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Aggression: Understanding Willy

  • Posted on April 10, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Kathleen and Kim wrote a post for The Autism Channel about aggression. This is my third response.

I’ve already discussed Ben’s aggression and Alex’s aggression. Now, I’d like to turn to Willy, because Willy’s experiences with aggression are both markedly different and even more heartbreaking than those of his brothers.

Willy has had a few minor phases with overt aggression. Early on, when we were just learning about autism, Willy would throw tantrums and he’d throw toys. His initial “social” attempts involved hitting, kicking, biting, and pinching to try to get his way. Then, he developed the language and social skills he needed to be more successful. So, basically, he developed in a fairly “typical” way, but on a different timeline than his “normal” peers. For many years Willy exhibited few aggressive behaviors, even fewer than his older brother, who is a typically developing child. Willy is compassionate and passionate about justice, which has sometimes gotten him in trouble when he’s argued with teachers or parents who use their authority in a way that Willy disagreed with, but it also made him conscious of how aggressive acts were acts of harm.

Then, this summer he “developed” or “manifested” epilepsy. (Honestly, I don’t know how much epilepsy is always there, like autism, or if it is developed, but that’s neither here nor there.) Ever since, he’s had a rough time of it. Even though the seizures are under control, we’re still dealing with the emotional fall-out from that experience. Added to that, Willy started the school year as the victim of bullies, which may or may not be on-going in a way that’s too subtle for Willy to understand but not too subtle for him to feel (at least, this is a theory shared by his counselor). So, it’s easy to understand why he’s having problems. And, yes, under these stressful circumstances, he is acting out more, including some aggressive behaviors.

Unfortunately, acting out is really the least of it. Willy has become somewhat more aggressive, and that’s unfortunate. The bigger problem is his self-destructive emotional state. He’s “acting out,” but it’s more on an emotional level than actual aggression (though he did hit a teacher after he saw the teacher (playfully) hit another teacher, because he didn’t understand the interaction). He’s experiencing bursts of anger that he doesn’t really understand and can’t control, which results in some aggression, too. What worries me so much more is that he’s also experiencing bouts of sadness and anxiety. He’s had suicidal thoughts.

This is aggression turned inward. He doesn’t really want to hurt other people, so he turns it on himself, which in turn makes him feel worse. Neither the help at home nor school is sufficient, so we’ve started taking Willy to a counselor. It’s early in the process and we’re still in the “it’s going to get worse before it gets better” stage of things.

Now, on the surface, it may seem that Willy’s story has little to do with aggression. Yet, from watching all three of my boys, actually all four of them, it seems rather clear to me that this self-destruction is aggression turned inward, which also involves lashing out when whatever that’s going on inside becomes too much for Willy to bear. I don’t know what to make of that observation, but it seems significant. Regardless, understanding and support are the keys to helping us cope with all of this as a family and provide each of our children with what they need. Right now we’re finding both rather lacking.


  • Posted on May 7, 2012 at 4:03 PM

My grad school class is on Tuesdays this term.  That means that Tuesday is a really bad day to throw me a curveball.  So, of course, last Tuesday I was not particularly pleased to get a call from my son’s teacher, asking me to please come pick him up.  Apparently, Ben had been behaving badly and they refused to send him home on the bus.

So, I went to the school to get Ben.  The naughty Ben transformed into squealing, wiggling, joyful Ben as soon as he saw me.  I learned that Ben had been pinching and (I think) trying to bite his peers, and that these behaviors were worse than they’d been.  While we do see some of the aggression they saw at home, what we saw that day wasn’t any different from usual.

The next morning was a bit rough, because the bus arrived while Ben was engrossed in the computer.  This abrupt transition was unpleasant, but I managed to get him on the bus.  Later, after I fell asleep (after a night of mostly not sleeping), I got another call.  I had to go pick Ben up again.  Same bad behaviors, same transformation, same typical day at home (despite the change in schedule).

That alone was enough to make me worry and wary, but there’s more.  Not only did I have to take Ben home, but Ben wasn’t allowed back until we had a meeting.  They didn’t use the word “suspended,” but it certainly felt like my son was being suspended.

So, Ben spent the last hour or so of Tuesday, half of Wednesday, and all of Thursday and Friday out of school.  (We had our meeting Friday afternoon.  Today is his first day back.)

I’ll tell you about the meeting in another post, but first I want to share my worries and my wariness.

First, we have a child who, while verbal, cannot effectively use language to communicate novel ideas.  If something is wrong in a particular environment, the only way he can communicate that is through his behaviors.  His verbal and written communication skills simply are not adequate to tell us something that isn’t a part of his carefully developed rote lexicon.  For example, Ben can tell us he wants ice cream, but he can’t tell us that he’s overwhelmed.  Ben can tell us he wants to go outside (to play, though he doesn’t say that part), but he can’t tell us if he’s being abused.  To communicate these more complex issues, all he can do is act out.

Second, Ben’s school has been undergoing a lot of staff changes lately.  There are a lot of new people in that building, and I’m not even sure how many there are.  This means there are people who are not tried-and-true working with my son.

Third, there have been a lot (at least, from my perspective it seems like a lot) of stories in the news about kids, particularly kids without effective communication skills, being abused in school.

So, I bet you see where I’m going with this.  You know that perseverating thing that autists tend to do—I do that, too.  My mind comes to a logical possibility and gets stuck, especially if it’s really bad or really good.  For those who might not have gone to the same place I did, let’s do the “math”:

1 (Ben doesn’t want to go to school.) + 1 (New people.) + 1 (Opportunity for abuse.) = 3 (Momma bear has claws, and teeth when necessary, and if someone is abusing my son I’m going to tear them apart!)

Half of Wednesday, all of Thursday, and half of Friday were spent perseverating on my mental arithmetic.  Now, I kept telling myself there were other possibilities, but my mind kept going back to this possibility.  Luckily, I was wrong.  Sometimes I just love being wrong!