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Autistic people may experience anger differently. While some are calm by nature, others easily fly off the handle and struggle to control their anger. Dealing with someone who is frustrated or upset can be difficult, but approaching them with some understanding and good will can make all the difference.
1 – Recognize that anger management can be difficult for autistic people. Many autistic people have trouble recognizing and handling their feelings. The world is a difficult place for them, and it takes strength and patience to handle the routine challenges they face. This makes anger management harder for many autistic people than for non-autistics.
2 – Offer your help. Sometimes autistic people would like you to comfort them; other times they prefer to be alone. Ask whether they would like you to stay and talk to them, and respect the answer they give you.
- If they are too frustrated or overwhelmed to speak well, help them find AAC or offer to talk it through once they are calmer. You can also ask them yes/no questions so they can give thumbs up or thumbs down.
- If they want to be alone, let them know where to find you if they want you. They may only want to be alone for a minute or two, so make it clear you’ll still be available.
3 – Respect their boundaries. Sometimes people forget that autistic people have boundaries too, or that their boundaries may be different. When in doubt, ask first, and always respect the answer they give you. This is key to de-escalating the situation and showing you care about their feelings.
- Do not touch them without clear permission. Due to sensory issues, some autistic people may be startled or upset by touch. Ask “Do you want a hug?” or “May I put my arm around you?” first. If they decline, it simply means they can’t handle it now. (They still love you.)
4 – Ask the autistic person what upset them. Are they frustrated about something? Did you or someone else upset them? There are many things that could cause their anger, from the obvious (e.g. a bully at work) to the subtle (e.g. a fly buzzing around the room).
5 – Listen well to understand. Even if the cause of their anger seems silly or strange to you, it’s important that they know you care about their feelings. Show them that you take their problems seriously by validating their feelings. Here are some examples of validating statements:
- “You look really stressed.”
- “That sounds upsetting.”
- “I see.”
- “That would make me angry too.”
- “You seem frustrated/mad/disappointed/etc.”
- “So you’re upset because… (summarize as best as you can)?”
6 – Help them calm down. Once you have evaluated the cause, try to empower them to calm down with their favorite music, their favorite stim toy, their favorite blanket, or whatever comfort item they want. There are lots of things that you could do. If you know how they prefer to calm down, do everything you can to help set the scene for that.
- Some people have a calming down corner or hate box for this purpose.
- Offer to help them use calming techniques. If they are a child or teen, teach them how to handle their anger.
7 – Offer them choices. This helps because they feel more in control, and it reminds them that you care about what they want. Here are some examples of choices you can offer:
- “Would you like to sit down?” (“No? Okay, we’ll stand.”)
- “Which stim toy would you like?”
- “Would you like me to get you a drink?” “We have water, chocolate milk, and soda. Which one do you want?”
- “Would it help if we did some relaxation exercises together?”
- “Do you want a hug?”
8 – Speak comfortingly, in a calm tone of voice. Sometimes, acceptance and reassurance is what they need most. Let them know that it’s okay to be angry, and you aren’t judging them for it.
- If they wish for you to stay, then do so, and possibly say comforting words like, “It’s all right, we can resolve it.” Avoid minimizing statements like, “Aw, c’mon, it’s not a big deal! Get over it!” as that will make light of something that is seriously upsetting to them.
9 – Offer to help them fix it. If they want solutions, try to help them come up with their own ideas. Avoid giving unsolicited advice, because it may feel like you’re criticizing them for not thinking of different solutions. Instead, present them as options, such as “Would it help if we _______?” or “What do you think could make it better?” Let them direct the flow of the conversation. If you can develop an action plan together, this will help them feel calmer.
- If they say no, that’s okay. Maybe they just need to vent or be alone. They’ll come to you if they need you.
- If this process upsets them, ask if they would like to take a break from brainstorming and do something relaxing.
10- Recognize your limits. Sometimes you might not know how to help them when they’re angry, or you might be too stressed to be helpful. You are not responsible for their feelings. It’s okay to remove yourself from the situation or say “I need to take a break” and come back once you are calmer. You can also call a caregiver or loved one who might know how to handle the situation better.
- If they are self-injuring, see if you can redirect it or soften it. (For example, place a pillow between their head and the table, or have them head-butt the couch cushions instead of the wall.) Avoid forcibly grabbing them, because they may panic and lash out at you.
- If you live in the United States, do not call the police for help. They may escalate the situation and traumatize or kill the autistic person.
11 – Expect them to need some quiet time afterwards. This may be doing something relaxing with you, or being alone. It may take a while for them to calm down and feel better. Patience is the key to being an autistic person’s friend. Always be prepared for fluctuating ideas and rhythms. Offer your support, and let them do what they need to do.