I’m not a violent person in general. People who know me well have remarked on my placid nature. But I have a darker side: there’s a reason my mother told my wife to watch out for my temper…
I have a high level of tolerance for frustration or pain but when that state continues — whatever the cause — I become enraged. I shout, yell, scream; I throw things that are close at hand (although as an adult I nearly always have the presence of mind not to break stuff or throw it towards any person); I hit doors and walls.
As a child there were holes in my bedroom walls where I had punched or kicked through the plasterboard. I have punched and kicked through doors, or burst them from their hinges. In later life I have learned to punch solid brick walls where the only resulting damage is to my hands or elbows: this lessens my shame in the aftermath.
Because I do not want to act in this way. I know that my rages can frighten my wife. I have never aimed my rage at a person, although their actions might be the cause, and I believe that my inhibitions against harming a person or animal run too deep even for my rage to overwhelm. But even I can’t be absolutely certain. Because there have been accidents: a couple of times I have pushed somebody away from me after yelling at them to go away and they have fallen. I once hit my wife with the door I was pushing closed as I tried to keep her away from me; I didn’t even notice she was right behind me. Does this mean I could go on a rampage, attacking random people I encounter? I seriously doubt it: my drive is simply to release the anger and I have always aimed it at inanimate objects.
But I have caused people harm as a result of my involuntary violent outbursts. I am lucky that I caused them nothing worse than a bruise: I have to live with the consequences of what I do, whether my acts are conscious or not. As it is I always feel deeply ashamed once the anger subsides and I calm down. I feel guilt. I usually cry and shiver — it’s similar to the effects of shock. I will not — cannot — excuse my violence. But I can try to explain.
Why do I do it? That’s a very important question. I am usually able to communicate effectively but emotion is a minefield: I have alexithymia which means I have great difficulty identifying and describing my emotional states. Strong emotions, especially negative ones, are very stressful. Add to that the fact that I become practically non-verbal when under stress — words are in my mind but I can’t get them to come out of my mouth — and you have a recipe for disaster. I’m not able to communicate my state of mind or my immediate needs which adds to the sense of frustration.
I fall back on instinct which is to lash out, to exhibit violent behavior. It is a reaction, just as screaming is a reaction to acute pain — rather than calmly stating “My word, that hurt”. As a child it was described as “temper tantrums”: that was the best description my parents could come up with. When I am in that state, which is thankfully very rarely, I do not have any other viable means of expressing myself. Instead of reaching the crisis point I have learned to recognize the early signs that I am heading in the direction of a rage and take steps to remove myself from the cause. Often this is as simple as walking away for a while until I feel calm.
For this reason I can understand that when an autistic person — adult or child — expresses themselves through aggression or violence they are displaying a reaction to pain, frustration or some other stimulus that is beyond their ability to handle. This understanding comes from personal experience in my case but isn’t hard to grasp. How many non-autistic people would become aggressive if unable to otherwise communicate their distress? What if they had a severe toothache but their mouth was taped shut? Imagine them trying to seek help in the face of that handicap and in the grip of such pain. Don’t you think they might exhibit some aggression?
Understanding is key. You don’t pour oil on a raging fire: you cool things down. Remaining calm in the face of the rage is so important; anything else simply feeds the flames. And understanding is not difficult to learn. Yes, it takes patience and practice. But when you care about the person experiencing the rage surely your first desire is to help them, to do what is best for them?
Humans may consider themselves apart but are still animals with all that entails. Even a domesticated animal — your dog or cat, say — can react with violence when in pain. Why is it that some people can understand and accept this behavior from their pet as natural but not see the parallels in a child? I may not be able to excuse the violence in myself but nor can I excuse a failure to understand its causes in those close to me, or close to anybody else who suffers something similar.
I am lucky in that I am able to analyze and explain what happened once the violent episode has passed. For those who are not so lucky and are not able to do this I can hope those close to them might gain some insight from my own experiences. I can’t say that the violence is avoidable but there are ways of handling it calmly that reduce its severity. And analyzing its causes can help you develop strategies to avoid the triggers. Above all, please remember that the violence itself can be as traumatic to the one experiencing the rage as it is to one observing it: it is disturbing to feel that you are not in full control of your own body, and on top of that is the shame and guilt in the aftermath.