Children with high-functioning autism have better cognitive and communication abilities than others on the spectrum, but they still face many challenges like anxiety, frustration, and anger.
Continue reading to find out what are the typical anger issues among high-functioning autistic children and how ABA therapy can help them regulate emotions and reduce angry behaviors.
What Is High-Functioning Autism?
Autism spectrum disorder is a complex disability that encompasses a wide range of conditions. It is characterized by communication and social skill challenges, in addition to sensory issues and repetitive behaviors. The severity of the condition spans from requiring full-time assistance to being able to function independently.
Children diagnosed with high-functioning autism (HFA), sometimes also referred to as level 1 autism spectrum disorder, are on the most functional end of the autism spectrum. They need little or no assistance in completing daily tasks and have better communication skills and cognitive functioning than other autistic individuals.
Symptoms of high-functioning autism
High-functioning autistic children experience many of the common symptoms of autism spectrum disorder despite their advanced communication and cognitive abilities.
Children with high-functioning autism typically have a good understanding of language and develop a rich vocabulary. Still, many face difficulties when it comes to basic social language skills that are necessary to communicate with others. For example, they may be unable to understand sarcasm, metaphors, and other figures of speech that are not meant to be taken literally. What’s more, they often find it hard to decipher social cues like facial expressions and body language.
Social skill difficulties
Due to verbal and non-verbal communication challenges and their restricted areas of interest, social interactions are often difficult for children with autism, even when they are on the high-functioning end of the spectrum. The fact that they find conversations with their peers complicated and uninteresting may prevent them from creating and maintaining friendships.
Almost all autistic children, no matter where they are on the spectrum, are to some degree affected by sensory inputs that may be more overwhelming than their brains are capable of processing. Sensory overload can result from crowds, loud noises, bright lights, as well as strong tastes and smells.
Resistance to change and transitions
Even when they are high-functioning, autistic children typically prefer routines and repetitive activities which make them feel safe. They may struggle to control their emotions in new and unpredictable situations or when transitioning from one activity or setting to another.
Anxiety and depression
Anxiety and depression are fairly common among children and adolescents with high-functioning autism. They result not only from the lack of communication and social skills, but also the awareness of their being different from their peers. Research has shown that up to 40% of young people with autism suffer from high levels of anxiety and have some type of anxiety disorder.
Many children with high-functioning autism experience anger, but is there a connection between autism and angry outbursts? Read on to learn more.
High-Functioning Autistic Children and Their Struggle With Anger
Approximately one out of every four autistic children displays aggressive behaviors that may involve everything from destruction of items to self-harm and violence towards other people. Angry behaviors typical of autism include:
- Having a meltdown with crying and shouting.
- Trying to escape the situation, which may potentially put the child in danger.
- Exhibit aggressive behaviors towards others such as biting, smashing, hitting, kicking, or scratching.
- Overreacting to the situation.
- Being unable to calm down on their own but also being too upset to listen to calming suggestions.
- Engaging in self-harm behaviors, for example, head banging and hair pulling.
- Engaging in self-stimulatory repetitive behaviors, also known as “stimming,” like hand flapping and clapping.
High-functioning autism and the rage cycle
Anger in high-functioning autistic children often manifests itself through what is known as the rage cycle. The rage cycle consists of three stages:
- The rumbling stage or the anger build-up stage includes repetitive behaviors such as rocking and pacing, covering ears with hands, suddenly becoming very tense, and threatening others.
- The rage stage will occur if anger is not internalized in the rumbling phase and may turn into aggression.
- The recovery stage ends the rage cycle. At this point, the child will usually withdraw, become physically exhausted, have contrite feelings, or in some cases won’t remember what happened.
Is autistic anger the same as tantrums?
Autistic anger is not a tantrum, although it may look very similar. Temper tantrums in neurotypical children are often manipulative and motivated by a desire to obtain something. However, autistic meltdowns and angry outbursts are impulsive without any reasoning behind them. They are a sign that the child is no longer able to cope with the challenging situation, whether it’s sensory overload or an unexpected situation.
Below, we list some of the most common reasons why high-functioning autistic children may experience anger.
Causes of anger in high-functioning autistic children
Autistic children get easily overwhelmed by sensory inputs and those with high-functioning autism are no exception. Anger outbursts and aggressive behaviors are sometimes simply immediate reactions to the feeling of physical discomfort that is caused by sensory overload.
Changes in routine
High-functioning autistic children may become distressed when they face new situations. The feelings of confusion and helplessness, accompanied by increased stress and anxiety levels due to change in routine, may result in a meltdown.
Being overwhelmed by multiple tasks
Children with high-functioning autism can get overwhelmed when you ask them to perform several tasks at the same time, especially when these tasks need prioritizing or when a new task interrupts their routine. These situations may lead to frustration and subsequent anger outbursts.
Other people’s behavior
Behaviors of other people are another contributing factor when it comes to anger in children on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. For example, they may be offended by insensitive comments or being ignored, all of which may trigger aggressive behavior.
Intolerance of imperfections in others
Angry behavior among autistic children may be caused by what they perceive as imperfections in other people, for example, a fast speaking pace or a high-pitched voice.
Stress and anxiety
Changes in routines, not being able to fully understand their peers, communication issues and other factors can potentially lead to built-up stress and anxiety. Some autistic children will react by getting depressed and withdrawn, while others will become angry. Sometimes, anger is the only tool they have to deal with stress and anxiety.
Autistic children who are high-functioning typically engage in repetitive thinking, including anger ruminations, constantly thinking about negative situations and angry feelings. These thoughts can lead to anger and meltdowns.
Impulse control issues
Angry outbursts and aggressive behaviors are common signs of impulse control issues in autistic children. Acting out in an aggressive manner provides them with an immediate outlet for the feelings they are not capable of handling. It allows them to feel at least some degree of control of the situations that are otherwise hard to grasp and deal with.
A range of other factors can affect your child’s ability to regulate emotions and control their anger, for example:
- Metabolic issues
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Low blood glucose levels (hypoglycemia)
- Vitamin and mineral deficiency or food allergies
- Headaches and migraines
- Ear infections
- Poor sleep quality or inadequate amount of sleep
- Underlying medical conditions like diabetes and seizures.
If these medical issues are properly treated, aggressive behaviors may decrease or even disappear altogether in certain cases.
ABA Therapy for Controlling Anger
Therapy is an essential part of helping your child with high-functioning autism control their anger. Children who don’t learn to manage anger may have a hard time processing their emotions and dealing with built-up stress. Early intervention is essential in ensuring a better quality of life for children with high-functioning autism and their families.
How can ABA therapy help with anger management?
Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) is an effective treatment that can help reduce and prevent aggressive behaviors in high-functioning autistic children. This type of therapy can help your child learn a range of anger management skills, for example:
- Learning how to avoid negative responses or behaviors.
- Learning what are acceptable alternative behaviors.
- Learning to identify and appropriately communicate anger and other emotions.
- Learning the coping skills for emotional regulation.
- Learning appropriate social interactions and communication that don’t result in aggression.
ABA therapy is considered one the most successful interventions for helping children with autism learn desired behaviors through positive reinforcement, with a close to 90% improvement rate. It can help your high-functioning child reduce angry and aggressive behaviors using a variety of techniques.
ABA techniques for dealing with anger
ABA is a highly adaptable and flexible intervention tailored for the specific needs of each child.
An ABA therapist will spend some time with the child, analyze their behaviors, and determine their specific strengths and challenges, before he or she makes an assessment that will serve as the basis for anger-management therapy.
ABA therapists use many different techniques to help high-functional autistic children regulate their emotions and work on their impulse control. Here are a few of them.
ABA therapy is based on the principle of positive reinforcement. It consists in motivating the child to display appropriate behaviors through the use of reinforcers that can be anything from a favorite toy or activity to a hug or words of praise.
At the same time, negative behaviors such as aggressive outbursts are given little attention, unless they are harmful to the child or the others. Encouraging the child’s positive behaviors will motivate them to keep engaging in positive behaviors.
ABA therapists commonly use a technique known as neutral redirection to teach children with autism about impulse control. Children are encouraged to use socially acceptable behaviors to express their needs instead of responding to anger and aggressive behavior. Neutral redirection focuses on rewarding the desired non-impulsive and non-aggressive behaviors.
When it comes to anger management in high-functioning children with autism, it is crucial to offer them appropriate alternatives to anger outbursts. Once they learn more effective ways to communicate, they can avoid the frustration resulting from an inability to describe their emotions and anger ruminations.
ABA therapists prioritize proactive strategies that will prevent your child from becoming overwhelmed and frustrated in the first place. These strategies include creating calm and predictable surroundings and other ways to minimize anger triggers in their environment.
Modeling techniques used as part of ABA therapy encourage children with high-functioning autism to learn positive behaviors through copying others. For example, the child may be asked to imitate characters in a video, the therapist, or other children in small group sessions.
Negative feedback after an aggressive outburst can reinforce the undesired behavior. That is why ABA therapists focus mainly on providing positive feedback for anger management and impulse control. Feedback and praise are usually provided before the angry outburst occurs, if the child displays an appropriate, non-aggressive behavior.
ABA with Golden Care Therapy
At Golden Care Therapy our team of dedicated and experienced ABA therapists provide service to children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and their families throughout the state of New Jersey. Our use of scientifically proven ABA methods will make a positive difference in the life of your child.
Our ABA therapists will start by assessing your child to create a custom treatment plan that will meet your child’s goals, regardless of their level of functioning.
Your child will learn how to regulate emotions, display appropriate behaviors, and reduce challenging ones. What’s more, they will have a possibility to practice their newly acquired skills while interacting with peers in our Social Skills Group.