anger2

The Angry Aspie Explains It All

The emotion I see most routinely associated with autism is anger. Again and again–on Facebook, discussion forums, blogs–I see pleas from parents for suggestions about handling anger outbursts in their autistic children. Adult ASD forums are an outlet for more direct expressions of anger–at friends, acquaintances, family, classmates, colleagues, strangers and the world in general.

We autistics are apparently an angry bunch. And it’s no wonder. As children, the world comes at us with an intensity that is confusing, frustrating and, yes, aggravating. Add to that years of miscommunication, bullying, rejection and being misunderstood and it’s not surprising to see the  “angry autistic” has become a deeply entrenched stereotype.

Yet when I sat down to make my anger constellation, I only got as far as rage and frustration before I was stumped. While anger has been a familiar companion over the years, it’s one that I’ve relegated to the shadows.

I created my happiness constellation unprompted, a nice little sketch on a small, clean notebook page. My anger constellation required a thesaurus and a good hour of hard thought to produce this:

The brainstorming notes for anger constellation

I’m including that page of notes here not because I expect anyone to read it but because it’s a good visual representation of how I experience anger–a chaotic, fractured and sometimes incoherent mess. I’ve spent days avoiding writing this next part, the part where I have to untangle the mess.

Anger makes me uncomfortable. I avoid it. I suppress it. The last thing I want to do is talk about it. Expressing anger feels wrong. Bad.

So first, a reminder:

And a word about the words I’ve chosen. They feel arbitrary. I’ve done the best I can to put names to the different ways anger manifests for me but even after much thought I’m still not sure they’re the most appropriate choices.

Frustration first, since it’s the first word that came to mind and one of the easiest to describe. Frustration is unmet expectations. It’s waking up to an ice storm on a day I’d planned to run. It’s spending far too long struggling to open a package of cookies and then tearing the package down the middle. It’s not remembering how to switch from the DVD player to cable and getting 500 channels of static. Frustration makes me grit my teeth and growl when what I should be doing is identifying my needs and articulating or acting on them. Serial frustration sometimes leads to a shutdown or a meltdown.

Annoyance. I’ve written and deleted more descriptions of this one than I can count. Which in itself is annoying. Annoyance is a disruption of my process or state of mind. I can’t find the right word to finish a sentence and lose the flow of what I’m writing. The people in the hotel room next to mine are watching TV when I’m trying to fall asleep.

Annoyance is the fly buzzing around my head; frustration is taking twenty whacks at it and missing every time.

Thanks to Asperger’s, I have more than a passing familiarity with irritability, which has roots in sensory overload. I’m overtired. I’m hungry. I’m hot. My shirt is scratchy. I’ve ignored my sensory limits one too many times and it’s turning me into a cranky toddler. Danger, danger, shutdown is imminent.

And thanks to being a mom, I’ve discovered wrath, which is what I’m calling that mama lion feeling that comes charging out its hiding place when someone messes with my kid. Bad idea. Enough said.

For some inexplicable reason, right after wrath, I added fuming to my notes. There’s little relation between the two–wrath is primitive and instinctive. This other thing–the one that makes me seethe with anger and vow to right some perceived bureaucratic wrong like I’ve just been granted membership in the Justice League–is purely intellectual. It doesn’t happen a whole lot, but when it does, I’m a force to be reckoned with. Pass me my cape and stand back.

The Big Three

All of that so far? I’m fine with it. It’s the kind of anger that comes and goes. What follows, the big three of indignation, alienation and rage, those are more firmly entrenched.

Let’s start with the one that’s been with me the longest: indignation. Indignation arises from humiliation, shame, fear of not being good enough, from feeling invisible, stupid or ignored. It’s the way my vision blurs when someone treats me like I’m an idiot for asking the same question too many times. It’s the hot blush I can’t control when I say something that falls on deaf ears. It’s the blood pounding in my ears when someone lectures me like I’m a child.

Indignation is wanting to scream I get it, I know, I understand, I’m here, I have something to say, slow down, I can do this, stop trying to fix-help-correct-educate me. It’s been with me for as long as I can remember. It festers in the broad gap between intellectual ability and social skill.

Alienation arrived later, sometime in early adulthood, but it sits stubbornly beside indignation with no plans to leave any time soon. It may be odd to describe alienation as an expression of anger, but as my husband put it, “you’ll shut someone out for 5 years instead of yelling at them for 5 minutes.” That’s an exaggeration, but not by much.

My capacity for resentment is deep and wide.  I lack confrontation skills. Never learned them as a child, didn’t see much use for them as I moved into adulthood. It’s easier to stay mad. In my twenties and thirties, my anger fueled my actions and propelled me through a lot of pain. It’s probably responsible for a good deal of my success. But clinging to that anger also cut me off from people in deep, possibly irreparable ways. Because that was easier, too. Still is. I’m working on it.

Because I avoid dealing with the feelings that swirl around indignation and alienation, they revisit me at night in the form of dreams–nightmares really–filled with rage. When I first started having these dreams about ten years ago, the intensity of them was startling. I would wake up thinking, who is that crazy woman? For a while, I thought there was something seriously wrong with me. I was turning into a freakish mutant–mild-mannered woman by day, raging she-Hulk at night.

Recently I’ve discovered a pattern to the anger and violence of my nightmares. Understanding why they happen doesn’t make them any less disturbing, but it’s helped me formulate a strategy for reducing their frequency. Which is (and will be) a post in itself.

The Anger that Goes Straight to My Hands

Finally, another of those feelings that doesn’t have a name. In the same way that I experience pure undistilled happiness, I also experience a very pure form of anger. It starts in my brain and terminates in my hands. It’s reflexive. White hot. Short-lived. Irrational. More chemical or electrical than emotional.

It’s like this: my husband bumps into me in the kitchen and I impulsively, irrationally get the urge to punch him. And here’s the weird thing: I’m not mad at him. I’m not mad at all. I’m experiencing the emotional equivalent of touching my hand to a hot stove. Trigger→physical impulse to react. There’s no cognitive processing involved. I’m not thinking. I’m reacting.

This feeling is almost always triggered by a physical experience and only happens when I’m hovering near my limit for sensory stimulation. I’ve learned to control the physical impulse. The trigger hits, I feel a spike of intense negative energy surge from head down my spine, and I still my hands until it passes.

That last part is key. If I didn’t hold on tight and ride out the physical impulse, I would lash out with hands at whatever was nearby, punching, throwing or breaking something to dissipate the energy in my hands.

When I read stories about children lashing out violently, I wonder if this is what they’re feeling. Maybe it’s not anger in a traditional sense but the need to release a sudden incomprehensible surge of energy.

A Universal Reaction

Most often my reaction to any form of anger is that I want it to stop. I didn’t learn how to express anger constructively as a kid, only that it was undesirable.

While I was doing some research about anger and autism I can across an interesting study (Rieffe et al (2007) ): in a group of ten-year-olds who were surveyed, all of the neurotypical kids reported experiencing anger, but only 77% of the autistic kids said that they ever experienced anger. (All of the kids in both groups reported feeling happiness so we can rule out the myth that autistic kids simply don’t feel emotions as an explanation.)

I wonder if some of the autistic kids in that study were like me at that age–afraid to admit to an emotion that they’d been taught was bad. Because at ten years old, if an adult asked me if I ever got angry, I probably would have said no. I didn’t want to be seen as a bad kid and I thought only bad kids got mad at stuff.

My literal aspie brain didn’t perceive the difference between “expressing anger in destructive ways is bad” and “expressing anger is bad.” What I really needed was for someone to specifically say, “when you’re mad, here are some things you can do about it.”

Anger as a Protective Mechanism

Anger is an expression of a violation of my person. If I deprive myself of the right to express that, then I’m depriving myself of the right to have boundaries and to keep myself safe.

As I read back over that last sentence, I was struck with one of those big “aha” moments that sometimes happen while I’m writing. As I’ve grown older, I’ve gotten better at defining boundaries and structuring my life in a way that supports those boundaries.

So much of my anger as a teen and young adult was related to feeling vulnerable and inadequate. As those feelings have dissipated I’ve released a lot of the deeply entrenched anger that built up during those years. I’m arriving at a place of acceptance. I’m slowly dusting off the layers of my adult self, like an archaeologist at an ancient dig site, careful not to damage what I’m uncovering.

As each new layer reveals some fascinating little detail, I scramble to integrate it into my understanding of myself and marvel at the fact that this much self discovery is possible at my age.

14 thoughts on “The Angry Aspie Explains It All”

  1. I’ve had anger issues since I was a child. I really just gave up hope in my 20′s that I could ever fix what was wrong, despite the desire to do so. I often couldn’t either verbalize why I was angry or I wouldn’t even know why- I’d literally think, “Why am I so angry about this?!” It wasn’t until I viewed myself and life through Aspergers ( now in my 30′s) that I understood some of the why. I’m massively relieved because having grown up being labeled broken, disobedient, and uncontrollable all whilst I was doing my best to be a good girl left me feeling like there was something irreversibly and inexplicably wrong – and there’s not. I still have a lot of anger, some new and some festering from older issues, but I feel like I “get” it now, and am not so helpless to it.

    I’m a new reader, and your blog has helped me so much, particularly the Motherhood series – just want to say thanks!

    ‘WhyAm

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences with anger. It’s so terribly frustrating and confusing to have feelings that you can’t articulate. I didn’t realize just how much difficulty I have with verbalizing and processing anger until I started writing this post.

      I’m so thrilled to hear that you’re finding the posts here helpful. Some of them are tough to write and knowing that people are taking away something from them makes it worthwhile.

  2. Growing up my mother, who her and I have had many fights, used to say… “Liv, you are the most caring, kind hearted, giving girl… but then you’re the devil… The things you say when you are throwing a fit could bring even coldest man to tears… vicious, where did you get it?” I grew up with Aspurger’s. My dad is an Aspie and his mother and father… and his older brother… though not my mother or brother and sister… Now I have noticed from many accounts with men I have dated that I can be called the sweetest of sweet but a second later rendor them fearful of my temper. It’s not that everything makes me angry, actually it takes a lot to make me angry… but when I am angry there is no middle ground of just being upset… It’s either all or nothing for everything I feel… I guess the thing that gets me the most is my fiance… I have told him about that I am an Aspie, he takes it lightly until something I do doesn’t go his way… or when I shut down, or am other wordly and lost in Liv-Land… He gets mad and tells me to “snap out of it…” but that isn’t how it works so I become more mad, and eventually spew all kinds of horrible things upon him, none being true but the ability to remember what he said 2 years ago sometimes gets to me and I can’t deal with it. I don’t want to be this way, I wish that I could be NT and I try to hide it as much as possible… but sometime I think I would be better off single… always breaking hearts, the eternal Ice Queen… even though I love more deeply than my female friends every seem to be able to (but I am bias)…

    1. I know exactly what you mean about the two extremes of emotion. We seem to have an on/off switch but no volume control when it comes to certain types of feelings. I’m sorry things are so difficult with your fiance. It took my husband a long time to begin to understand that when I shut down or do certain things, it’s not by choice and I don’t have control over it. Being an aspie can be a huge challenge at times.

    2. I feel this way so often. I realized that I do this to get my husband to leave me a lone. We’re having a discussion or argument, usually about something I did or didn’t do (because I have Aspeger’s!) and my husband seems to forget this fact and take something very personally or not believe me when I explain I don’t understand or don’t remember. I become filled with RAGE and have to have time by myself because I can’t do anything. My brain is overloaded, and I will do whatever it takes to be left alone if he won’t leave me alone. It must be hard for the non-aspie partners, but I don’t think it compares to how hard it is to have Asperger’s.

      1. I think there’s a bit of a “cultural divide” in AS-NT relationships that can be hard to navigate at times. Even though my husband logically understands why I’m doing something, it can be hard to set emotions aside because we’re both very human.

  3. I am an Aspire… my fiance often says “This isn’t normal” which he is right, it isn’t. I often find that I am sad or angry and I am never sure really why. I can usually cope with it, and ignore it… but sometimes I have a bad day and I do not know what’s wrong but everything is just wrong and mixed up, I just try to make it through the day without trying to ram my car into the back of another. I have been on depression medication and some for bipolar disorder and nothing helps… .they actually make me depressed and more angry. I am not violent but I yell and throw tantrums. I become so overwhelmed with this pending sense of doom that I do not know what to do… I wish that everything would be normal, but no matter how hard I try to make it that way it never happens. I never thought there was anything wrong with me. I don’t feel like it’s this thing that defines me or something that holds me back… I have never felt incapable but then my mother, brother, sister, friends, and fiance, my soon my be in-laws, and grand-parents will tell me that “this isn’t normal,” to which I have to face that something isn’t right and at the same time that makes me feel weak and defeated. I do not want to be “Chad’s wife with Aspergers.” I just want to be and do whatever it is I want and be successful, and not say “Oh I have this condition,” and I do not ever want it to be an excuse… I hate it when people say “Liv you can’t help it…” It makes me so mad.

    1. I can really relate to your frustration. I have those moments where I wish things were “normal” too. The anger and the tantrums are part of the aspie package, I think, along with the mixed up/hard to define feelings. It’s a lot to cope with, especially if you don’t have a lot of support or if it feels like people are being judgey or singling you out.

      Have you talked with your doc about how the medication makes things worse? There’s some indication that people with ASD react differently to medications for depression and other mental health conditions. There is also the possibility of misdiagnosis. Sometimes ASD traits, especially in women, can be mistaken for other conditions, which can lead to an ineffective course of treatment.

      The anger you describe reminds me of how I feel when I get overloaded–either with too much sensory input or just with life feeling like too much to deal with. I think it’s a uniquely aspie thing, one that is hard for doctors and others to understand if they haven’t experienced it.

  4. HI I am new to this…. actually my girlfriend is an aspie and has most of these angry tendency… yes I take most of them personally and they hurt like heck…. it seems to me that I am her safe punching bag and that is really hard to remember she does not mean it… she used to lash out physically and I just dont believe in that and said I could not stay in this relationship if it continued…. thankfully it has not happened again…. now it is verbal abuse… I guess what I would like to know is what do the non aspie partners/parents do when this happens… when I say nothing I get the chat about not caring and not being supportive, when I agree with her, I am told that I am being patronizing and fake, when I argue or defend myself then im selfish and making the situation worse… our life is very isolated and I try hard to make life easier and let her know just how great she really is (because she is that wonderful person)… understanding aspergers is only part of the issue…. the other part is finding a way to live with it…. I suppose I would love some feedback if any is available out there….

    1. Honestly, I would recommend relationship counseling since it sounds like you are very frustrated and at an impasse in terms of communication. The type of anger you’re talking about is quite different from what I experience, it sounds like.

  5. “you’ll shut someone out for 5 years instead of yelling at them for 5 minutes.”
    Oh god this is so me! I’m crap with confrontation (it scares me I think) and much better at avoidance. I’ll lose friends rather than challenge their behaviour. Though some of them I’m probably better off without anyway.
    (I love these little ‘yay me too’ moments – they’re so reassuring and like a good cup of tea or a warm dog thumping herself down beside you.)

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