Friday, June 15, 2012

"Violent" outbursts aren't about violence

"Violent outbursts" is one of those scary things parents and teachers of those with ASDs often have problems understanding.  It's unfortunate that even teachers with training don't get why a kid with AS will suddenly go bezerk and slap another kid or kick a wall or throw something.  In the eyes of far too many professionals, these reactions show a form of something akin to psychopathy and instead of treating the cause of the outburst, they elect to punish or make assumptions about the child, saying that they lack empathy, that they're heartless or cruel, or just like to hurt someone, or that they're unstable and need to be isolated.

Let's get the empathy issue out of the way before going any further.  I plan to do a longer post on this soon, but here's the basics.  In my eyes, one of the stupidest but most common beliefs about autistic people is that we lack empathy.  Unfortunately, this idea is growing more and more common, especially with the trial of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian man who shot and killed several people during an attack on a summer camp.  A court psychiatrist has claimed that Breivik has Asperger's Syndrome which, according to the doctor, "has left him incapable of empathy or real friendship".

People with autism have empathy, but we often lack the social cues to understand when we've done or said something hurtful.  There are times when I've hurt a persons feelings, and until someone later pulled me aside and say "Hey look, you made so-and-so really upset, she's crying because you said that thing earlier", I had no clue I had done anything wrong.  Once this fact is pointed out to me, I feel terrible and often start crying myself because I hadn't meant to hurt them.  The problem isn't an inability to feel, but rather a blindness to the facial expressions and body language used to convey that feeling.

The scary, crazy-looking temper tantrums and extreme, often violent reactions are, in my own experience, an expression of pent-up frustration at something, often from an inability to communicate a need or understand how to appropriately handle a stressor.

Outbursts are never about being violent.
  Whenever I've had one I didn't hit someone with a single malicious thought in my head.  Rather, I hit them because there was a problem which I couldn't solve and became frustrating.  Instead of using words to ask another person to stop doing something or removing myself from the situation, I would break down completely and throw a violent tantrum because I didn't know another way to deal with what was going on.

Now that I'm older and have a higher degree of self-control, I'm able to quell the urge to hit someone or something because it's annoying me, but I can often be found cursing vividly at games, Photoshop, essays and other projects.  I still have moments where I'll clench my fists and have to talk myself down from punching a hole in the wall, or in whomever might be unlucky enough to be standing in front of that wall.

Often, this comes down to communication problems.  Sometimes the difficulty of communication for many autistic people is misunderstood or even belittled by NTs.  While I am verbal for the most part, I can become nonverbal under stress, or have times when I'm unable to say what I need to without being prompted to do so.  If I can't speak, I become agitated and moody.  The little tiny mute periods I have are intensely frustrating.  It's hard for me to imagine how much that frustration and annoyance multiplies in those who are entirely nonverbal.  Though I've read many pieces by nonverbal autists who are able to type about their experiences, it's still almost another world.

Other times it's all about not understanding an appropriate reaction to something or how to think, then act.  This is a skill which can take years to hone (and I've been told some NTs don't possess this ability either).  Even in my senior year of high school there were a few incidents where I reacted to something stressing me without thinking about other ways to handle it.  One of these times, I punched a guy teasing my friend, and in another I almost stabbed a boy's hand straight through with a pencil.  These all come down to impulse control, which is remembering to pause and take a breath before responding to a situation.

"Violent" outbursts really need to be renamed.  To what, I don't know, but putting a word like violent, which has such strong negative connotations into something which has nothing to do with being willfully violent is silly.  Maybe "frustration outbursts" would be more accurate, or "impulsive outbursts".

What's your experience been like with these kinds of reactions?  What's your favorite way to quell or prevent them?

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