Cycle of Rage and Family Violence of Adults with High Functioning Autism

Myles and Southwick in 1999 (1) described a Rage Cycle for adults and children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) which includes high functioning autism (hfa). They describe what happens when the person with ASD fails to recognise or is unable or unwilling to prevent their build-up of anger.  This Cycle of Rage has three parts: rumbling, rage and recovery.

Adults (men and women) and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder often have difficulty with anger; difficulty in recognising that they feel angry and an inability to manage or deal with these feelings. Outbursts of anger, even in adults, can seem to materialise for no reason. The stages of this cycle are:

Stage 1 Rumbling: where anger is building
There may be an increase in:

  • stereotypical behaviour and stimming
  • fidgeting
  • hand flapping
  • rocking
  • grimacing
  • excessive chewing
  • tapping
  • repetitive behaviours
  • vocalisations or nonsense noises
  • changes in volume of vocalisations (mumbling, speaking under the breath or to themselves)
  • swearing
  • making threats
  • increase in movement
  • walking in circles (circuits), pacing
  • leaving the room/house to get away

Stage 2 Rage 

  • child or adult has lost control: emotionally and physically
  • noise and destruction
  • screaming
  • explosive impulsiveness
  • biting, hitting, kicking
  • destruction of property
  • self-injury (e.g., head banging)
  • causing life threatening injuries which may lead to murder

Stage 3 Recovery

  • crying
  • sleeping
  • denial of rage
  • withdrawal into fantasy that it did not happen or was not as bad as claimed
  • apologising
  • may give gifts to victim, kind behaviour: “gifts of service”
  • quickly acts like nothing happened
  • inappropriate smiling/smirking

The Domestic Violence Cycle

In 1979 psychologist Lenore Walker found that many family and marital relationships follow a common pattern or cycle of violence and abuse. This cycle has three parts: tension building, acute battering, the honeymoon phase or calm. This is called the Domestic Violence Cycle.

The entire cycle may happen in one day or it may take weeks or months. It is different for every relationship and not all relationships follow the cycle—many report a constant state of siege with little relief.

Stage 1 tension building phase may be over common domestic issues such as money, negative events, children or jobs

  • Verbal abuse
  • Breakdown of communication, refusal to discuss or negotiate or compromise
  • Victim feels the need to keep the abuser calm
  • Tension becomes too much
  • Victim feels like they are 'walking on egg shells'

Stage 2 battering can be physical, emotional or sexual

  • Hitting, kicking, punching
  • Name calling, verbal abuse
  • Blaming the other person or blaming something else
  • Swearing
  • Destroying property and belongings
  • Ignoring, threatening
  • Shouting, screaming
  • Shaming, humiliating, intimidating
  • Causing life-threatening injury which may lead to murder

Stage 3 calm or honeymoon phase

  • ashamed of their behavior
  • remorse, crying
  • tries to minimize the abuse and might even blame it on the partner
  • exhibit loving, kind behavior
  • apologies, generosity and helpfulness
  • genuinely attempts to convince the partner that the abuse will not happen again
  • abuser may deny abuse took place or say it was not as bad as the victim claims
  • acts like the abuse never happened

The obvious common aspects of both the Domestic Violence Cycle and the Cycle of ASD Rage can only lead to one conclusion. A household where one or more member of the family has ASD will more than likely be subject to regular bouts of these cycles of violence and rage. It is also obvious that these generalisations may not apply to all households.

Common aspects of abusers

  • Abusers pick and choose whom to abuse. They don’t insult, threaten, or assault everyone in their life who gives them grief. Usually, they save their abuse for the people closest to them, the ones they claim to love.  
  • Abusers carefully choose when and where to abuse. They control themselves until no one else is around to see their abusive behavior. They may act like everything is fine in public, but lash out instantly as soon as you’re alone.
  • Abusers are able to stop their abusive behavior when it benefits them. Most abusers are not out of control. In fact, they’re able to immediately stop their abusive behavior when it’s to their advantage to do so (for example, when the police show up or their boss calls). 
  • Violent abusers usually direct their blows where they won’t show. Rather than acting out in a mindless rage, many physically violent abusers carefully aim their kicks and punches where the bruises and marks won’t show.
  • A man abuses his partner. After the abuse he experiences self-directed guilt. He says, “I’m sorry for hurting you.” What he does not say is, “Because I might get caught.” 

People with high functioning autism are well able to control their anger and negative behaviours in their professions as doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, lawyers, politicians, engineers, artists, musicians, educators, military and many other responsible jobs. They are also able to control their anger and rage at social functions and activities outside the home. Tony Attwood has often described this conflicting behaviour as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. (8)

When an individual with hfa is working so hard to contain their anxiety in the outside world there are many situations fraught with frustration, and potential anger. The stress and strain becomes like a compressed spring. When they get home, there's an explosion. Home is regarded as their sanctuary, where they feel safe to relax and be themselves, which they accomplish by preserving a strict routine and tight control on the entire household. This is usually when and how the true nature of the hfa appears. They wait until they are home to release their anguish. Tony Attwood (4)

Tony Attwood (5) described to Sue Larkey, the abusive behaviour of some adults with hfa: If it’s a tantrum, that’s a response to frustration and they may be trying it on as emotional blackmail to see if I can get away with it. The person with ASD can use their intense emotions, which occur naturally, as a way of manipulating people. As a control mechanism it’s what I call being a domestic terrorist. So that person knows if I threaten a wobbly, if I threaten to break things, etcetera, I can get what I want…one of the greatest problems for the adults is emotion management

Impact and outcome for victims of both the Rage Cycle and Domestic Violence Cycle

  • Victim feels the need to keep the abuser calm
  • Tension becomes too much and results in emotional and physical illnesses
  • Victim feels like they are 'walking on egg shells'
  • An episode is usually triggered by the presence of an external event or by the abuser’s emotional state—but not by the victim’s behavior. This means the start of the episode is unpredictable and beyond the victim’s control
  • This cycle continues over and over, and the period of calm gives the victim a false belief that everything will be all right – intermittent reward.
  • Scott Allen Johnson found many women victims report the scars of psychological abuse as being debilitating long after they have recovered from the physical wounds.

The problem of family abuse and violence is often overlooked, excused, or denied. This is especially true when the abuse is psychological, rather than physical. Noticing and acknowledging the signs of an abusive relationship are the first step to ending it. No one should live in fear of the person they love. The need to control and keep a tight self-serving routine is abusive to other family members.

Just because you’re not battered and bruised doesn’t mean you’re not being abused. Many women and some men suffer from emotional abuse and harmful interactions, which are no less destructive. Unfortunately, emotional abuse is often minimized or overlooked—even by the person being abused.

The scars of emotional abuse are very real, and they run deep. In fact, emotional abuse can be just as damaging as physical abuse—sometimes even more so. Abusers are very good at controlling and manipulating their victims. People who are being emotionally abused or battered are depressed, drained, scared, ashamed, and confused. (Ongoing Traumatic Relationship Syndrome) They need help to get out, yet they’ve often been isolated from their family and friends.

Despite what many people believe, domestic violence and abuse is not due to the abuser’s loss of control over his or her behavior. Abusive behavior and violence is a deliberate choice made by the abuser in order to control you. Sometimes this abuse can take the form of passive-aggressive behaviours because of the need for isolation by the person with hfa to calm their stress and the way this demand affects the rest of the household.

Emotional abuse includes verbal abuse such as yelling, name-calling, blaming, and shaming. Isolation, deliberately ignoring, intimidation, and controlling behavior also fall under emotional abuse. Additionally, abusers who use emotional or psychological abuse often throw in threats of physical violence or other repercussions if you don’t do what they want.
The victim may try to control the situation by pleasing the abuser, giving in or avoiding the abuse. None of these will stop the violence. Eventually, the tension reaches a boiling point and escalated abuse begins.
During Stage 3 of both cycles the loving and contrite behavior is carefully calculated to strengthen the bond between the partners and may convince the victim, once again, that leaving the relationship may not be necessary. It may also be an attempt to convince the victim to abstain from reporting the criminal behaviour.

Domestic violence and abuse have one purpose and one purpose only: to gain and maintain total control over you. An abuser doesn’t “play fair.” It is usually triggered by the presence of an external event or by the abuser’s emotional state—but not by the victim’s behavior. This means the start of the battering episode is unpredictable and beyond the victim’s control.

Birmingham City Council states in Aggression at Home (7) Autistic adults living with their family or carer may sometimes act aggressively to reduce their own loneliness, frustration and misery.

Synapse fact sheet (6) states: The behavior I am talking about here is not a tantrum. It is behavior that puts the person with autism and others at risk of harm. The behavior has moved to the point of being criminal. The person is trying to hurt others or is so out of control that hurting others and breaking the house up no longer matters to him or her. It is behavior that, if done by a stranger to your home, you would call the police.

The bottom line is that abusive behavior is never acceptable, whether it’s coming from a man, a woman, a teenager or an older adult. You deserve to feel valued, respected, and safe. Remember: abusers are able to control their behavior—they may do it all the time in the outside world. Their behaviour at home is NOT the victim’s responsibility.


  1. Brenda Smith Myles & Jack Southwick (1999). Asperger Syndrome and Difficult Moments: Practical Solutions for Tantrums, Rage and Meltdowns. (Autism Asperger Publishing Company). 
  2. Physical Abusers and Sexual Offenders: Forensic and Clinical Strategies July 13, 2006 by CRC PressScott Allen Johnson 
  4. Tony Attwood OASIS interview
  5. Interview with Dr Tony Attwood - Sue Larkey      
  6. Synapse fact 
  7. Adults with autism and the criminal justice system 5.6 Aggression at home 5.6.1 A report from Overview & Scrutiny Birmingham City Council, 4 December 2012
  8. Asperger Syndrome Foundation Tony Attwood’s Anger Management Plan, Age Group: Adults 


Compiled by JA Morgan BEd Grad Dip NSWTFRTA 2014 ©