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Autism and Anger: Does ABA Help With Anger Issues?

Autism and anger: Anger is universal, and almost every culture has a word to describe the emotion. It is a natural response to various stressors and challenges in life. While anger is not inherently wrong, how individuals express and manage it can profoundly affect their well-being and relationships. For some people, anger can become a pervasive and complicated issue, interfering with their daily lives and overall happiness. For others, it can drive them toward a goal with sustained purpose.

More often than not, anger poses immense external and internal problems. When left unaddressed, it can stew and transform into guilt, frustration, depression, and hopelessness. It can also extend outward, spiraling into running mistrust and feuds, even ending relationships. At its worst, it can lead to physical fights and sustained abuse. Furthermore, it is a complex emotion for individuals on the autism spectrum to navigate.

Differences in social communication and behavior characterize autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which can contribute to heightened anger in various situations. The irritation generated by not being understood, struggling to communicate your wants and needs, and attempting to escape harsh sensory stimuli that most take for granted can cause deep public frustration. These difficulties cause people with ASD to be frequently misunderstood and unfairly maligned.

But humans can change, and we’ve discovered effective ways to manage our emotions. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a behavioral approach recognized as the most effective therapy for securing personal growth and independence in ASD individuals. It has also seen application outside of autism, in corporate settings, for example, due to its ability to teach healthy coping mechanisms that curtail anger.

At ABA Centers of Florida, our mission is to improve the lives and outcomes of people on the spectrum with the highest quality ABA care. We recognize that a considerable part of autism awareness is understanding the underlying causes of emotions, including anger. This article will discuss autism and anger, where it comes from, why many misunderstand it, and how ABA can help.

Understanding Anger Issues

Before delving into the role of ABA in addressing anger issues, it is essential to understand what constitutes anger problems and how they can impact individuals’ lives. Anger issues go beyond the occasional frustration or annoyance that everyone experiences occasionally. The Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) has no official definition for anger but does include Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED).

These have marked differences; namely, ODD applies to children who are frequently defiant, argumentative, and show vindictive behavior. But their traits, recurring behavior, verbal aggression, foul moods, and outbursts that may include physical or property damage inform what most refer to as “anger issues.” The National Autistic Society discovered that anger positively correlates with autism in teenagers, although it’s important to note that this does not affect many.

So what is it about autism that creates persistent frustration in the lives of many it touches?

Autism and Anger

ASD is a spectrum condition that can range from innocuous to challenging behaviors. On the severe end are behaviors we associate with rage, such as hitting, eloping, yelling, or refusing to interact with simple and reasonable requests. Many on the spectrum will never exhibit these behaviors; however, those that can cause themselves and others, making their caretakers’ lives difficult. According to the journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Notes of North America, depression occurs more in ASD individuals, compounding the frustration many feel. Some common reasons that cause anger in individuals with autism include:

1. Sensory Overload: Individuals with autism may experience sensory overload in response to environmental stimuli like loud noises, bright lights, physical touch, or crowded spaces. This mental state is not something they can easily explain, as a stimulus that may feel normal to us, like a hug, causes meaningful anxiety. Sensory overload can lead to heightened frustration and anger.

2. Communication Challenges: Autism is often associated with difficulties in social interaction and understanding social cues. Misunderstandings, rejections, or exclusion in social situations can contribute to anger and frustration. Some individuals with autism may have difficulty understanding the perspectives and feelings of others, leading to quirky behavior that can seem off-putting and generate backlash. Part of autism awareness is realizing these behaviors are not innately rude and represent a different way of navigating the world.

3. Rigidity and Routine: To avoid unwanted sensory stimuli and focus on what interests them, individuals with autism prefer the predictability and comfort of routine. They like wearing similar clothes, eating known food, and engaging in their preferred activities with some zeal. Changes in plans or unexpected events can trigger anger and anxiety.

4. Meltdowns: This feature of autism is also known as sensory overload. Nobody is entirely in control of their brain’s processes, and autism is a neurological condition that impacts how ASD individuals feel and perceive things. When the levy holding back their anxiety breaks, they can shut down, act up, and throw tantrums that remind many individuals of anxiety attacks. Unfortunately, their difficulty with social contexts can also lead to self-harm, as hitting is a way to express their problems.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): An Overview

Now that we understand what triggers anger in autism, we can discuss the solution: Applied Behavior Analysis. Behavioral experts administer ABA to improve skills like communicating, paying attention, and avoiding tantrums with healthy coping mechanisms. ABA promotes wellness by analyzing behaviors’ antecedents (triggers) and consequences (reinforcements). Here are some key components of ABA:

1. Assessment: Behavior Analysts with a master’s degree and further accreditation by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) conduct a thorough evaluation to identify the specific behaviors of concern and their triggers. This assessment helps therapists and individuals clearly understand the target behaviors.

2. Functional Analysis: In autism, angry or maladaptive behaviors don’t occur for their own sake; they serve a function. A child with ASD who wants attention might hit their mom to get it instead of vocalizing their need, not realizing this causes pain. This analysis seeks to answer why the individual engages in a particular behavior.

3. Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP): A customized Behavior Intervention Plan is developed based on the assessment and functional analysis. This plan outlines specific strategies and interventions to address the target behaviors effectively.

4. Data Collection and Analysis: ABA relies heavily on data collection to track progress and adjust interventions. Therapists use various methods, such as direct observation and data recording, to measure behaviors’ frequency, intensity, and duration. Armed with facts, they can adjust the plan and secure better results.

5. Positive Reinforcement: The central principle of ABA is using positive reinforcement to encourage healthy behaviors. This approach involves rewarding individuals when they learn and grow, which helps increase the likelihood of those behaviors occurring again. The therapists reward ASD individuals with anger when they implement coping strategies like counting to ten, not throwing an object or turn-taking. This approach encourages appropriate communication and emotional regulation.

ABA Centers of Florida and Anger

We know how difficult it can be for families to understand and overcome the more challenging behaviors of the autism spectrum. It takes time, compassion, dedication, and help. ABA Centers of Florida is the premiere ABA provider, working tirelessly to help your child meet their goals and overcome even their most problematic tendencies. Through skill-building, positive reinforcement, and data-driven results, ABA empowers individuals on the autism spectrum to gain better control over their emotions, improve their social interactions, and lead happy lives.

With centers throughout Florida, including cities like Doral and Orlando, we can provide in-person or at-home help. Message us or call 833-982-4222 to discuss what’s on your mind and discover how we can help.

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