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:
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.