When Tantrums in Kids on the Autism Spectrum Become Unmanageable

"Any advice for dealing with a child on the spectrum who flips into severe tantrums over the slightest change in his routine?"

Some kids with Aspergers and high-functioning autism (HFA) are more likely to have temper tantrums than others. Causes that contribute to a youngster's tendency to have tantrums include:
  • age and stage of development
  • fatigue
  • stress in the youngster's environment
  • temperament
  • whether underlying behavioral, developmental, or health conditions are present (e.g., ADHD)

Also, a youngster may be more likely to have temper tantrums if moms and dads react too strongly to difficult behavior or give in to the youngster's demands.

Temper tantrums are normal behavior for most kids, and there is no reason why kids with Aspergers and HFA should refrain from this stage of development. But how do you know whether or not a child's tantrums are "normal"? When tantrums escalate to the point of violence, is it still just a "tantrum," or are there deeper issues that need to be investigated?

Temper tantrums are one of the most common problems in younger kids on the autism spectrum. They may appear to go into a state of rage, panic, anxiety or fear for no reason at all. This might involve screaming, crying, resisting contact with others, or pushing others away. Unfortunately for children with the disorder - and their parents - temper tantrums and destructive behaviors are especially common.

It is more difficult for moms and dads to “prevent” temper tantrums in these kids. The youngster may seem inconsolable during the tantrum, and the episode might last a long time and consist of more aggressive behavior (e.g., hitting, biting, pinching, etc.).

Also, the satisfaction (i.e., emotional release) that typically accompanies the end of the tantrum for "typical" kids rarely occurs in Aspergers and HFA kids. Similar episodes of panic, anxiety, rage and even aggression might be seen all through childhood, adolescence – and even adulthood.

Paying attention to the things that trigger a tantrum can help parents act before a youngster's emotions escalate beyond the point where he can control them. Identifying the cause of the behavior is very important. There is almost always some yet-to-be-unidentified trigger that brings on challenging behavior.

==> Preventing Tantrums and Meltdowns in Kids on the Autism Spectrum 

Causes for challenging behaviors:

As with such behavior in all kids, there may be any number of causes. There might be underlying reasons (e.g., feeling upset, anxious or angry) and immediate triggers (e.g., being told to do something). In Aspergers and HFA however, tantrums are directed by frustration.

Children on the spectrum often rely on ritual and structure. Structure is a method that helps define the world in terms of set rules and explanations, which in turn helps the child function most effectively. Most kids with the disorder find their own methods of imposing structure and maintaining consistency. They need this structure because the world is confusing.

To these special needs children, the world is complex and almost impossible to understand. The information they receive through their senses might be overwhelming and hard to bring together into a strong whole, and there is likely to be an additional learning disability that makes it hard to apply cognitive skills to all these areas at once.

When some form of structure or routine is disrupted, the world becomes confusing and overwhelming again (e.g., feeling homesick, losing a comforting toy when feeling alone, starting a new school year, etc.). This disruption of structure might be obvious (e.g., having a collection of objects disturbed, being made to go a different way to school, getting up at an unusual hour), or it might be hidden (e.g., subtle changes in the environment which the youngster is used to).

Some of these triggers might be out of the control of the child or his parents. Some might be avoidable. Others might be necessary events, which can be slowly introduced so as to limit overt reactions.

Generally, one of the most significant causes of challenging behavior is a communicative need. For children with profound difficulties in understanding others and in communicating with them, it is hardly surprising for frustration, anger and anxiety to build up.

It is also quite likely that challenging behaviors will directly serve as a form of communication. Natural temper tantrums (e.g., in response to changes in routine, or requests to do something the child does not want to do) may well become usual reactions to those involved.




Frequent temper tantrums:

If your youngster continues to have frequent temper tantrums after age 3, you may need to use time-outs. A time-out removes the youngster from the situation, allows her time to calm down, and teaches her that having a tantrum is not acceptable behavior. Time-out works best for kids who understand why it is being used.

Most kids gradually learn healthy ways to handle the strong emotions that can lead to tantrums. They also usually improve their ability to communicate, become increasingly independent, and recognize the benefits of having these skills.

Kids who continue to have temper tantrums after the age of 4 usually need outside help learning to deal with anger. Tantrums that continue (or start) during the school years may be a sign of other issues (e.g., learning difficulties, social skills deficits).

Talk with a health professional if difficult behavior frequently lasts longer than 15 minutes, occurs more than 3 times a day, or is more aggressive. This may indicate that the youngster has an underlying medical, emotional, or social problem that needs attention.

These are not considered typical temper tantrums. Difficult behaviors may include: biting, hair pulling, head-banging or inflicting self-injury, hitting, kicking, pinching, scratching, throwing or breaking things, etc.

Does your child do any of the following?
  • behavior does not improve after 4 years of age
  • hurts himself, other people, or objects during a tantrum
  • tantrums frequently last longer than 15 minutes
  • tantrums occur more than 3 times a day

Do you, as the parent, experience any of the following?
  • have concerns that you might hurt your youngster when trying to hold him back or calm him down
  • have problems handling your youngster's behavior
  • have serious concerns about your youngster's tantrums
  • need help with learning to cope with your own feelings during your youngster's temper tantrums

Counseling and/or medical treatment for temper tantrums may be recommended for kids who: 
  • regularly have tantrums after 4 years of age
  • have long-lasting and frequent temper tantrums
  • cause self-injury or become violent

This is where support is needed both in the form of direct interventions related to the behaviors, and in advising and helping moms and dads manage episodes in ways that can be applied at home. These difficulties can be improved slowly through education and other interventions.

Moms and dads can help by making an effort to manage the environment so that the child is more comfortable (e.g., providing structure, avoiding distracting information when engaging in tasks, allowing personal space where necessary, etc.). Challenging behavior serves a communicative conduct. In this case, the cause for the behavior must first be identified before teaching and developing other means of communicating.


==> Click here for more parenting advice on dealing with tantrums, meltdowns and shutdowns...

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