T has been with us for about 6 months. He is 10 years old and is diagnosed with ASD though it seems quite mild. Some of his symptoms that are attributed to ASD could also be just down to the fact that T is a 10 year old boy. In general he is a very happy lad but one who has moments of anxiety and has some problems dealing with his emotions. Because of his condition he does get fixated on things so he has a strong passion for cars and certain movies and TV programmes and at the moment he has a sometimes unhealthy obsession with Loom Bands (tiny little elastic bands that the kids make into bracelets).
I am married with three children, one at home, one at University and one living just down the road, and I am the main carer as my wife has a full time job as an Assistant Principal at a Sixth Form College.
Friday 20th March – Thursday 26th March
This week I went on one of the Family Fostering’s training courses, this time on Managing Anger. I think I’ve been on about 12 day workshops over the last 15 months while my placement has been here living with us and though they don’t always have a direct link to how I can work with him they are always very useful. But this week’s was important. Managing T’s anger is really complex for us and is turning into a very important thing for him to get a handle on. We see the next few years as a very important time and quite defining for his future and managing his anger as an essential part of that. If he doesn’t get a grip on it it’s not the end but it may become harder and harder to sort out. So, we feel, this is the best time for him and us to learn to manage it. T’s anger is a worry because it will hold him back; it will get him in trouble and may stop his ability to function in mainstream school. And these are all important things for him and us and ones that need dealing with now.
So let’s break it down. T has what is called a ‘short fuse’ and we don’t know how much of this he can control, or more importantly will be able to control, and how much can be attributed to his Autism. That’s not to say that just because we think it’s his Autism that can cause him to react in the way he does then we cannot do anything about it, we can, but it will take a lot more time because it will be a more complex journey. We hope he can manage it and even focus it to be a driving force; anger is not always a negative emotion and to see this you just have to look at sport, but only time will tell and a lot of support to see what he can do with it. But one thing is for sure; he will always be emotional which could lead him to be at risk of his anger getting the better of him.
So what happens with T? Well if something does not go his way or he is told off for something then his first reaction, at home and at school, is to explode and yell and shout and swear and recently, to raise his fists. He has even taken a swing at me before but he is only 10 so apart from not being able to reach will also not be able to do much damage. But he won’t always be 10. He’s a big lad and will get bigger. Mum is tall so I expect him to be too and he is never going to be skinny. So when he gets to 14-15 he could be quite a handful. My wife and daughter are not that tall and he will quickly outgrow them. On top of this, once he has exploded, he will continue when he is sent to his room by banging and smashing around; he has already broken a door. My dog can be quite terrified by all this. Here’s an example; T was playing on the PlayStation this week and all was fine but because others were in the sitting room with him he had been asked to keep the sound turned down a bit. He did, rather begrudgingly, but he kept moaning about it. He moaned so much that he was warned that if he did not stop then it would be turned off altogether. He kept going and got a second warning and then, because he continued, it was turned off. He instantly exploded and yelled at us and swore and stormed off to his room where he smashed and banged and swore and shouted for about another 30 minutes. And all this because it was not loud enough! In the end he lost it all including playing on any electric toys for the next 2 days because he would not heed our warnings. NOTE: to encourage him to calm down after he has exploded we have a sanction that if he does not calm down in his room after an outburst then we warn him and if he continues he loses his electric toys for 24 hours. This works 9 out of 10 times but not always but the fact that it does work shows he does have some control. His new door has a huge crack in it after this episode.
There could be many reasons for this behaviour with one being the verbally aggressive relationship that he has had with his Mum in the past. Not violent but a lot of yelling and shouting. Learned behaviour can be both positive and negative. By her own admission they would scream at each other until they were both in tears and this was such a common happening that I have been told that this could be part of his loving relationship with Mum, what he believes to be normal. Imagine that this was a regular happening that was followed by tears and eventually a reconciliation which no doubt would end in Mum trying to make up by offering treats and giving him what he wanted. Obviously she would not mean to spoil him in this way but remember she had her own problems too (maybe why some of the arguments started in the first place) and as the adult it would be natural to take responsibility for an argument and then to try to rectify it. One of the things our Supervising Social Worker has told us is that the anger and aggression in our house may be lasting longer than it did at Mum’s due to us not losing our temper with him and shouting back and not having the incident ending in tears and also not taking responsibility for what has happened and ‘buying’ our affection back. The ‘natural’ way to end is not there for him. And here’s is the proof for me; I’m no angel and I have raised my voice and when he first came I very quickly realised that I could shorten a confrontation considerably by shouting at him. Now we don’t do that and so we tend to have longer stand-offs which is something we will need to live with for a while so that he understands and improves his own behaviour.
And of course his Autism comes into this too. Although, as I explained above, I think he can manage himself after he has lost his temper, most of the time if the correct incentive is put there, I am not sure yet if he can manage the initial explosion. And this is important and will be the skill he will need to learn because there will not always be a supportive person around him to help. For me Autism is a bit like having your stress levels always on a high so whereas my levels may be about 25% T’s are about 50-60%, on a good day, and therefore it does not take too much to push it up to critical mass. So a minor thing for me, like someone cutting me off while I’m driving, will not be too harmful but for T it could be the difference to take him over the top.
So what did I learn this week on the Managing Anger course? Well, if you imagine anger as a firework then the match that lights the fuse is the trigger for the anger, the thing that starts it off, and this could be a myriad of things, especially in a young man like T, the fuse is the build-up and can be long or ‘short’ and the firework is the explosion. What I also learned was that straight after the explosion there is a plateau where the emotions drop down a little but not a lot and at this point someone is very vulnerable and can go off again and that this period lasts for about 60-90 minutes before the whole thing drops into a depression, a realisation and feeling of guilt, which is just as important to address because if it is not then it can turn into a prolonged depression and start the whole process off again due to high levels of stress. Tough eh!
And now to the hard bit; how do we deal with it in T and how can we manage it? So going back to the beginning with T the triggers can be almost anything. It could be that he has not understood something in the classroom or that he has not understood the rules of a game in the playground and this has heightened his emotions to the point that he has exploded. He has a ‘short’ fuse that’s for sure so we know that the firework is not far away from the initial trigger. It could be because I have asked him to brush his teeth when he doesn’t want to or that he is going to contact with Mum later in the day. Whatever happens, one thing is for sure, he is definitely in a heightened emotional state, more than he is usually, and is ready to ‘blow’ and often what he blows up about is something very trivial and so from our point of view hard to understand. Going out and doing something physical can help and so can playing on the PlayStation, ironically, as that can also cause a lot of stress. So looking for possible triggers becomes one of the things we can do. What’s happening today that may be something he worries about? Checking his daily school report for possible stresses or the general view of his day? Anything really, like I’ve said before, it is like being a detective. And if something can be identified then try and plan for it, if you can.
But because T is very quick to explode, has a ‘short’ fuse, once he is started, and the fuse is lit, it’s difficult to stop and so one of our jobs will be to teach him to recognise that in himself and manage it because this is the key skill that he will need to learn if he is going to help himself with this. And after an explosion it is important that we are very clear about what he needs to do and that we give him space though T, because of his Autism, does not need a very long cooling down period, sometimes as short as 10 minutes (this is even quicker if he has been shouted at), which can be equally confusing to us (it was at first). And finally making sure that when we come to talk about the incident we are clear that we are not saying he is naughty but that his behaviour was not acceptable so that he knows that we still care about him just not the way he acted. That will stop him labelling himself as ‘bad’, which he does, which can be the cause of low self-esteem possibly leading to more prolonged depression.
After yesterday’s (and actually any) outburst, we feel it is really important for us all to talk, to clear the air and put the incident behind us. He is often less keen to do this than us, but we feel it’s an important way to the end the incident, and for us to have an opportunity to let him know we didn’t stop caring even though he shouted “I hate you and your stupid wife!” through the bedroom door at me. He can apologise, we can accept the apology; we can apologise if we feel we didn’t handle it well (really important to show our flaws too as well as modelling the behaviour we want to see); we can separate the behaviour from the person so he knows it’s the behaviour we are rejecting, not him, and we can all move on. Yesterday we left him a list so that he was really clear what our expectations are:
- Apologise to us for unacceptable behaviour
- Talk about how it is not OK to swear
- Talk about how we all have to share some rooms eg the sitting room
He chose not to talk about this yesterday, so fingers crossed he comes home from school wanting to today. We don’t want it to be a big long lecture, but it does need to be done.