Surviving My Autistic Son’s Terrifying Outbursts

Gaining a new perspective on hard parenting.

Psychology Today, January 25, 2021

On a recent morning, I was catapulted awake because I thought I heard my autistic son Nat screaming. I hurried out of bed without testing my bad knee and just kind of staggered out into the hallway. Complete silence. I took a deep breath and tried to shake off the fear.

It’s been about a month since Nat has returned to almost daily short bouts of hitting his head and screaming. He’s been living with us for nearly a year now because of the coronavirus, but this past month, he has been markedly different. As an adult, Nat’s outbursts are brief, and his aggression is aimed at himself and not me, but they are still very distressing.

Even though I know how to talk him down from these escalations, I’m suffering because of their reappearance in Nat’s life. And as we move into deep winter outside, cold, dull, and mute, Nat’s mood becomes hotter and blood-red. The weather and the reduced, thin light eat away at him, as well as the uncertainty of life under quarantine. And I have become one big nerve ending, reduced to sensing and responding, contorting myself to manage him. My own inner life is compacted into a diamond-hard Nat mood detector.

Sometimes I’m afraid of Nat during these times. It’s hard to trust him anymore. When I feel that way, I swing into pleaser mode. This is a reflex and coping mechanism that many women especially have, I’m pretty sure.

It comes from childhood, the primal need to survive life’s unpredictability, and so you expend a lot of energy observing the people most important to you and learning how not to upset them. I startle at the slightest sound, afraid that he is upset and that the outburst is coming. I try to head it off before it spreads, becoming its own pandemic.

I understand that his anxiety comes most often in the winter and because he does not understand (or like) the rhythm of his days. I must anticipate his displeasure and his need for me to be exactly the same every single day. I listen for the sound of fast, hard walking, room to room. I listen for his muttering. Is it in happy, singsong phrasing? Is there a smile opening his words upward at the end of each sentence? Or are the words in a higher register, more staccato, indicating anxiety?

He, in turn, watches me with unnerving focus. He walks into a room, staring me down, just standing there, waiting for me to do whatever thing I was “supposed” to do. Did I forget the laundry? Is there a glass left out on the table? Am I wearing sweats instead of jeans? Is my laptop closed?

It’s hard not to feel abused at these times, to be under such scrutiny and subject to angry explosions. And so many things upset him. If I don’t head it off at the pass, this anxious behavior bubbles up into screaming, jumping, head-hitting, or biting his finger. We haven’t had it escalate to aggressing with us for years, actually. Nevertheless, during these phases of his, I feel a rip in my composure, and an unhealed cut bleeds anew as I wait in fear of the worst coming back.

But we can avoid this if we are one step ahead of him—organized and routinized. It’s a simple truth that if Nat experiences predictability around him, he can then function contentedly. But to do this, I have to push my own self to the side and think like him, anticipating all the things he needs to see and feel so that he doesn’t escalate. This is exhausting and stressful, to always be in damage control mode and not just living my life.

It is very different for my husband, Ned. Unlike me, Ned continues to simply be himself with Nat. He just does what he has to do. He is not afraid. He doesn’t think back to all the times in the past that turned our lives into hell. He sees Nat now, as an accomplished man of 31, doing his best to ask for what he needs and to communicate what he is feeling.

How does Ned remain calm and unruffled? I remember that once, long ago, during a particularly terrible time with Nat, he said to me, his voice cracking with emotion: “I mean, he’s just my son. I have to help him.” Ned keeps an eye on the most important features of his relationship with Nat, and that focus sees him through. He stays on Nat’s side.

I’ve been wondering if there was a way for me to internalize this calm, positive outlook rather than feeling like a victim. Feeling afraid. And it came to me that I learned how to do this decades ago when I was in the sixth grade. I was being bullied by three girls. Shortly into math period, one of them grabbed my folder and ripped it. I left the room to take a bathroom break and wandered the halls for a little bit. How was I going to face them, day after day? I was nauseated with my fear of them.

But then I suddenly realized: I have already been doing it. It happened, and I survived. I was strong. I went back to class feeling this surprising confidence, and the girls picked up on it at once. Within the hour, we were all friends.

I think about that moment of self-discovery and triumph now, and I remember that I am that same brave person. Even better: I have all the power and experience of an adult. And I have been through all of this before with Nat. I made it through those times, and so did he. It comes and goes.

He is my dear son. I can do this. Rather than coming from a place of fear and resentment, why not instead think of this as my life right now? For this year, I am living with Nat and taking care of Nat. This is my job. My vocation. His success means everything to me.

I don’t have to think of him as “aggressive and scary,” which is dead-end thinking; I can remind myself, like Ned always has, that he’s my son, and I need to stay on his side. I need to map out those routines and anticipate potential pitfalls. Not easy work, but it is a simple fact that this is my life right now, and I want to enjoy it more. I have to do the work. But that goes right along with the love.