4 Strategies for Helping Kids Cope Safely with Anger: Autism VTips

It is extremely rare that a child on the autism spectrum doesn’t have issues with dealing with violent feelings of anger. Coping with the hallmarks of ASD-difficulty communicating your needs, thoughts and feelings plus difficulty understanding the feelings, needs and social cues of others–has to be incredibly frustrating. Feeling misunderstood and misunderstanding much of what happens around you has to be both painful and infuriating.

No matter how much we can empathize, it is vital for everyone’s safety (theirs, their peers’ and ours) that our kids learn to cope effectively with those feelings and frustrations, and learn not to lash out at the people around them. But it goes beyond a safety issue. The ability to control angry acting-out is key to socially acceptable interactions as well as academic and later vocational success.

Visual social narratives (often colloquially called “social stories,” a term trademarked by Carol Gray, but actually encompassing a much broader spectrum of formats) can be amazingly effective. But only if you can get the child to engage with it and pay attention to it. That is where the first strategy comes in.

1) Use screen-based, interactive media to engage the child initially
How you first present the story can make all the difference. Often, a child will be drawn into an interactive, screen-based version when they can’t (or won’t) attend to the same content in print. (An interesting side note—often after becoming engaged with the interactive version, the child will then engage with and want a print version as well to keep with them and refer to.)

Here’s a great example of a clearly stated and easy-to-understand visual story about coping with anger (shared by Anita H from Minnesota) that engages so well thanks to its interactive format:

  • Anger Management (Book), VizZle ID Number: 106379
    Image and text w/ audio about ways to deal w/ anger (e.g., “I could take deep breaths.”), popup image and text label or quiz, 12 pages
    (No access to VizZle? Click here for a browser version—remember to maximize your browser and click play at the bottom.)

2) Adapt available resources
Not everyone is a natural author or psychologist. It can be hard to figure out what to say, or to come up with strategies in a vacuum. There are tons of resources and strategies that you can adapt to your needs. If you are having trouble finding them, ask other team members or therapists for recommendations.

And for you VizZlers, search the shared library first! No need to reinvent the wheel. This is a subject we all deal with, so there are lots of great ideas and examples in the VizZle shared library already. Here’s a great example from the library (shared by Melanie A from Massachusetts) that adapts a classic therapy strategy:

  • Engine (Book), VizZle ID Number: 39185
    Images and text w/ some sound effects about self-regulation, popup questions (e.g., “How is your engine running now?”), 20 pages, content comparable to The Alert Program by Therapy Works Inc.
    (No access to VizZle? Click here for a browser version—remember to maximize your browser and click play at the bottom.)

3) Use a favorite or respected character
If the kiddo is fixated on The Miz or obsessed with Thomas, use it to your advantage! You’ll be amazed at how much better the child engages and absorbs the lesson. And when a melt-down approaches, it is far more likely that you can distract them off the beaten path of anger by reminding them with, “What would Cinderella do?” than with a generic, “Remember to breathe!”

Here’s an awesome example shared by Shelley P from Texas:

  • When Cinderella Gets Mad (Book), VizZle ID Number: 106151
    Image and text w/ audio about what Cinderella can do when she is mad (e.g., “She can tell someone she is angry.”), last page contains popups w/ image and text w/ audio restating 3 strategies for calming (e.g., “walk away”), 9 pages
    (No access to VizZle? Click here for a browser version—remember to maximize your browser and click play at the bottom.)

4) Be both child-specific and behavior-specific
Different kids lash out in different ways. Even the same child will exhibit (new, exciting and fun fun fun!) different negative behaviors as they develop. Be as concrete as you can in describing the specific negative behaviors you are addressing, the consequences of the negative behavior, and in providing positive behaviors and ways to appropriately channel those feelings. The child won’t necessarily correlate the feeling “being mad” with the negative behavior you are trying to prevent. They won’t automatically understand what it means to “be nice.” Spell it out so there is no misunderstanding.

Here’s a great example shared by Kyra S from Ohio:

  • When I Am Mad (Book), VizZle ID Number: 30616
    Images and text about the socially acceptable things to say (and things you should not say, like, “Shut up”) to show others you are mad, with quizzes, 11 pages
    (No access to VizZle? Click here for a browser version—remember to maximize your browser and click play at the bottom.)
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