A number of people have reached out to me privately with questions about how to help their child who is violent. They fear for their other children’s safety as well as their own, but are frightened to reach out for help because they worry their child will be taken from them. This is not an easy topic. If you do not have a child who is prone to violence, it is difficult to imagine what that child is going through. If you are not and have never been the recipient of violence it is difficult to imagine what that is like. Similar to self injury/harm this is a hot button topic for many people, not just parents who feel powerless to help their child and feel they have nowhere to turn, but for the person who does not have any other way to express themselves.
So I am asking for all of your help. If you once were or currently are someone who knows anything about responding to the environment and people in your life with violence, and are comfortable telling me what that experience is/was like for you, please email me at: email@example.com. Also if you are in a position to tell me what might have helped, what, if anything, might have given you the support you needed/wanted. Was there anyone you could talk to? If you cannot speak or cannot rely on verbal speech when upset, were you able to type? Would that have helped? Is there anything that might help/would have helped? Do you have advice for parents? Do you have advice for those who are under the care of another person? If you are the parent of a child you are frightened of and want to reach out, please do. Please describe your situation as best you can, as well as what might be helpful to you. In other words would a help/hotline (if one were available) be something you would use? Would you prefer an anonymous support group where you could discuss what you are going through with others? Would something else be helpful? Anyone who contacts me will remain anonymous. Anything you tell me, I will quote as anonymous. If you prefer that what you write NOT be quoted, please be sure to tell me that. All names and/or places you tell me about will remain confidential.
I don’t know what can be done, but it seems to me, from some of the stories I’m being told, that something needs to be done/created to help all involved. Maybe you know of resources that have helped, maybe something you’ve tried helped, maybe there was something/one helped you. If any of you know of anything, please let me know. Any and all information is appreciated. Maybe just talking about what’s going on in a safe place is a start. You can also write in the comments section anonymously, if you prefer doing that.
Ben Forshaw just wrote an impressive post about his own tendency to get violent. http://bjforshaw.blogspot.com/2013/09/violence-as-means-of-expression.html
What a lot of parents will probably say is that he doesn’t turn his rages (meltdowns, really) onto others, unlike their child. But it comes from the same place, I think. I taught myself how to throw pillows and stuffed toys across the room because I had a tendency to start hitting people and I hated that about myself but in that moment I was unable to stop myself. So I taught myself to redirect, and redirect it to something that wouldn’t still hurt someone if it hit them. Because at first I still threw the pillows and toys AT people, before I learned that throwing it somewhere else would work as well. It didn’t feel as effective but at least I could DO something.
I was 20 years old.
I’m sure my parents tried to stop me from being violent before that time, but I can’t remember. All I can remember is that realisation at 20 that I didn’t want to hurt people anymore. And so I found something else. But I couldn’t do it before I was that old.
The violence before that wasn’t intended to harm anyone. It was NOT HAVING WORDS and SO MUCH FEELS and STOP TALKING I CAN’T MAKE SENSE OF THINGS and HELP ME NOTICE MY DESPAIR NOTICE MY NO WORDS HELP ME. And above all just stop stop stop stop stop.
It came out as rage. And that wasn’t supposed to happen. I was a good kid. I was easy. I did well in school. All the teachers loved me. I had friends. Not many, but I had some. I was not a problem child. It’s why nobody ever even mentioned I might be autistic. There simply wasn’t a problem.
Except that whenever things got too much, I was completely incapable of dealing with that.
I don’t have any wise words. Maybe my experiences will help someone. I don’t want anyone to get beaten up by their child. But I also want those children to get more help than I did. Because I hated myself for being that way. But I still had to figure it out all by myself.
Oh and yes you can quote me if needed Ariane. It’s why I didn’t post anonymously. 🙂
Thanks so much!
Yeah, I hear you on the not having words and so much feels and stop talking I can’t make sense of things etc.
Especially big for me was stop yelling at me so I can think and figure out what you want because I don’t even know what you want and why you’re screaming at me I just know you’re screaming and I can’t take it just stop.
(and telling them I needed them to stop yelling was interpreted as defiance which got more yelling and screaming from them and etc)
Usually violence was that I physically felt I would explode if I didn’t do something to get away and so I needed to make space to get away. Big big big thing for me was fear. I was angry, yes, but I was angry because I was terrified and being made fun of and punished and screamed at for having that fear which just made the fear worse until my heart was beating so hard it felt my chest would explode and I could see and hear and feel my pulse pounding.
I’d just like to add, as the author of the blog post mentioned by autisticook above, that you are welcome to quote freely from that post as well as anything I comment here. I’ve already put it out here in public of my own accord, so I have no problem with my name being mentioned.
I’ve tried commenting on your post as well but blogspot keeps eating my words. Annoying! Need to figure out why this is happening.
Weird… Anyhow I just overhauled the comments on my blog to use Disqus instead of the default, so please try again when you get a chance 🙂 Hopefully there won’t be any more problems with it now. Can’t have my readers getting annoyed!
Thanks for writing that post and thank you Autisticook for leaving the link here so others could read it.
Looking back with the advantage of age and wisdom, do you think there was anything anyone could have done to help you, so you didn’t have to figure it all out by yourself?
I will have to think about that. My memories are fairly fragmented after so many years and the meltdown/shutdown aspect of it doesn’t really help in retaining a cognitive memory of things either. But I will try! I want to help the parents as much as I want to help the children.
That’s so nice of you. Thanks so much for being willing to talk about this stuff.
When I was a kid, I’d get violent. The absolute #1 thing – and it’s hard for adults to do this when a kid is seeming “defiant” – that I needed when I was violent was space. It depends on the kid, but I would typically only lash out violently if my parents/siblings wouldn’t back off after I’d told them or otherwise signaled that I needed space. I was in flight-or-fight, and they removed flight from my options. So I fought.
as for seeming defiant: I’m talking about situations that start like so:
kid: *feeling a bit frazzled and overwhelmed after a busy day*
Parent: *asks kid to do something*
kid: *Freezes and hesitates, seemingly purposefully not doing something, actually caught in analysis paralysis*
Parent: *demands kid do something in different language which seems confusing*
kid: *refuses reflexively due to confusion*
Parent: *gets angry and yells at kid to do something*
kid: *Starts crying and yelling back, probably trying to retreat at the same time*
Parent: *follows kid*
Situation snowballs from there.
I could not even count how many situations I had like that as a kid per week. My meltdowns usually followed exchanges like the above with my parents. My parents were perceiving willful defiance. I was experiencing confusion, bewilderment and hurt because I didn’t even get a handle on what my parents wanted from me before they were yelling and threatening punishments and then I didn’t know why I was getting punished and snowball. And my outrage and hurt at being punished for reasons I didn’t understand was interpreted by my parents as further defiance that had to be smacked down lest I get spoiled. Snowball.
So often in parenting literature/advice they talk about not allowing the person who is being violent to believe their violence is going to give them what they want. (I believe much of the behavioral approaches are based in this assumption as well.) But from reading these comments, it doesn’t sound as though this is about a “power struggle” at all, but about too much information (whether that’s made up of outside stimuli, internal conflict, overwhelm etc). Is that accurate? That in your experience this had nothing to do with trying to get your way or about engaging in a power struggle?
For me, violence of the meltdown variety (as opposed to sibling bickering violence, which stopped around age 8) was never so much about getting my way and more about getting away, if that makes sense.
I’m sure my parents did perceive a power struggle. I wasn’t trying to power struggle with them when I became violent, and rarely even when we had shouting matches. Usually when we had shouting matches it wasn’t about me trying to get my way as about me protesting unfairness.
Pretty much the only fights I remember having with them that actually were legit power struggles was when they tried to control stuff I should have control over – like whether or not I liked what I liked (my mother was fond of dictating to me what my preferences were – “you don’t like sweets” and “but you like skirts!” when I did in fact like sweets and I have hated skirts for as long as I could remember) or how I should spend my own free time (my father was fond of telling me I could have free time and then trying to dictate how I should spend said free time – usually with activities that I didn’t like).
My parents, however, interpreted pretty much everything I did short of blind, unquestioning, immediate, cheerful, and perfect compliance as willful disobedience and an attempt at a power struggle and responded by escalating the situation. Even stuff like not being able to write neatly and being unable to tie my shoes was willful defiance as far as they were concerned, not simply not having the skill for it.
“…was never so much about getting my way and more about getting away” Oh yes, it does make a great deal of sense. Thanks so much for being so open about all of this. I think these kinds of discussions are really, really important.
And, again, I want to emphasize that I’m talking meltdown violence here, not a tantrum or sibling rivalry or what have you – my sister and I beat each other up pretty good more than a few times, and that was all sibling rivalry type stuff. And I’m sure when I was a very small child (I’m talking 2-4ish here), I’d hit my parents in anger even if I don’t remember it just because most kids do at that age. But meltdown violence, which is what I think you were asking about, was usually fear-based, and it was the only kind of not-obviously-self-defense violence I engaged in that persisted past early childhood into preteenagerdom and adolescence.
So, can I ask….how can you tell if a situation is like the one you described above, and how can you tell if it is a kid just not wanting to do something? My son is 4, and it is really hard for me to pick apart the root of his responses sometimes. He is a kid….so he is going to sometimes just not want to do what is asked of him. I try to be very respectful of “where he is at” (ie—can he process language right now? is he regulated?) when I request things of him, and I try my hardest to respond in compassionate understanding ways, but I have a hard times sometimes figuring out whether he WONT or whether he CANT.
I was just talking to his speech therapist (she is extremely developmental and “gets” this stuff) about this exact situation. Her suggestion was to slow everything down, give him a lot of time to process, acknowledge his feelings, and also let him know that any aggression is not OK (I know you are mad because you have to get dressed, but I don’t want you to kick me). Yes? No? I am trying to catch the “upsets” when they first start and keep them from escalating, but at the same time, I think that sometimes he is just acting out because he is a kid, and that’s what they do, and those situations should be gently handled as they would be handled with any other NT kid. I’d appreciate any thoughts or feedback. I feel like we are just starting down this meltdown/upset/aggression path, so I’d like to handle it the right way from the start.
I’m no parenting expert, so take this with a heavy grain of salt. I’ve just been there from the kid’s side.
However: Definitely, letting him know hitting is not appropriate is good. All kids need to learn to not hit, I think. However, be sure to match it with an acceptable emotional outlet – I was not given acceptable emotional outlets by my parents and so bottled everything up until I hit a burnout point and crashed and burned pretty bad in high school (there was a lot of other stuff going on then as well, but I’m pretty sure my inability to let anyone know of my distress was a huge part of it), and learning how to let out my emotions and seek help for them when I need to was a major factor in reducing my meltdowns. I’ve been able to avoid a full meltdown for months now, mainly because I’ve concentrated a lot in the past few years on learning how to notice my emotions, identify them, let them out, and self-care for them appropriately. If you could prevent the whole “how does emotions?” problem before it arises by teaching him mental health self-care and putting words to what he’s feeling, that’d be great for him. And, frankly, that’s something everyone should be taught.
Slowing it down is maybe good for a small kid, but as he gets older, he might find it condescending (I did when teachers would slow stuff down for me after about age 10 or so). To me, clear and concise is more important than slow. Your mileage my vary. But even as an adult, I can’t do vague instructions on a bad day at all. And I’m an adult.
So if you want something done, I’d advise being clear and concise, and keeping in mind that clear to you isn’t necessarily clear to him. For example, kids often don’t have a good definition of what “tidy” is (I definitely did not and struggled with it well into my teens – partly because the task was overwhelming due to executive function and partly because define “tidy” since its meaning seems to change week-to-week and task-to-task), and so it’s kind of setting them up to fail if you tell them to tidy their room when what you mean is “pick up your toys and put them in their boxes” this week but “put away your toys, put away the things on your desk, organize your desk, fold and put away your clothes, make your bed, and wipe down the horizontal surfaces with a wet cloth to get rid of dust” next week.
Related: Do not chatter aimlessly around the point if you want him to do something. My mother would often do that – chattering about family members and so on and then in the exact same verbal paragraph she’d ask me something and I wouldn’t pick up that she’d made a request until about two beats later and then I’d say, “Huh?” and she’d get annoyed with me. I think she thought I wasn’t paying attention when it was more that the question hit me out of the blue. I can’t really articulate it very well, but don’t do a verbal wall of text and expect him to be able to parse out what you want from it. Verbal paragraph breaks are your friend. So, pause and make sure it’s obvious you’re changing your verbal track before you do, I guess, for want of a better way of articulating it.
Finally, as an adult, I’m finding more and more that everything in my life affects everything else, as far as my emotions go. So, if I’m short of sleep, that makes me less patient and less tolerant of change and more prone to getting stressed out, which makes it harder for me to sleep. Etc. So, maybe don’t focus exclusively on the situation-at-hand as a cause?
Case in point: I had a near-miss with a meltdown earlier today over getting lost in a building. But it wasn’t just that I was getting lost (or even that I’d gotten lost in there 3 times in the past 2 days alone), it’s also because I’m starting a PhD program in a new faculty with new faces and courses and material to learn and while it’s all exciting and everything, the building is a maze (you can have room 32 next to 51 and across the hall from 39 and also 11 in this building, there’s no organization to it and it’s aggravating the hell out of me), and I’m trying to set up a new research routine and the department is a lot busier than my old department so there’s a lot of people around all the time, and for some reason they thought sticking a pong set in the hallway so it would go bip-bip-bip-bip was a good idea and also I’m getting over an illness that had me really sick last week and the administration screwed up my paperwork (and any time I need paper work done it always gets screwed up either by me or somebody else and I thought that this time would be the time I get it right, but apparently not so I’m beating myself up about that), and I’ve had to do a lot of face-to-face with new people to sort the paperwork issues out which has me under pressure to pass so they don’t get a bad first impression of me, and finally I didn’t get a lot of sleep either last night or the night before because I’m stressed out because of all of the above, so I’m exhausted on top of all that. It’s pretty overwhelming.
I didn’t mini-meltdown because I got lost, I had a mini-meltdown because I’m sick, stressed out, and short of sleep and an appropriate trigger presented itself. If it wasn’t that, it would have been something else because I’m wound tighter than a spring.
I’m sure you as a parent know this already, but kids are way, way more sensitive to that sort of stuff than adults. So maybe he needs an earlier bedtime or is stressed out about school and that’s making him on-edge and vulnerable to meltdowns in the first place. And it’s not only autistic kids who are vulnerable to that stuff – an allistic kid I know who recently became a big sibling and is also starting school has been melting down several times a week from the stress of it all and acting out a lot more than normal for her.
As for how to tell processing versus willfulness, that’s knowing how your child expresses emotion, I think. For me, if I’m processing, I often get a deer-in-the-headlights type of look on my face, I’m told. When I was a kid, if I was being defiant, I would make it very clear through adamant refusal. But that will vary depending on the kid. If I was scared, I would instead avoid the task. But complicating things is that due to pain from my motor dysgraphia, I would often adamantly refuse to do writing. I wasn’t being willful about but rather it was hurting me and I didn’t have words for how it hurt me. As I got older, I’d also adamantly refuse stuff out of anxiety sometimes, if it was a task I felt I never could do to my parents’ standards, like cleaning my room. Here, I was being willful, but I was being willful because I judged the punishment for refusing to do my room was better than being yelled at for “half-assing” when I didn’t know what was being asked and I didn’t have a script for articulating my confusion in a way that didn’t result in my parents punishing me for “acting stupid” (note that I was tested as gifted-and-talented as a kid and grew up undiagnosed with DDs since my parents mistakenly felt the two were mutually exclusive, so a lot of problems my parents and I had are due to the fact that they didn’t realize I’m twice exceptional so all my autism, executive function, and motor dysgraphia issues were chalked up as behavioral). So, I guess, keep in mind that even defiance is not necessarily due to willfulness and might be due to some other factor.
Um. This got really long, so I hope you don’t mind me info-dumping at you, and bear in mind this comes from the point-of-view of a non-parent. I did take care of younger siblings and foster siblings far more than I should have had to as a teenager, so I do have child care experience, but I don’t think it’s a perfect substitute especially since I was not in the emotional or maturity place to be a good surrogate parent to my younger sibs at that age and basically made a hot mess of it. I get the kid’s POV, but not the parent’s as a result and can’t really advise on how to be a good parent.
Thanks so much. This was super helpful. And I appreciate the info-dumping….context is always good.
I realize that there has been a LOT going on with Nathan in the last few weeks. The dog very unexpectedly died last Tuesday. On Sunday he asked where he was and got very sad when I told him that he was “all gone” and we won’t see him again because he went to live with his dog mommy. His reaction kind of surprised me because he and the dog kind of co-existed and I didn’t get the impression that he really liked him that much. Man, was I wrong. He also started school last week, and he has never been in any school/daycare like situation before. WE did a lot of prep before and I went with him the first two days, and he appears to be loving it, but it is still a big adjustment.
I guess I am just afraid that if he doesn’t learn to control himself now, we are going to have issues later in life. As a parent, I need to teach him some self control (when it is possible for him) and not to be aggressive toward other people. I’m just afraid that if I mistake his “I CANTs” for “I WONTs” I will scar him for life. For example, today he was outside playing with his therapist for an hour. It is 95 degrees out. His therapist asked him to hit the t-ball two times. He got upset and fell to the ground and started loudly complaining. She finally got him to hit the ball twice, and then he said he wanted a drink. I said that we should go inside for a little bit (I suspected that he got so upset because he was hot, and then was asked to do something he didn’t want to do). He didn’t want to go in, but I had him come in anyway. Once inside he started screaming that he wanted to go outside. I told him that he could go back out in a little bit. I gave him his water, which he threw on the floor, and then asked for again immediately. I gave it back, and told him if he threw it again, he would be all done with it. He threw it again, so I took it away. He screamed, threw himself on the floor and started flailing around. I got out the ipad (which he likes) and turned on his favorite video as a distraction. He screamed “No! Put it away!” So I turned it off. Then he screamed “Ipad! Want it!” So I turned it back on, put it down, and left the room. Within a few minutes he calmed down and his therapist was able to join him again. What I was seeing was that he was hot and irritable, but overall he was just mad that he had to play t-ball and go inside when he didn’t want to. I’m not seeing meltdown as much as defiance, as he had control of his expressive language, he was pretty much in control of his actions, and he calmed down once there was no audience to perform for. So, with this sort of thing, should I just treat it like any other 4 year old tantrum because he didn’t get his way?
Oh, also I didn’t clarify “slow down” very well. I didn’t mean physically slow down my speech, but slow down the entire situation. Like, giving the direction, and if he gets upset giving him processing him instead of rushing him through something that he is not ready to do. Physically slowing down my language would be condescending, I agree.
Beth, I think I’d say what you saw was not simple defiance. It sounds like Nathan really was overwhelmed and reacting in a spontaneous way, not just being stubborn. The fact that he didn’t scream continuously and wasn’t consistent in his responses but that he was able to answer questions at all might be what’s confusing you. I’m not convinced he understood the situation entirely himself by the time he was behaving that way. As an adult, I don’t always know when I’m overheated and overwhelmed, and I can seem very unreasonable without intending to be. I only know I’m having angry, irritated, upset feelings and that things aren’t the way I need them to be. It’s taken many years to sort all this out for myself and to learn better ways of handling things.
I wasn’t there, and I don’t know either of you, but it seems that Nathan didn’t calm down due to a lack of an audience, from what I can tell. He calmed down because there was no more input to wind him up, and he had a comfort item to help him focus and sooth himself. That’s what I think ischemgeek was trying to tell you about.
I’d be concerned about any child developing the kind of anger towards her- or himself that I learned to have towards myself from not being understood and being accused of “putting on a display” when I couldn’t regulate myself. I learned to turn anger inward when I had no outlet for anger towards others or external circumstances, as well as when I knew I was behaving in a way that met with the disapproval of authority figures. I may have seemed like a “good” kid for not harming others, which I never wanted to do anyway, but I destroyed my own drawings and other possessions (which my mother knew about) and sometimes injured myself (which I generally hid), and that was still violent action. It’s difficult and embarrassing to admit to.
Kid’s don’t always know why they do what they do, and they don’t necessarily do what they do with the intention of inflicting harm. I won’t identify, out of respect for privacy, the child I’m about to discuss, but someone I know used to run up and shove people hard enough to knock them over, even though he didn’t seem angry. His mother worried this was a bullying behavior. She was very angry the time he pushed me over while I was crouching on the floor (to pet the cat or something, I think). But I asked him, making a guess at the time, if he felt as though he was so excited and happy that he didn’t know what else to do with someone he liked other than to run over and give that person a big push. He thought about it for a moment and then said he thought so. I let him know I understood that feeling and hoped he could find another way to express it, because the feeling itself was okay. Feelings aren’t wrong; I was only concerned about the way he was letting that feeling out. To be clear: my emphasis was on understanding, not on disapproval, even though I was plain about not liking to be shoved. As far as I know, that was the last time he pushed anybody over.
Now, I’m not claiming it’s always that simple and easy. In fact, with kids in general, and especially with autistic kids, it’s necessary to be persistent over a long period of time with things that can be a lot more challenging – and even sometimes rather scary. But calm, understanding, and consistency over time will not only reinforce the message, they’ll provide reassurance and a sense of security. Trust is easily broken and hard to rebuild, especially when it comes to someone who finds the world harsh and confusing to begin with. Over time, however, the two of you can grow together, learning from each other and building a sense of mutual trust during times of difficulty. The more he trusts you to help him instead of punishing him for having feelings, being confused, or being overwhelmed, the less intense his reactions may be, and the more he’ll develop self-regulation by doing for himself what you’ve modeled by doing it for him. And the more he trusts you and is open to your help, whether it’s a way that you talk to him or that you give him space and a chance to calm himself, the more you’ll find you can trust him in the genuineness of his self-expression (rather than seeing him as manipulative) and in his ability to learn to help himself. Consequently, you’ll get even better at what you’re doing, and he’ll respond even better. And so the cycle of improvement will go… but it will take time and determination. You’ll also find it easier, over time, to distinguish between meltdown types of situations and ordinary childhood moments, I would think.
My mother had issues of her own, including her own sensory issues and on/off emotions. There was a lot she didn’t know, including about herself. Parents aren’t perfect people; they’re doing the best they can with the knowledge and tools they have. I often think some parents and their kids kind of grow up together, in a sense. In the beginning, their own issues can become part of their kids’ issues. That’s not because they’re bad people. It’s because the nature of a relationship is that things affecting one person in it can come to affect another. The child who acts violently may only be the one showing the most obvious signs of struggles and needs affecting the whole family. Being autistic (diagnosed or not) can mean being thought to be at fault for whatever goes wrong, in all situations and circumstances. I applaud parents who make an effort to see a larger picture when both autism and the simple fact of being a kid make it so their child cannot. Thank you for all you’re doing to help make things better for your son and for yourself.
To me, that sounds like how I’d get when I was exhausted, cranky and overwhelmed all at once but for whatever reason I didn’t have a full meltdown that day. I don’t really remember having tantrums much because I grew out of them pretty quickly, but based on my experience caring for kids, tantrums are an “I want that one thing and you’re not giving it to me!” thing. The kid knows what they want, and they’ll scream until they either realize they’re not going to get it or until they do get it.
To me, it doesn’t seem like tantrum, it’s more of a meltdown type of beast. That sort of everything makes me upset and I need to get away to calm down situation is actually what I meant above by “mini-meltdown”. It’s the same beast as a full meltdown, but with a less-severe expression and usually a shorter duration. Most importantly, as an adult I can stop it before it gets up steam to get into full meltdown territory. When I have a mini-meltdown, my emotions are out of control, but I usually still mostly have control over language and actions. Learning to recognize that mini-meltdown was a precursor to meltdown was a big step in me learning how to head off and avoid full meltdowns for me.
As for what to do, I can only offer what helped me since as I’ve said, I’m not a parent. For me, learning how to recognize my emotions and self-advocate in a constructive way was huge. I was already sort-of self-advocating as a kid, but the thing was that nobody recognized what I meant by what I was doing. If I plugged my ears, they saw me ignoring them when I was trying to signal that they were too loud and my ears hurt, for example. Giving him words for, “I’m too hot,” and “I need a break,” and suchlike when he’s in such situations might help him in the long run.
In the short run, once I reach mini-meltdown, I might be able to respond and talk and not hit stuff, but I’m not exactly in full possession of my faculties. You can’t reason me out of a mini-meltdown. You can’t talk me out of being upset. Your attempts at talking me out of it will probably make me more upset. I need space and a lack of input to calm down from it.
Maybe modeling going away to calm down and setting up a ‘safe spot’ he can go to calm down when he needs it would be useful? But make sure it isn’t ever used as a punishment, just as a place to calm down. When I was a kid, part of why I hated handwriting lessons (I had undiagnosed motor dysgraphia growing up) so much was because my teacher and parents would make me do extra writing as punishment so I always felt like I was being punished for no reason if they gave me stuff to practice. As such, assigning me handwriting practice for “no reason” could trigger a meltdown on a bad day – because to me it was the same as if someone had told you when you were 8 that you had to go to your room and not watch television for the next two weeks just out of the blue and then refused to tell you why and insisted it wasn’t a punishment, that you just need practice entertaining yourself. If you use his safe space as a punishment space when he has actual tantrums, he’ll associate it with punishment and then be outraged if he feels he’s doing pretty good at not exploding and you tell him he needs to go to his quiet space.
Oh, the other really, really, really big thing that might be obvious and if it is I apologize: Don’t expect him to learn this stuff quickly or to do it perfectly even when he does start to get a handle on it. I had to learn it on my own and basically didn’t even start to get a decent handle on it until my early- to mid-20s. Even with help from someone, it’s going to take him time to learn this stuff. Don’t set where I am or where any other adult commenting here is as your immediate goal because no pre-schooler has adult emotional regulation. Even allistic kids take time to learn emotional self-care skills.
It’s probably not going to be a quick fix because even as an adult learning from self help skills classes and mentoring, it took me years to grasp stuff like, “Oh, anger is the word for what I’m feeling when I can see my pulse and my face is hot and my whole body feels like pins and needles and my hands ache from clenching them and I feel like I need to hit something,” or “I can’t tough out being overwhelmed, I need to get out of the situation.” And your son is four. It will be better for Nathan if he can learn to pay attention to and take care of his emotional well-being right from the get-go, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy to learn stuff the right way the first time.
Finally, thanks a lot for trying to get it right the first time – he’ll have a lot less on his plate at 24 if you get stuff right at 4, so kudos for not assuming he’s just being bratty when he’s out-of-control like that.
Thank you so much for doing this! I am just starting to experience this with my girls and it will be so nice to have some good information right off the bat!
It’s already an enlightening discussion!
I am not a violent person, but I have a deep, dark potential to be. I was raised in a violent home. Both of my parents’ violence was enough to put me in the hospital twice with head injuries requiring stitches. All my life, being subjected to that and unable to control it being thrust upon me, and becoming uncontrollably violent myself when I would hit a rage (uncontrollably being the operative word there) I felt from a very young age, something was wrong about this, this isn’t how parents and siblings are supposed to treat each other. It wasn’t until I was in high school though that I came to realize life wasn’t like this for everyone, and in fact many of my friends had families that enjoyed being with each other and that was so foreign to me at first I couldn’t understand it.
As I got older and learned that my situation was the exception rather than the rule, I developed a coldness toward my family. They were still and will always be my family, but I felt, somehow separated, detached from them, and I seemed to be the only one who could see something wrong with how we treated each other. The thought of it sickens me, that my parents could have done those things to us (my older brother has cerebral palsy and he and I and my younger brother seemed to get the brunt of our dad’s violence.)
One thing I learned from my parents was how NOT to be with my own children. I could get extremely angry and I would feel myself reaching the out of control stage. I put distance between myself and my children long before that happened, until I was back in control so as to not hurt them. I no longer have those towering, uncontrollable rages. I think possibly because my own sense of danger was removed, possibly though also I have been able to talk about things, and learned ways to properly release my emotions before they build up to that level. It has taken years for me to over come that. How much better would it have been if I hadn’t be raised in violence to begin with?
So with my own children I was able to break the cycle of abuse. I’m the only one of my siblings that has been able to unfortunately. I know what it’s like to live in fear and constantly alert for an attack. I know that feeling also of being out of control and the adrenaline rush that pumps you full of the ability to lift buses off your small child to save his/her life, but can also be damaging enough to render your child unconscious or dead in a heart beat. There is always an underlying reason. Most of the time when I would reach those rages, it was not my children that was the issue, it was something else, something deeper and something difficult to express in words. Feelings of being ignored or misunderstood caused frustration as a child that would cause me to lash out just as my parents and siblings did. I never realized how destructive violence could really be until a time when I was about 13 and hit my younger sister in one of my rages. Before I was finished, she was bleeding. That is when it hit me and that was when I turned my rages inward and began cutting myself. That’s another entire part of it that I’ll not get into now.
I don’t think there was any one person that helped me figure it out. I read a lot of books, was very careful around my children until I was able to manage my frustration and the rage that went with it. Writing became a great way for me to express myself (Loved creative writing in high school) and the written word has helped me learn to express myself verbally more effectively. I still have to take time when I’m feeling frustrated, to sort my words out otherwise I tend to ramble, but I can get there in the end. Writing was hard for me at a young age, reading also due to what I believe is undiagnosed dyslexia. I would try to read but it seemed words would hide, move around or even the letters in words and it was just hard for me to do it. Writing helped with that, and I am now an avid reader. I’ve tried to write a few novels, I’ve begun 7 in total, but have yet to finish one. My weakness in that regard is rambling too much. Which I just realized I am doing now. So I’m going to go and make coffee (it’s not even 8:30am here) and get ready for my day to move forward.
Thanks so much Lara for sharing all of this. Really appreciate it!
This may or not be helpful, because I am the NT mom of a four year old ASD kiddo, so I can only give my perspective. Recently Nathan has started to get somewhat aggressive. Some hitting, kicking, and biting, mostly when we ask him to do something that he doesn’t want to do, or when he has to transition away from something he likes to do. At this point it is pretty controllable (we can easily hold his hands if he tries to hit or move our arm away if he tries to bite). I would agree with ischemgeek….space. And I would agree with austiticook…..” It was NOT HAVING WORDS and SO MUCH FEELS and STOP TALKING I CAN’T MAKE SENSE OF THINGS and HELP ME NOTICE MY DESPAIR NOTICE MY NO WORDS HELP ME.” What helps the most is, if he is getting upset because of transitions or not wanting to do something is to wait. My inner motto is “DON’T. ANYBODY. MOVE.” As in, he doesn’t need any words or other sensory input. He needs to process. The other thing that has been helpful is to verbalize his thoughts for him. “I know that you don’t want to come inside now.” He can’t verbalize for himself, especially when he is upset, but this way he can still be heard.
I would LOVE to hear more thoughts from other autistics on this topic. I think a lot of other parents/caregivers would. What can we do to help our kiddos get through these situations? What are things that are not helpful?
Thanks Beth… DON’T. ANYBODY. MOVE. is something I’ve heard by a number of people who have said this is literally the ONLY thing that has been helpful once things have gotten to such a heated point.
If you don’t mind, here’s just a little suggestion. Instead of saying, “I know that you…” you might say “It seems like…” or “I think that you…” or “It looks to me that…”
I used to have real anger problems as a kid, often resorting to violence towards the people around me. I’d lash out at family and friends and would absolutely hate myself for it afterwards. I “grew out of it” and had developed non-violent coping skills by the time I was in my early teens so I don’t think I *really* hurt anyone, although at home I think I did have a tendency to throw objects towards people or otherwise use objects as weapons rather than my own body.
I totally agree with the above comments about space being important; as a young child I’d get sent to my room, throw the bedding around a bit, then eventually calm down. I gradually learned to just storm off upstairs of my own accord (even now, at 19, I still run off to my room if there’s conflict or if I’m overloading). However, at school that wasn’t an option, and at secondary school there were certain people who would basically push me into meltdowns for fun; most of the teachers were fairly understanding and would know who really started it (that sounds really childish, but in my defence, I was a child!) but otherwise, I still have no idea how to cope with that sort of thing other than “get out of there as quickly as possible”.
I’m really verbal but of course during meltdowns etc I had issues getting words out, and all the crying and yelling (on my part) doesn’t exactly help either. I think being able to rant about the anger-inducing situation online (especially where I know it’s unlikely any other people involved will see it) is a great help. These days. this also applies offline to a certain extent, though perhaps not immediately after the event!
The adults around me would tell me to take deep breaths, count to ten etc, and while I knew they meant well (and frankly, that was a much better way for them to deal with me than some of the other things I’ve read online, so I’m lucky really), that sort of thing didn’t really work for me. This was because at the time, I’d basically go into fight-or-flight mode so I absolutely was not thinking about that at all. I think it might also be to do with taking things literally, because apparently I’d just scream the numbers 1 through 10 at whoever told me to count, which obviously didn’t help matters. In hindsight, perhaps a more detailed plan was needed as far as that was concerned!! This made me feel really frustrated because that sort of thing was supposed to help and it didn’t and I felt like it was completely hopeless. Now, though, I do find deep breathing helps by giving me something else to focus on.
These days, like I said, my biggest coping mechanism is to get out of there and to a safe space (i.e. my room) as quickly as humanly possible. That doesn’t just apply to anger (I’m much less aggressive these days, and I genuinely can’t remember the last time I lashed out at someone) but just generally to situations I have a hard time dealing with (overloading, uncertainty, conflict even between other people, etc). Unless I’m *majorly* overloaded I tend to stick my MP3 player in and block the world out that way. Then, when I’m feeling a bit better, if there’s anything relevant to rant/whine about, I’ll get online and do that,even if it’s just privately to a friend on Facebook.. If I overload at home (i.e. not at uni) I’ll eventually venture out of my room and attempt small talk and apologies (whether they’re actually needed or not; “sorry” is every other word that comes out of my mouth these days!) but usually I won’t be very good at dealing with people for the rest of the day.
On a related note, while writing this, I remembered that when I was about 12/13/14, if I’d had a bad day at school, I would always listen to Face For The Radio by The View at quite a low volume (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lXWD5OrTTg – it doesn’t actually start until 0:49) to the point that I’d memorised the lyrics and I’d sing along quietly and calm myself down that way. Sometimes it would take four or five repeats, but it worked. Looking back, I guess that *one song* was more of a routine thing.
Hope this helps!!
It’s really helpful reading the various experiences people have had because everyone is saying that they found other ways to cope eventually, which, hopefully, will be calming to a parent who is frightened and in the midst of it.
When my parents were first told I might be autistic, naturally the first thing they did was Google it, and they were both terrified and really upset because of all the misinformation that’s out there. There is a *huge* need for more autistic voices on these subjects. The post was a great idea!!
I am so grateful to all of you who are commenting here. I’m learning a great deal and this conversation is giving me so much to think about, like – how I “view” the things my children do vs what they may actually be doing. How I perceive “behaviors” when what I’m seeing is actually a response to anxiety and overload. This whole idea of fight/flight and how that shows up and is demonstrated by any of us. Now I’m thinking about my marriage and how seemingly small disagreements can so quickly escalate into full on life or death upsets and how this is less about the reality of the situation and more about past baggage and how this also shows up when I’m interacting with my children…
I never found counting to ten helped at all, either. I didn’t really get the point. Typing it out, on the other hand, helps. And I get the point because typing it out helps me to organize my thoughts and also sometimes I can realize what’s really bugging me or see a solution to a problem that’s been bothering me once I write it all out there. Writing helps me to frame the problem and to organize my thought process.
The other thing I never really got the point of was to take deep breaths – all that ever did was make me lightheaded which made me even more upset. Some meditation techniques are helpful, though – tensing and relaxing muscles in series and so on is better.
Our son, now 15, no longer remembers the period when he could become violent. He was horrified when he asked where the scars on my arms came from and I told them he’d bitten me there. He gave me a black eye. I had my doctor asking if I needed a referral to a battered women’s shelter, because my arms were black and blue from wrist to shoulder. No, it was all my kid, and he inflicted that much damage when he was under 7.
Some of it happened because he was trying to self-injure; bite his own arms as he bit mine, or hit his head on a concrete floor, and I restrained him to prevent that and took the damage myself. It is not a choice I have ever regretted, but there were times, holding him with my arms and legs both wrapped around him, that I wondered what I’d do when he got too big for me to physically restrain that way.
I made him small pillows (about 3″ X 5″) that he could bite or throw at will. They were scattered all over the house, with several always tucked into my purse. He’d set himself to hurl a matchbox car and I’d slip the little pillow into his hand. He’d set his teeth in his arm and I’d slip a little pillow in around the edges. He learned to grab those first.
But the thing that made most difference was that we were adopted by a cat when he was 7. She treated him like a big noisy kitten, shoving him back if she thought he was too close to the street (she got there faster than I could), purring and rubbing her head against him when he started to tense up, following him everywhere it was possible for a cat to follow a small boy. My husband and I are both seriously allergic to cats. The medication we take to deal with that is a very small price to pay for what that cat and her daughter have done for our son.
He still loses language when he gets that overwhelmed, but he has developed his own mechanisms to cope. His room is sacrosanct. If he closes the door, he is telling us that he needs to be in complete control of his space and can’t deal with us. He takes usually takes one of the cats with him. He can sometimes tell us “I can’t talk now” before he closes that door. I can hear the meltdown clearly, but he damages nothing, including himself. When he’s calm, he tells me that having Tornado in his arms quiets him inside. We’ve reached the point where, if I see the signs that we refer to as “ticking” (as in a bomb ready to explode), I will go find his cat and hand her to him. I thank the Goddess that it works. He’s 6 feet tall and 170 pounds now. I’m 5’7″ and middle aged. I could no longer restrain him. I still cannot soothe him. His cats can.
Wow, thanks so much for sharing this!
I love all the comments this post has generated! You have created a wonderful forum for both autistic and non-autistic voices to come together and learn from each other. I feel privileged to be in such company. My son who is now 10 has been communicating with a letterboard for the past 8 months and it is the most amazing thing that has happened in our lives. I have had to apologize to him on numerous occasions for making a bad situation worse. He has spelled to me “I should not yell” and “I should not attack him” when he has a meltdown, one reason being it “hurts his nerves” and makes things worse. I know he has also been embarrassed at least on one occasion for my yelling drawing attention to something he was already ashamed of. I have found it best to give my son space when he gets this way. If this is not an option, staying calm works best. (Soma gave me the advice “you have to be like Mrs. Spock” in dealing with resistance-often violent resistance, being calm and not taking things personally, when I started working with Philip in communicating.)
Aw… Lisa. Your description of your son using the letter board and how it so profoundly has made a difference in all your lives… I so get that, so completely… Yes! It was the same for us. And yes, the apologies and the realization that for YEARS I so underestimated her. And now… now I live in a state of what I refer to as a “living amends” to her and will continue to for the rest of my life. I cannot undo all those mistakes, but I can do my best moving forward to be vigilant and aware and respectful and make sure I work as hard or harder than she does. Why should she be the one to do the majority of work? It’s funny now, looking back how this, this change in attitude made more of a difference in her “progress” than anything else we ever did. It was like a burden was lifted off her shoulders, and without realizing it, I was the burden.
PS Soma is a master at being like “Mrs. Spock”. Watching her work is incredible!
Pretty much what autisticook and ischemgeek have said. I’d also add that sometimes there is kind of a feeling of powerlessness, of knowing that no matter how bad I hurt someone I don’t/didn’t have the capacity to hurt them as much as they are hurting me, because they are hurting me with emotions and I can only use physical damage which just doesn’t, can’t, ever, inflict as much pain as emotions can. Sometimes it seems neurotypicals don’t think that way about it, but I don’t really grasp how and it’s hard not to feel they are being disingenuous about it. I understand that the *law* can only penalize physical damage because it’s too hard to quantify the other, but surely anything short of a permanently disabling injury( which after all hurts mostly because of the emotional pain of not being able to do what you want) is actually less harm than an emotional wound( which can never truly heal or be got rid of—even if you think you have, it’ll still be there coming back in your sleep, whenever anything else happens to cause stress)?
Emotional scars are tough and really hard to mend. Our bodies don’t heal from them the way we heal from physical injury. It’s the emotional wounds that cause the longer lasting trauma, those old wounds that get so easily triggered…
This a profound statement that certainly echos what I have learned from the spectrum kids I have worked with for the last 20 years. I have known some of the kids for 5-10 years, and have heard them voice the same thing! And right behind being extremely emotionally-sensitive is usually another kind of sensitivity that *hurts* so much more than the tactile hurting I might feel (a pinch or a bite that leaves a bruise). We know that sensory sensitivities vary from person to person, and a need for deep proprioception (squishing) is a sure clue as to what isn’t registering. One of my very good friends tells me, “You hurt my ears! You hurt my heart!” when I speak in anything louder than a quiet voice (even just raise my voice slightly because there’s ambient noise around us). To him, that is not only offensive, but truly *violence*. He was once taught that it was wrong to say, “Shut up,” which he got from characters who used it playfully in movies. So, he substituted pinching. He is still undoing the years of pinching instead, and it has been very difficult for him to regain his voice to advocate for himself. He receives very appropriate OT services (including Listening Therapy), and things are getting better, but in real life, the assaults on his ears are constant.
If I may offer a tip for your friend: two words: Wax earplugs. Regular earplugs make my ear canals hurt after about 10 minutes, but wax ones like the kind they give people prone to ear infections for swimming have become my new favorite thing in the world ever since I tried them to protect my infected ear this month while I showered. They dampen the intensity of sound without making that weird frequency-blending effect a lot of foam earplugs have, I find. They’re cheap. They’re fairly neutral colored so are unobtrusive enough that most people don’t notice you’re wearing them and so won’t make fun of you for them (if he’s in a life-spot where bullying is a concern), plus they make great stim toys when you don’t need them in. 😀
Powerlessness, yes! Like knowing your parents/adults have already made up their mind about what’s going on and what will happen and if they’re asking you at all, it’s just to put on a show of wanting your opinion when they actually don’t care, and knowing you can’t articulate what you need adequately and even if you could, they probably wouldn’t believe you or would dismiss your need as you being immature or selfish or lazy.
I am the middle aged mother of two NT young men who have friends and cousins on the spectrum; I was an Educational Aide in middle school for around a decade shadowing kids on the spectrum. The one time i myself felt violent (towards a teacher) was when my young charge did not do what he was told in class and after class she called him into the hallway to chastise him. It was loud, kids were changing classrooms and my young friend could not hear or process what the teacher was telling him. I quietly said to her, I don’t think he can understand you with this noise. She looked me in the eye sternly and said, “He can too he just doesn’t want to.” I had to use all my NT abilities to keep from slugging her in the mouth. I still feel anger energy even thinking of that moment. Had I been a young teen on the spectrum I don’t know – would I have kicked and bitten her or turned that anger and frustration inward. I saw my student shrink inside and realized he had been “called out” many times in his life in ways like this. No wonder he became violent at times. Being accused of misbehaving or perceiving that you are being seen as willfully not cooperating is very very difficult.
On another note, one technique I found helpful for getting stuff across was “give information.” Brief non emotion ladened instruction. Maybe even just pointing at what needs attention. Few words. This is true for both NT and autie kids in my experience. No emotion of upset from the parent – you are above all that nonsense. Non engagement other than the task at hand. Many people use emotion to teach what is good or bad behavior – they get all angry and sometimes use belittling language to show disapproval and they get all gooey and loud up voiced to show approval. None of that works with the kids I’ve shadowed (or raised). A very matter of fact short sentence has helped with both my NT and autie friends. “Garbage.” “Shoes on.” “help?” “Frustrated?” “Math.” “Nice =).” “10 minutes to bus.”
Also a bunch of my kids told me how disconcerting it is to see eyeballs shining at them. The glint off the actual eyeball is super scary intense. So if you’re upset and then you figuratively hit’em with the “hairy eyeball” as you talk, why then, fear and loathing ensues. Verbal as well as visual as well as emotional overload. My sister and I used to tease my mom – “put your eyeballs back in your head.” Imagine my chagrin when one of my 12 year old friends drew a picture of me with daggers coming out of my popping eyeballs during one class. Whew – lesson for me!!!!
One last thing: reading in fluorescent lights (living in them, period) can be extremely difficult for kids (aut and ADD too). They hear and see stuff NT’s don’t. Buzzing and flickering and all kinds of sensory stuff (well you guys know this but NT’s forget and autie kids don’t know you don’t perceive all that) so they can be irritated already by ten things you don’t perceive so your sudden demand for emotional involvement in getting a chore done can just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. So yeah the lights are buzzing and flickering and the fan is wirrrrrrrring and the person next to you is breathing loudly and mom or teacher in a high pitched varying pitch voice is squeaking some language at you on top of all that other stuff and now s/he’s mad at you ack ack emotion cause you missed or didn’t process and can’t talk now and you failed again hit kick bite if only it wasn’t like this kick hit.
Ok now I’ve written a book so ’nuff said. Hope this helps someone.
I always love reading comments by those who have been/are in the field of education, the good ones who are fighting and getting it right, the ones like you.
Thank you – but I burned out. School is such a very difficult place for introverts let alone those on the spectrum. Whew – so much to process. Exhausting! I am not sure big schools should be places for kids who need quiet, calm and time to process instruction……..:(
I am a mom of 3 year old Sophie. I really, really want to understand her. I wrote the following in my Facebook post today and would love any input from any autistic persons as to whether I’m on the right track with her?
Sophie had a bit of transition difficulty today. She was crying not because I left her (I don’t think) but because she wanted to go to the gym and was being forced to stay in the classroom. She hit her teacher, she pulled her hair I saw it. And I thought- wow I know what she’s doing- she’s frustrated, she wants to go to the gym she’s being coerced into staying in the classroom. But my next thought was ” if somebody with the right mindset was looking she could be labelled-violent autistic.
Is that all it takes? If a typical 3year old lashes out it is taken in stride. If an autistic 3 year old does exactly the same thing, “behavioural plans” are implemented. They are labelled aggressive. More stringent therapy is applied. What made them lash out in the first place is given to them double fold. And what happens to those kids, 10, 15 years down the line? Sit here, do this, don’t do that, do this like this, no you can’t take a break until you do it like I tell you. They are broken.
Sophie was fine when I picked her up, playing in the gym. I had a long talk with her teacher about what I wrote above, media’s portrayal of autistics etc. she agreed with everything, it seems like we are on the same page. I stressed to her that it is NOT my goal to make Sophie “look normal”. She laughed and said it isn’t hers either. She also said Sophie calmed down quickly and she will never be labelled as aggressive in this school. I will be here, keeping an eye on it. My Sophie will not be broken.
I so wish I’d known, what you seem to already get, when my daughter was only three! 🙂
Yes. Thanks. I am having a rather bad day, so it is nice to read from someone who is not being any unprintably awful things.
It’s been a tough week on that front, sadly…
Sending virtual hugs to you, Ashmire, if you want them.
As you so rightly said this is not an easy subject. I found it difficult to write about my own experience because I feel such shame about acting violently, but I made the decision to be open about it because if it helps just one person be more understanding and more able to cope then it will have been worthwhile.
autisticook and ischemgeek have hit the nail on the head as far as my experience goes:
“It was NOT HAVING WORDS and SO MUCH FEELS and STOP TALKING I CAN’T MAKE SENSE OF THINGS and HELP ME NOTICE MY DESPAIR NOTICE MY NO WORDS HELP ME. And above all just stop stop stop stop stop.”
“never so much about getting my way and more about getting away”
I wish I could have put it so succinctly in my blog post that was mentioned by autisticook above.
As for what helps, I would say that being given space is paramount. Confronting the violence feels like being cornered and makes it worse. What helps me is whatever makes me feel safe and unthreatened. I’m not able to speak or even type (I hate to think what effect my pounding would have on my keyboard) but as long as I’m not pressured I will be able to talk about it after I calm down. It has to be in my own time, on my own terms. That’s when I can start to explore the causes, the triggers.
I’m 40 now and I don’t think I was skilled enough at introspection as a child to understand myself nearly so well as I do now, but with the right guidance — being led rather than pushed — I believe I could have made progress in analyzing why I suffer these violent episodes, what causes them and most importantly how they might be lessened or even avoided.
I see from other comments here that needing space and to feel safe are common themes. As ischemgeek put it, “I was in flight-or-fight, and they removed flight from my options. So I fought.”
Not skilled enough at introspection. Exactly. Which child is skilled at that? We need help identifying the stuff that is going on. And like you say, not pushed, which is what I’m dealing with now, that the explanations for my feels were pushed on me instead of tailored to what I was actually feeling. Only because I don’t have the right feeling words. And so people finish your sentences with what THEY would be feeling. Oh. OK then. I suppose that’s the word if you say so. Not realising that this means there will always be a disconnect between the feeling and the word.
bjforshaw – thanks so much for writing this and for your post on the topic. I can only imagine that it was difficult to write, but I found it extremely helpful and enlightening.
Thank you. It’s very kind of you to say so.
Hi I really admire your efforts and the amazing discussion going on here. I am a female aspie diagnosed in adulthood. I had real anger problems when I was a kid, but it was not directed outwards so much, though i did fight a lot when i was younger. It was the “out there” that I had so much difficulty dealing with and the lack of understanding (from them and me) turned everything inwards. Over time I developed numerous chronic autoimmune health issues, and issues with self-worth etc as is so common. I was quite verbal and became extremely sarcastic and fought back with words, but that meant i had other issues with people.
I used to hum to myself for comfort when I was sick (about 7yrs) and my father used to threaten me into silence – it was his ignorance and fear, not malice… but I stopped humming. Same with so many things.
My first response to frustration and being misunderstood is _still_ anger, but I usually manage to hide it away from others. Very healthy, not, but I try hard to alter my response, but it remains (or what appears to be) my self-protection, I think. I usually know when I am doing the wrong thing, but how to have others understand is so hard. I I don’t know the solutions I’m afraid, but my anger was turned into negative self-talk and disease because if I was violent I was hurt worse…. not because people meant to be cruel, but lack of understanding, lack of patience, fear of the unknown, of difference that can make normally kind people respond badly.
That’s part of the reason being alone is so calming.
This is such a hard subject, congratulations to you all sharing your discoveries. Thank you for this.
I really appreciate reading your experience. The negative self talk is one I am familiar with and something that over time has subsided, thankfully. But it can be incredibly cruel and typically far more hurtful than anything anyone actually would say to me.
You are an amazing woman Ariane ~ I love how you reach out & respond with such an open heart to all your readers! I wish our lives crossed paths, but know that I think about you often and love reading your posts. xo
Charline! Still remember our dinner at Planet Hollywood (was that the name of the place?) when I was living in London so many decades ago! XX
I have given some thought to what I would have needed as a child to cope with my violence. I would like to start with a caveat: first of all, anyone who knows me in real life would be shocked at my description. The only people who believe I can be violent are the people I’ve actually hit. That’s about 4 or 5 people. The rest of the world calls me sweet natured and a good person and empathic and supportive of others. I’m also just over 5 feet tall and present as extremely non-threatening.
Second of all, my parents are still the most important two people in my life. A lot of people in the autism community weren’t so lucky with their parents and have a lot more to deal with as a result. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have such generous, loving people prepare me for the outside world. I have a lot of emotional stuff that’s coming out now that I know about autism, but I don’t blame them for any of it. So here goes: the things I needed as a child and didn’t get.
1. Don’t blame yourself. Don’t punish yourself for not being a perfect parent. I can tell when you feel bad and what I’m learning is that I need to be perfect as well. When I’m not, I feel as if I’m disappointing you and making you feel bad. I want you to be happy with me. But when I make you feel bad, I feel bad as well and that is making me even more stressed out because I’m still learning to deal with my emotions.
2. It will get better. I’m trying to learn how to walk. You can show me how it’s done but you can’t force me to walk. It might take me a bit longer to learn this, or I might do it a bit later than others. But it doesn’t mean I will never learn. I just need someone to show me and teach me and support me. This is as true for feeling upset as it is for walking. Teach me how to be upset. Show me there are other ways of being upset, instead of only telling me the way I have chosen is wrong and leaving it at that.
3. Help me recognise my triggers. I might come home from school cranky and tired and overwhelmed. My brother sticking his tongue out at me might simply be the last drop. If I am not saying much, if I’m curled up in the big chair kicking my legs out, or if I seem to be absorbed in an activity like playing with my toys and not paying attention, it might be because I’m trying to self-regulate and deal with all the stuff that’s coming at me. Help me recognise that this is what I am doing. Maybe you need to learn how to read my behaviour first, like hanging upside down in the chair (vestibular stims) and kicking my feet (propioceptive stims) and the attention on my toys (visual or tactile stims). You’re the adult, so I’m depending on you to explain to me what I’m doing and why. I won’t be able to correct you on your assumptions until I’m an adult myself. So please be careful in learning my behaviour and don’t label it until you’re absolutely sure. It’s also OK to ask my input on this when I’m calm and happy.
4. Allow me a way out. If my self-regulating isn’t allowed, I can guarantee you I will get a meltdown. And once I am in that space, all I can think of is making the thing stop that made me go into meltdown. I only have short term memory and very limited reasoning power when I go into meltdown, so I will latch onto whatever trigger I see in front of me. First it will be my brother who stuck his tongue out at me. And then it will be you for restraining me from hitting my brother. Or myself for being in the way. Triggers triggers triggers. I will keep triggering until the world is empty of triggers or until I am utterly exhausted. So if you hold me down, you’re actually keeping me in the world of triggers. I need a different world that is practically triggerless. But I’m too young to know this, which is why I will sometimes keep following you and hitting you even though you try to remove yourself. Because I want the upset feeling to stop and the only way I know how to stop something is to hit it until it stops moving.
5. Don’t ask me questions. If you want to know how I’m feeling, please ask me afterwards, when I have calmed down and can find my words again. Ask me too soon and it will just be another trigger. I am dealing with my overload, with my own feelings of anger and guilt and frustration and sadness and pain, and there’s so much going on that there’s no room for words. It’s hard enough for me to even understand, LITERALLY understand, what you are saying. Formulating an answer is simply not going to happen. However, if you talk about it with me afterwards, that might be a really big help for me in learning how to understand emotions and how my mind works. I may sound resistant to questioning, but that’s also because I’m afraid of going into another emotional meltdown.
6. Don’t try to distract me. I’m not having a temper tantrum, I’m having a meltdown. Trying to get me to focus my attention on something else means I get even more input that’s getting on top of the input overload and I just can’t deal with that. Fewer triggers, not more. You can try getting me to hit a pillow instead of you, but the pillow isn’t triggering me so I might not listen to that. What’s better once I get that violent is bringing me to a GUARANTEED safe space (I emphasise guaranteed because it needs to be not just a space of your choosing, but a space where I can feel safe no matter what and where I won’t be forced out again). My safe space was the back of my mother’s wardrobe, between her clothes, because even if I had the door to my room closed, people still barged in. Once I’m in my safe space and I know people will no longer ask me questions and I can block out the noises and lights and stim to my heart’s content without someone telling me it’s wrong, I usually calm down within an hour or two.
7. Yeah, it takes that long. Please give me time to process. I will come to you once I’m ready. Because I love and trust you, even if I don’t always show it in a way that you can recognise. Please don’t punish me for not understanding why things went wrong or for losing control. I’m punishing myself already. Trust me on that.
This. This needs to be a post all on it’s own. Can I reprint this comment as a “guest post?”
Oh! Yes, of course! If you think it would help people, then by all means!
Maybe include input from other autistics as well. I wrote this mostly from my own perspective, growing up in a very supportive environment. So mileage varies and all that.
I am going to try to add comments from others as well. Thanks again, this is such a great discussion!
Yes, yes, yes!!! This is such a good, clear explanation. I agree with all the points here.
I was so lucky that my mother had an instinct for what I needed even though I wasn’t consciously aware of it myself and would not have been able to articulate it clearly if I was. She understood that I needed space when I had a meltdown (not that that terminology was ever used) and would never show any anger towards me during or afterwards, even in front of the latest hole in my wall.
I guess it’s normal to feel, growing up, that the way your parents are must be the way everyone’s parents are. I didn’t appreciate my mother in particular until years later as I (eventually) gained some insight.
Oh. I thought of something else. A good way to talk about feelings is NOT to ask how your child is feeling, because that means needing to find words that will make sense to YOU. Even as a little girl, I was already aware of the need to only use words that my parents or teachers understood. Instead, ask them to remember another time where they felt like that. Or maybe identify a situation that was similar but with a different feeling. And examine why it felt different. Don’t try for exact words immediately. I mean, I’m nearly 37, and I seriously have NO idea what most of the emotions on this emotion list are supposed to feel like. I mean it. When I say most, it means I can identify nearly all of the main ones in capitals (but not all), and NONE of the lower case ones. So yeah, emotion words are a problem.
I don’t know about anybody else but I still find it very uncomfortable to be asked directly how I’m feeling. This is because I don’t experience emotions in the same way as the typical non-autistic person. I don’t feel an emotion so much as a collection of physical sensations which I have learned to apply a name to such as happy, sad, anxious, afraid. But there are no subtle shades of emotion: pleased, happy and ecstatic are pretty much one and the same. And there are still plenty of my emotional states I can’t reliably identify — alexithymia is the name for this and it’s very common alongside ASD.
So I think the advice to avoid trying for emotion words is sound.
Yes absolutely on the emotions as physical sensations! It’s kind of strange to me because I keep running into indicators that NTs actually don’t feel their emotions physically very much, that to them those are separate things. I can’t even imagine how you would feel an emotion without feeling it physically!
Same here! Anger, for example, is when my head and temples pound and I can see my pulse and my hands ache from clenching them and my face is hot and my eyes and throat burn and I need to hit something (usually, even at 26, the answer is to hit my thighs. Because that way, I’m not hurting anyone else, nor am I destroying anything, nor will I leave myself a bruise there or do myself lasting harm, but at the same time, I’m getting the meaty feedback I don’t get hitting a bag or a pillow).
Fear is when my throat and stomach hurt and my face is numb and my whole back is tense and I can feel my hair stand on end on my neck and my ear muscles tighten so I can better hear what’s behind me.
And so on.
Learning to put names to those physical sensations was huge. I used to think I didn’t feel emotions at all – now that I know I perceive them as physical sensations, I’ve been trying to learn how to map the physical sensation to the words other people use to describe emotions.
Yay! Another “it’s not just me” moment. Helps so much to know that I’m not alone in this.
Yeah, seriously? Do NTs really feel all those things as separate, distinct emotions? Maybe a few of them I can see a slight difference, but to me that is a thesaurus list.
Thank you Ariane (again) for starting this discussion. I always learn so much from your posts and this one is no exception.
To all those who have commented, especially autisticook, I cannot express how helpful you have been in allowing me to understand my son’s behaviour better. He does not have his own voice – yet – but in the meantime your articulate and eloquent observations are hugely beneficial to both of us. Thank you.
More thoughts! (I can’t stop myself). Musings of an Aspie wrote on her blog today, “An invitation is something I can refuse while a push is something I’ll instinctively fight against.” I think that’s really important as well, somewhat similar to giving your child a way out, a way to say no. And it also is sort of… assuming good intent. Assuming your child says no, not because they’re being obstinate or difficult, but because they don’t see why this change would be good for them. I have a serious respect for people who tell me honestly, “Going to the supermarket? No, there’s nothing in it for you, it just means I get to do something which I consider important, and I need your help for that.” And then I can make a decision about what is more important, my happiness or theirs. And making someone else happy is usually a pretty good reason for me to do something! It’s just the getting pushed or coerced into going that makes me oppositional. Just give me your reason behind what you’re doing, even if it’s something that benefits me immediately. I might not be able to see your reasoning, and just see the pushing.
Hi Ariane, I have a lot to say about this and was working on it, I see at the same time you are. Want me to cross post it to you when we finish? All the parents who asked me did not want to be identifiable so it’s one of my amalgamations that is not openly started from a question. This is a great thread.
Get in touch!
Yes please, cross post!! I am trying to write a post write now with all the various comments… far too many to put in a single post however. I can’t wait to read what you have to say about all of this, Ib and please make sure you send me the link so I can share, tweet and help get it out there.
Please let me know as well; I’ve got a post that I just put up (titled “Behaviour is Communication; Violence is Behaviour” at http://tagaught.net/behaviour-communication-violence/) that I’m trying to provide links to some of this stuff from, and I’d appreciate it if I could include your post once you’ve put it up.
PS: Ariane, you should be getting a pingback from that post for a lot of your recent posts, starting with the guest post violin analogy.
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I left this comment on the Autistic Women’s Network’s facebook post linking to this blog entry, I wanted to make sure I also posted it here.
One of the things that happened for me was that I just got so frustrated and tense and I felt so overwhelmed with feeling helpless in various situations that it seemed like the only way to handle it was to lash out. I never wanted to hurt anyone, but if people were there to be hurt, it sometimes happened.
I remember once when my grandmother, who was my guardian from the time I was 15 until I was 18, kept overstepping boundaries when it came to my psychiatric care (for depression, anxiety, ADHD) after I was diagnosed at age 19. This was before I got my autism diagnosis at age 22, so I didn’t always have a good framework for understanding myself and my social confusions.
Anyway, I remember that she went behind my back to try and contact my prescribing psychiatrist (or therapist, maybe) regarding some aspect of my treatment. I was so frustrated with the fact that she didn’t seem to understand how completely inappropriate her behavior was or why I was so angry that I slapped her. It wasn’t a hard slap, and she wasn’t physically hurt, but I’m still humiliated about that loss of control.
We were sitting in a stopped car at the time, so I didn’t have many other outlets for that physical tension, which is what it often is for me. It’s just like there’s this huge building ball of physical energy and I just have to get it out or else I’m going to go crazy.
These days, I have a dog I can take for a walk when I feel that kind of frustration, but I think it would be nice to have other ways of dealing with that energy, too. For me, for some reason, it really builds up in my arms and chest and neck area, so I want to hit things or squeeze things to deal with that energy.
This is one of the darker reasons that I rarely share behind my decision to not have kids. I’ve never hit my dog, but I have to keep coming back to the conscious decision behind not striking him when I occasionally feel frustrated and helpless with his behavior (or, more often, his whining/crying for attention—which is an inappropriate behavior that I try to discourage by ignoring it, only it happens to be at just the right frequency that it trips my noise sensitivity, so staying in control of myself is a real accomplishment).
My mother was someone who would lash out physically when she was frustrated, and I noticed that I had the same tendencies when interacting with my younger siblings in my pre-teen and early teenage years. I’m afraid that if I had children, in a moment when I wasn’t “on,” I might reactively hurt them. There are other reasons why I don’t want to have kids, but those latent violent tendencies are always in the back of my mind.
I’m generally a pretty calm person, especially these days, and I’m not terribly reactive. I’ve learned to think through my feelings about things, which has been helpful in not becoming violent, but there are still times when things move too fast or, as I said before, my noise or texture sensitivity gets tripped, when it’s a great struggle to remain calm. I don’t know how it is for other autistic people, but for me, in those situations, I really need a safe or constructive physical outlet.
I guess what I’m getting at is that dealing with violent outbursts isn’t as simple as just saying, “No, don’t do that.” It’s important to identify what’s behind those outbursts and the impulse that they’re serving. If there’s a physical need to express frustration, it might be worth finding a way to redirect that energy and turning that redirection into a habit, so it becomes the autistic person’s chosen way of dealing with that violent energy. It sounds like some parents have figured that out on their own, using pretty ingenious methods. I support that.
I can really identify with the fear of reacting to somebody or your dog — “dogs are people too” 🙂 — and hurting them, and finding an outlet that is safe for all concerned does help a lot.
Obviously avoiding the violent outbursts in the first place is the best strategy long-term but depends on identifying and removing or avoiding your triggers. Calming yourself is near impossible once you reach the point of becoming violent, but can help if you learn to recognize that you’re heading for a meltdown. That leaves redirection or altering your ways of expressing the anger so that it is less harmful to yourself or others. Changing habits is hard and will take a lot of patience and dedicated effort but work on it incrementally, one small step at a time.
It’s been really interesting for me to read about other autistic folks’ experiences with violent outbursts. I’m only just starting to identify what constitutes a “meltdown” for me; part of being diagnosed as an adult means learning to view my past experiences and behaviors in the context of autism language. I keep discovering that I’m really quite a normal autie (for, you know, a given a value of “normal”).
In the past, I’ve thought of my meltdowns as aberrant behavior—shameful displays of a lack of self-control. Self-control, especially in frustrating interpersonal exchanges, is one of the things I’m most proud of developing as an adult, which means that when I lose it—when I melt down—I experience a deep sense of failure.
That sense of shame associated with meltdowns—and the violent expression of frustration—is something that I have been reluctant to discuss. I’ve written a few poems about it, and I remember showing one to a therapist once after moving out on my own and her saying, “This is why it’s important for you not to live with your grandparents.” And I couldn’t figure out whether she meant because that poem showed that I had a scary violent tendency or because living with my grandparents triggered that kind of feeling in me. At the time, I thought it was probably the former, and the shame associated with that personal failing, of being someone who can’t be trusted not to hurt other people, that has stuck with me.
(I love my grandparents, and our relationship is so much better now that I don’t live with them anymore and am better able to advocate for myself and my needs. Also, that poem I wrote is one of the best things I’ve ever written. It made me sad that my therapist only saw the scary in it.)
That kind of self-analysis following diagnosis (formal or otherwise) appears to be very common, going back through our memories and identifying behaviors that we now can put a name to, and begin to explain.
Having said that, I don’t think it helps with the shame and regret. No matter what the reason for my own outbursts I am not willing to excuse or accept my own behavior in these cases. Which leaves me having to live with the guilt and working towards preventing such outbursts in the future.
It’s never easy to speak about shame: you’ve already judged yourself harshly and you have an expectation that anyone you tell will react negatively. I personally find it easier in a place like this where most people have experience of the issues from one side or the other and so tend to be much more understanding. But I also write things that are not intended to be public, things that I am not comfortable enough with to share. I find that writing about them helps me deal with difficult emotional subjects, such as things that shame or frighten me.
I can’t figure out which meaning your therapist intended either — sometimes in similar situations I think I should pick the less obvious interpretation because I know the way I think is different to non-autistic people.
You’re right people can’t understand unless they’ve been in this situation. Thank you for using your blog to help people.
Just an additional comment to my reply to Ibby – if you’re interested in reading my blog post, and read it before 9:15 am NDT (-3:30 UTC) today, please read again – it turns out that I was wrong that I never showed definite SIBs. Something else to consider.
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I will help anyone I can. I have my own blog called Sarah’s Voice. I think it is great that we could have a hotline for this topic. Just let me know how I can help 🙂
Reblogged this on Sarah's Voice.
I deeply underestandall mothers who have sealed with autistic kids,many time Ihad the same violent filling to kill my son and my self to rescue my daughters life but I realized that the qunciquence will be worse.I think that none of us are not guilty, because all we are desier to have our family in peace and happiness
Killing another is never okay. It isn’t. I urge you to consider for a moment what your son’s life is like. What it must be like for him to sense that you feel this way about him. What is a life worth? Are we not all responsible for making sure every life is valued equally? Here in the US another mother just killed her two children, one of whom is Autistic. This just happened. Another parent. Another child dead. And again people are saying how hard it is. How awful it must be to parent an Autistic child. This thinking gives people the idea that it is acceptable to kill a child because they are Autistic. In other parts of the world it is seen as acceptable to rape and beat a woman because she is female. That doesn’t mean this thinking isn’t wrong. It IS wrong. It is wrong to justify killing another just because society has deemed that person is of less value. Society is wrong.
I have been playing Temper Tamers which is a game in a jar (bought a few different ones from Amazon which I hope will help her socially). Lots of tips in Temper Tamers which I hope will help such as before you burst count backwards from ten (or higher if really angry). She really likes these jar games and doesn’t really realise she is learning new skills.
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