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Effect of Anger Rumination on Individuals with ASD

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Anger rumination and autism – what is it and how to help

For neurotypical individuals, it’s usually easy to see what causes them to explode with rage as there tends to be a very short lag time between the antecedents and the reaction. Of course, there are exceptions, such as the cumulative effects of a bad day, but even in these situations, there is typically one final event – the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. However for individuals with autism, it’s not always so obvious, and this unpredictability can often be a hindrance in the workplace, especially with untrained colleagues and supervisors.

What is anger rumination?

To someone without experience or training, it can look like people with autism suddenly lose their cool and enter a rage like state for absolutely no reason. For people with neurotypical brains, this makes no logical sense and makes the individual with autism seem strange and makes them untrustworthy. However, it’s likely to be a manifestation of anger rumination, a common symptom of autism.

Anger rumination is defined as the tendency to dwell on negative or frustrating experiences, and to recall other similar events that feed into the anger spiral. It affects people with autism to a greater degree as they will get “stuck”, or perseverate to use the correct terminology, on a particular grievance and will find it hard to let go. In the workplace, this could be an unkind comment from a peer, a piece of negative feedback from a supervisor or simply a failure at a routine task. This perseveration can take different forms, from only talking about the event that they can’t get past, repeating a set of actions endlessly or simply shutting down with all of the repetition happening internally. Eventually, like a pressure cooker left unattended, the anger rumination can get to the point where they explode, often with no obvious cause.

How employers can help

The after effects of a loss of control from anger rumination can seriously damage the employee with autism’s standing at work. While their colleagues will already know that they are different, this outburst only serves to highlight these differences, while what all autism employment agencies advocate is for them to assimilate as closely as possible into the culture of the workplace. To help avoid anger rumination, employers can try some of these strategies:

  • Watch for warning signs – while anger rumination can last for several hours, it is possible to learn some of the warning signs. Just like with autism, however, each person will present differently, so the employer will need to consult with the family, the autism employment support agency and the individual themselves to get a handle on what their warning signs are. Once these have been seen, then distraction techniques are often the best way to break the perseveration cycle.
  • Provide frequent breaks – many manifestations of anger ruminations individuals with ASD tend to revolve around being stuck physically in one place. Building in frequent movement breaks, whether it’s as simple as some chair based yoga or a walk outside in nature, will help to break any anger rumination processes. It’s also a great habit to build into company culture for all employees to avoid fatigue and burnout.
  • Meditation techniques – an alternative to movement breaks is to create time for frequent meditation throughout the day. This doesn’t need to be something spiritual (though it could be for other employees), but it should definitely have a focus on self calming and letting go of negative feelings. Individuals with autism can struggle with meditative techniques, particularly if they really struggle with abstract concepts, so employees will need to get guidance from the autism employment agency about the appropriateness of this strategy.

It’s easy to see the common thread among all of these strategies to help break the cycle of anger rumination in employees with autism i s to distract and change the focus of the individual. While supervisors will want to debrief and discuss the issues at hand, as they would do with a neurotypical employee, this approach is often not worth trying with individuals with autism as the focus on the negative situation can set the anger rumination cycle spinning again. Allowing them to simply move on from the negative incident will lead to greater success in the long run.