“I have a 5 year old with high-functioning autism. Whenever he encounters something frustrating, it’s like he ‘flips a switch’. He will go from cheerful and engaged to mad and yelling in one split second. I'm not sure if this happens simply because he encounters something hard, or if it is a buildup of frustration over time that results in a big meltdown when he finally hits his tipping point. Maybe he misses his anger cues throughout the day, and that causes a flood of emotions when he confronts something particularly frustrating. Are there some ways to teach him to calm himself so that he doesn’t get to the point of exploding?”
Most kids with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s (AS) struggle with low-frustration tolerance. Frustration is a powerful emotion, and their reactions can be intense in the moment. “Typical” children usually know when their anger buttons are being pushed. And many of them know what they need to do to work through something frustrating in a fairly appropriate manner. However, children with autism don’t enter this world with a pocket full of frustration-management skills. These skills must be taught.
Apparently your high-functioning autistic son experiences low-frustration tolerance and anger-control issues. Use the strategies below to (a) prevent emotional outbursts and (b) help calm your child down once he has launched into a tantrum or meltdown:
1. Use calming music.
2. Try fish oil. It has a calming effect.
3. The repeated act of chewing and sucking provides agitated kids the necessary oral sensory input that helps them relax. This is why some kids will chew the inside of their mouth when they feel agitated. Replace this destructive habit by giving your son food that requires repeated chewing (e.g., celery, carrots, and other crunchy vegetables). He can also chew gum or taffy to help him settle down. Or give him a smoothie to drink using a straw.
4. Teach your son what calm behavior looks like by showing him you can be calm, too.
5. Taking a mini-vacation with guided imagery. Guided imagery is a powerful relaxation tool for HFA and AS kids that pulls their focus to positive thoughts, all the while encouraging creativity. You can check out books on this technique at your local library if you want further information on the subject.
6. Try aromatherapy!
7. Some parents find that reducing or eliminating certain foods from the diet goes a long way in calming the HFA and AS youngster. If your son is a finicky eater, you will need to supplement the diet to make sure he has the fuels needed for his body to function well. Starting the day out with a healthy breakfast balanced with proteins, fats and carbohydrates is important. Keep your son away from caffeinated drinks and anything with added preservatives, coloring and sugar. Also, get in the habit of offering plain old H2O. With plenty of bottled waters that offer fruit flavors and vitamin enhancements, getting kids hydrated is easier now than ever before.
8. Remove your son from the stressful situation when possible. Lead him to a quiet room or a secluded spot.
9. Allow your son to play in a warm bath or dig in a sandbox. Agitated kids with autism experience a calming effect from the variety of textures.
10. Take your son for a walk. Not only does walking burn off toxic energy, the repetitive thump, thump, thump of feet hitting pavement brings the mind back into focus.
11. Put together a "Boredom Box" that provides creative outlets for your son. Fill this box or plastic storage bin with paint sets, coloring books, crossword puzzles, modeling clay, jewelry making kits, and other artistic areas of interest. Some HFA and AS kids bore easily, and their fast spinning minds need extra stimulation. In the absence of nothing better to do, they will lean on their own devises. You don't want your son doing that. Better that he draw than set the cat on fire (lol).
12. At the time of the inappropriate behavior, be sure to limit your talking to “stating the rule and consequence.” Lengthy debates, explanations and arguments should be avoided at this time. Also, ignore complaints from your son. Further discussion about the rule and consequence can be done at a later time when things have calmed down.
13. Offer your son verbal alternatives to his angry outbursts. For example, “Maybe you could have said this. Why don’t you try that next time?” If trouble is brewing, remind him by saying, “Use your words” – and be sure to praise him when he does (perhaps via a Reward Chart with a happy face for every day he doesn’t act-out when frustrated).
14. Sometimes it is best to leave a child to work through a tantrum by removing yourself from the situation. However, you should always ensure that your son is in a safe environment and not able to hurt himself.
15. Many HFA and AS kids do not know HOW to calm down or even what “calm” feels like. Explain this to your son and discuss it frequently.
16. Listen to your son’s point of view about a particular rule. When appropriate, consider making changes to the rule based on your son’s reasoning. This doesn’t mean you are “giving in” to his demands, rather it means that (at times) you will negotiate with him on a rule and reach a compromise.
17. If possible, find a space in the house to designate as a relaxation space. It does not have to be a large space, but it does need to be away from high-activity areas. This little corner (or even a portion of a walk-in closet) can have a beanbag chair and a few books, coloring books, or other quiet time activities. Encourage your son to go to this space when he becomes upset (but never make this a place of punishment). This special spot in the house is a positive place where he can go to settle down, sort things out, or just hang out when he needs to be alone.
18. Kids who see aggressive or violent behavior played out on TV or in computer games tend to be more aggressive when they play. If your son is consistently aggressive, limit his exposure to it in the media. If he does see it on TV, explain that hitting isn’t a nice way to act and doesn‘t solve problems. Reinforce the message by choosing storybooks and TV shows that promote kindness.
19. Help your son to identify the warning signs leading up to an outburst. He can even make a list of these warning signs and post them in a visible location. If your son is aware of what these signs are, he can then practice a breathing and counting technique.
20. HFA and AS kids thrive in homes that provide routines, consistency and structure. These kids especially need structure and schedules to feel secure in their surroundings. For them, a more "military" approach to routines works better. Waking up, eating meals, doing homework, and bed times should all occur at about the same time every day.
21. Help your son work out what he’s feeling. After he has calmed down from a tantrum, gently talk him through it. Ask him what was bothering him and why (e.g., “Did you think I wasn’t listening to you?”). Your son needs to be taught how to label and manage his feelings, especially frustration and anger. In order to do this, he needs an emotion vocabulary – and you can provide that by asking questions such as, “Were you upset?” … “Did you feel unhappy?” … “Were you frustrated?”…and so on.
22. When your son is beginning to get upset (assuming he doesn’t mind being touched in those moments), give your son a mini-massage. Touch is very important to most kids. Massaging your son’s temples, giving a shoulder rub, or lightly running your fingers through his hair may calm him quickly.
23. While providing structure and consistency are important skills for you to use with your son, it’s also important to be aware of the importance of allowing him some independence and autonomy. As often as is appropriate, allow your son to have opportunities to make his own choices and decisions, respect his choices and decisions, and allow natural “real-world” consequences to occur (when safety is not an issue, of course).
24. Identify the early warning signs that your son’s frustration level is building up. HFA and AS kids often don’t recognize frustration. In fact, many times they act out before they realize what happened. Identifying early warning signs helps these young people become more aware of their feelings, which in turn gives them more opportunity to control their responses to these feelings. Some common cues that indicate a child is getting upset and about to lose control include: unkind words, the tone of voice changes to whining or yelling, tensed body, squinting, rolling the eyes, restlessness, withdrawal, unresponsiveness, being easily provoked, pouting, noises with the mouth such as growls or deep breathing, increased intensity of speech or behavior, and clenched teeth.
25. If your son doesn’t have the verbal skills to assert himself in a non-aggressive way, then teach him. Children love “pretend play,” and you can use that to teach your son how to react to the things that tend to trigger his anger. Role-play a situation that would normally have your son going into meltdown, and work out how he can resolve it without getting mad and screaming.
26. When your son gets to the age where he can write proficiently, have him try journaling. This is an excellent way to untangle his frazzled mind and get things off his chest. It will allow him to spill his internal stresses outside himself and onto paper. When the timing is right, develop a daily habit of having your son write a paragraph or two about anything that comes to mind. Eventually, he will get to the guts of what is going on inside of him. Then he can rumple or tear the paper up and throw it away. These private internal thoughts are not for you or anyone else to read, however. So, respect your son’s privacy and let him know he can write anything down without fear of reprimand.
27. Allow your son to perform some heavy chores (e.g., vacuuming, moving objects, cleaning windows and cabinet doors, etc.). This helps him focus on completing a necessary task while using his energy in a constructive way. Heavy chores or intense exercises allow kids to experience sensory input to different muscles and joints.
28. Eliminate clutter in your son's environment to help structure and focus his energies to prevent repeated outbursts.
29. Teach your son to take a break from the difficult situation and to get alone for a few minutes. One of the healthiest responses to frustration at any of its stages is to step back. During that time the child can rethink the situation, calm down, and determine what to do next. Stepping back can help your son stop the progression and determine to respond differently. The length of the break is determined by the intensity of the emotion. A child who is simply annoyed may just take a deep breath. The child who is enraged probably needs to leave the room and settle down.
30. Do not speak in an agitated or annoyed voice to a frustrated child, because this aggravates the problem. Keep your voice calm while instructing your son in concise sentences on what he can do to calm down. Also, you can dim the lights so he receives less sensory input from surroundings that he may feel are harsh and which may further distract him.
31. HFA and AS kids often pay little mind to the effect their behavior can have on everyone else. If your son hits, bites or kicks, get down to his level and calmly ask him how he would feel if someone did that to him. Prompt him to give it some thought by saying things like, “If your sister kicked you like that, it would hurt you and make you cry.”
32. Do not tolerate aggressive behavior in any way, shape or form. As with every other aspect of parenting, consistency is paramount. The only way to stop your son from being aggressive is to make a House Rule that aggression is not acceptable.
33. Deep breathing is an easy technique autistic kids can use to defuse anger. Show your son what to do by placing your hand on your belly and getting him to do the same while taking in three deep breaths. The hand on the belly serves as a handy visual cue that you can use to remind your son to take a step back from what’s bothering him.
34. HFA and AS kids have difficulty remaining calm in a hectic environment. Clearing the clutter and taking a "less is more" approach to decorating can reduce the sensory overload. Your son’s bedroom especially should be free of clutter. Use plastic bins to organize and store all those little plastic treasures (that we parents commonly refer to as "junk") and small toys. Open the curtains to provide natural lighting. Keep posters and wall hangings to a minimum. Paint your son's bedroom in calming muted colors instead of bright primary colors.
35. Check your own stress levels, because most kids are often emotional barometers for their parents. Before you can calm down your son’s anxiety, you must first learn to calm down your own first. Lead by example, because you can’t put out a fire with another fire.
36. Allow your son to use his negative energy in a fun way (e.g., jumping, spinning, running, climbing, swinging, play-wrestling with pillows, punching a punching bag, etc.).
37. Your son will learn to manage anger and frustration by watching the way you manage yours. The irony is that an aggressive youngster can often be a major trigger for parents to explode. Deal with this situation as soon as possible, using a calm voice to express how you feel rather than yelling. And just as you expect your son to apologize for bad behavior, get into the habit of apologizing to him if you lose your temper inappropriately.
38. Lastly, if your son’s aggressive behavior is disrupting your home and putting family members or others at risk, and he reacts explosively to even the mildest discipline techniques, see your doctor. He or she may be able to refer you to a child psychologist or counselor (preferably one who specializes in autism spectrum disorders) who can teach you new ways of interacting with your son that will help you manage his anger and frustration more effectively.
The goal of self-soothing techniques is to reduce both the emotional feelings and the physiological arousal that frustration causes. Your son can't get rid of - or avoid - the things or the people that upset him, nor can you change them, but he can learn to control his reactions.
How to Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums in Children with Aspergers and HFA