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Dealing with Tantrums in High-Functioning Autistic Kids

“Karla, my 5 year old daughter with high functioning autism, has frequent intense tantrums over the most smallest of things, especially when we are out in public! But my question is should I deal with this differently than I do with my other child (older son) who does not have the disorder?”

The short answer is yes. There are a few special considerations due to the traits associated with the disorder (e.g., sensory sensitivities, insistence on routine, literal thinking, etc.).

Some High-Functioning Autistic (Asperger’s) kids throw frequent temper tantrums, and others rarely do. Kids throw temper tantrums as a way of expressing anger and frustration. If the behavior is dealt with incorrectly, your daughter may learn to use temper tantrums to manipulate you and to gain attention. In dealing with temper tantrums, the ultimate goal is to teach her acceptable ways of expressing uncomfortable emotions.

Surviving the Temper Tantrum—

The most important things to remember when Karla is in the throes of a temper tantrum are:
  • Don't let the disapproval of other people affect your response to the temper tantrum.
  • Don't punish Karla.
  • Don't reward her.
  • Isolate her if possible.
  • Keep her safe.
  • Stay calm and ignore the behavior to the extent possible.

When Karla throws a temper tantrum, she is essentially out of control. You must make sure that you stay firmly in control. Punishing her for throwing a temper tantrum, by yelling or spanking for example, makes the temper tantrum worse in the short term and prolongs the behavior in the long term. Trying to stop the temper tantrum by giving in to Karla's demands is even worse. This is the way to teach an HFA youngster to use temper tantrums for manipulation, and will cause the behavior to continue indefinitely, even into adulthood.

At Home—

When Karla throws a temper tantrum at home, calmly escort her to a place where she can be left by herself (e.g., a designated “safe place”). Then leave the room and don't go back until she calms down. When Karla is calm, have a talk with her about her behavior. If you don't feel safe leaving her alone, stay with her, but don't respond to the temper tantrum in any way. Don't even make eye contact.

In Public—

If Karla throws a temper tantrum in public, escort her out of the public area if possible, and take her to a place where you can have some privacy. The best place to take her is to the car, where she can be buckled into the car seat. Then you stand near the car or sit in the car and wait it out without reacting to the temper tantrum. When the temper tantrum subsides, talk to Karla about her behavior, and then return to your activities.

Sometimes it won't be possible for you to escape from the public place easily. For example, if you are in a commercial jet and Karla throws a temper tantrum while you are coming in for a landing (as my daughter once did), you are basically stuck where you are. Likewise, you may find it hard to escape if you are standing in a long check-out line at the grocery store with a cart full of groceries. Under such circumstances, all you can do is grit your teeth and hang on. Ignore the screaming youngster. Ignore the glares and snide remarks of the people around you. Keep your cool. (Anyway, a screaming youngster in a check-out line speeds it up, so Karla is actually doing everyone a favor.) Once you are able to make your escape, talk to Karla about her behavior.

Teaching Alternatives to Temper Tantrums—

Once Karla has settled down, you and she need to have a talk right away while the memories of the episode are still fresh in her mind. She threw the temper tantrum because she was angry or frustrated. Don't get into the issue of why she was angry or frustrated. Concentrate on the temper tantrum itself, explaining to her that the behavior isn't appropriate. Then teach her what she should do instead when she feels angry. This works with kids of any age, even toddlers.

First describe the behavior: "You felt angry and you threw a temper tantrum. You were screaming, throwing things, and kicking the walls." You say this so Karla will understand exactly what you are talking about.

Then you explain that temper tantrums are not proper behavior. Make sure that you are clear that the temper tantrum is bad, not Karla. "Temper tantrums are not appropriate behavior. In our family, we don't scream and throw things and kick. That behavior is not acceptable." This has an impact on Karla, because she wants to do the right thing. You help her by explaining that temper tantrums are the wrong thing. And don't worry about using big words such as "appropriate." If you use big words with an HFA youngster, she will learn big words. If you use only little words, she will learn only little words.

Then give Karla some alternatives: "I know you felt angry. When you are angry, what you do is say, 'I'm angry!' Can you say that?" Have Karla repeat the phrase after you.

Next review what you have said. "What are you going to say next time you're angry?" Get her to repeat the phrase, "I'm angry!" Then say, "Next time you're angry, are you going to scream?" Karla will probably say or indicate "no." "Next time you're angry, are you going to throw things?" "Next time you're angry, are you going to kick?" End up with, "Tell me again what you're going to do next time you're angry."

You will have to repeat this discussion many, many times. It takes a long time for an HFA youngster to learn how to control a temper tantrum.

Preventing Temper Tantrums—

You may notice after a while that certain settings and circumstances seem to precipitate Karla's temper tantrums. My daughter, for example, always threw temper tantrums when we went to a restaurant.

You can prevent temper tantrums by talking to Karla beforehand. Explain to her what you are about to do (e.g., "We're going to go have lunch at Taco Bell"). Then tell Karla what kind of behavior you expect, putting your expectations in positive terms (e.g., "At Taco Bell, we're going to behave well. That means we will be polite, speak quietly, and use our words to ask for things and to say how we feel"). After you have told Karla what you want, tell her what you don't want. (e.g., "We will not scream, throw things or kick. We don't do those things in public. It bothers people"). This tells Karla not only what behaviors to avoid, but why to avoid them. Then get her to agree to this. Say, "Now, tell me how you're going to behave when we go out. Are you going to speak quietly?" Karla should indicate "yes." "Are you going to use your words?" "Yes." "Are you going to scream or throw things or kick?" "No." Then say, "That's great! We'll have a good time!" My daughter never once threw a temper tantrum if she agreed ahead of time not to. Run through this litany every time you plan to go out, because if you forget, Karla will revert to temper tantrums in that environment!

If Karla tends to throw temper tantrums in stores after you refuse her demand for treats, you can often avert the temper tantrum by making a game out of her demand, as follows:

Karla: "I want candy!
You: "I want a rocket ship to Mars."

Karla: "Give me candy!"
You: "Give me a rocket ship to Mars."

Karla: "Give me candy!"
You: "I'll give you candy if you give me a rocket ship to Mars."

Karla: "Here." (Pretending to hand you something.)
You: "Here." (Pretending to hand Karla something.)

Karla: "But this isn't real."
You: "What you gave me wasn't real, either."

Karla: "But I don't have a real rocket ship!"
You: "Well, I guess you're out of luck, then!"

This may not work with every youngster, but it worked with my daughter. It's good for an HFA youngster to learn that it's okay to want things, but it doesn't follow that people always gets what they want.

Another way of dealing with the grocery store temper tantrum is to discuss treats with Karla beforehand. Tell her where you are going, and what kind of treats, if any, she can expect to get at the store. You might say, "When we go to the store, you can select one lollipop, any flavor you like, as a treat." Make it clear that one lollipop is all she will get. If you don't want her to get a treat that day, you should tell this to her ahead of time. An HFA youngster will often accept not getting a treat if told beforehand. But make sure that whatever you tell Karla before the trip to the store, you stick to it!

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