go for a walk, have a nap. Whatever is needed, however long it takes, keep at it until completely calm.
- Return to the land of the living, say sorry, then move on.
- In a day or so find someone to talk to about being angry and see if there is anything else that can be done to prevent it from happening again.
For the people being yelled at
- Don’t yell back.
- Say “stop”.
- If that doesn’t work, say “Giraffe” and hold up your hand in a stop sign. (Quite often triggers a giggling fit, everyone laughs and anger diffused).
- Wait and see what happens by counting to 10.
- If they have stopped yelling, don’t badger, go on with what was happening before the yelling started. If they are still yelling, suggest they find a quiet place to calm down.
- If they go, don’t follow. Leave them be until they come back (check on them often though to make sure they’re okay, but don’t talk).
- If they stay, give them space (either physically by leaving or emotionally by just letting them be) until they initiate conversation.
- Once they start talking, move on and pick up where things left off.
- If they say sorry, accept their apology.
- In a day or so talk to them about being angry and see if there is anything else that can be done to prevent it from happening again.