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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.