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Anger in Autistic Adults

Understanding Anger in Autistic Adults

Anger is a common emotion experienced by all people, including autistic adults. However, there are often unique factors that can contribute to feelings of anger for those on the autism spectrum.

By understanding some of the potential triggers and causes of anger in autistic people, we can better empathize and support them.

Why Anger Happens

There are many reasons an autistic person may experience anger and frustration. Here are some of the most common:

Sensory overload: Too much sensory input, like loud noises or bright lights, can be very distressing and lead to meltdowns. This overload of the senses often manifests as anger.

Communication difficulties: Many autistic people struggle to communicate their wants and needs. When they feel unheard or misunderstood, it can result in outbursts.

Rigidity and resistance to change: Difficulty coping with unexpected change is common. Transitions and disruptions to routine can be hugely anxiety-provoking and angering.

Social confusion: Navigating social situations with neurotypical people can be perplexing. Misinterpreting social cues or feeling isolated can fuel frustration.

Executive functioning challenges: Problems with planning, organization, and impulse control makes it hard to cope with complex demands. This strain on cognitive abilities is exhausting.

Emotional regulation struggles: Some autistic people have trouble identifying and managing emotions. Feelings of anger can be confusing and overwhelming.

Mental health issues: Conditions like anxiety, depression and PTSD occur more often among autistic adults. This can make anger more frequent and intense.

Why Anger Feels Different

Anger is a normal human emotion. But for autistic individuals, feelings of anger are often more acute and pronounced. There are a few key reasons for this:

Sensory sensitivity: Senses are literally heightened, so even mild irritants can feel unbearable. Anger comes on faster and stronger.

Fixations: When plans or routines are disrupted, the response is extreme distress about the inability to focus on special interests.

Communication barriers: Without the ability to express needs calmly and coherently, anger takes over in moments of frustration.

Coping mechanisms: Many autistic people lack constructive strategies for dealing with anger and disappointing situations. Outbursts seem unavoidable.

Theory of mind: It can be difficult for an autistic person to see situations from others’ perspectives. Empathy and patience are often lacking.

Signs of Anger and Agitation

How can you tell when an autistic person is starting to feel angry or upset? Look for these common signs of building agitation:

  • Pacing, foot tapping, hand wringing and other self-stimulatory behaviors increase
  • Facial expressions become visibly tense, with furrowed brow, clenched jaw
  • Tone of voice changes, gets louder, harsher, more monotone
  • Body language shifts, becomes more rigid or agitated
  • Insistent repetition of words, topics, or questions
  • Rocking or shaking motions
  • Increase in nonsensical noises like grunting or yelling
  • Withdrawal from interaction, stopping speech altogether
  • Frantic efforts to leave situation, flee space

Helping an Angry Autistic Person

When an autistic person is having an anger meltdown, it’s important to employ compassion and patience. Here are some tips:

Give them space: Don’t crowd or grab the person. Allow them to move to a quieter spot.

Remove triggers: Turn off loud music, shut curtains to darken a bright room, alleviate sources of distress when possible.

Stay calm: Speak in a soothing tone without reacting emotionally. Be predictable.

Listen: Let them vent and communicate their feelings. Don’t interrupt or criticize.

Empathize: Say things like “I know this is frustrating” and validate their emotions.

Suggest coping strategies: Recommend ideas like deep breathing, squeezing a stress ball, listening to music.

Reassure: Remind them the anger will pass, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Both your lives will go on.

Follow up: Check back in later and process the situation together. Offer to help problem solve triggers.

When to Seek More Help

In most cases, an autistic person’s anger will subside once the trigger has passed. But if meltdowns seem prolonged or pose risks, it may be time to seek additional professional support. Consider counseling, therapy, medication, or other interventions if anger:

  • Leads to dangerous self-injury like head banging
  • Puts others’ safety and well-being at risk
  • Happens frequently throughout day over minor frustrations
  • Lasts excessively long periods of time (over an hour)
  • Is paired with profound sadness or lack of interest in normal activities
  • Results in destruction of property, vandalism, violence


Anger can be a very real and intense emotion for autistic adults for a variety of reasons like sensory overload, rigid thinking, and communication barriers. By recognizing signs of escalating agitation, we can employ empathy and patience to help an angry autistic person de-escalate.

Over the long term, counseling and other interventions may assist in promoting self-awareness, communication skills, and coping mechanisms to minimize outbursts.

However, autistic anger should not be viewed solely as a behavior problem. Often, it is signaling people’s needs. Approaching anger with understanding benefits everyone.

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