Aspergers Students: Dealing with Tantrums, Rage and Meltdowns in the Classroom


Tantrums, rage, and meltdowns (terms that are used interchangeably) typically occur in three stages that can be of variable length. These stages and associated interventions are described below. The best intervention for these behavioral outbursts is to prevent them through the use of appropriate academic, environmental, social, and sensory supports and modification to environment and expectations.

The Cycle of Tantrums, Rage, and Meltdowns and Related Interventions

 Initial stage

During the initial stage, children with Aspergers (high functioning autism) exhibit specific behavioral changes that may appear to be minor (e.g., nail biting, tensing muscles, indicating discomfort). During this stage, it is imperative that an adult intervene without becoming part of a struggle.

Intervention

Effective interventions during this stage include: antiseptic bouncing, proximity control, support from routine and home base. All of these strategies can be effective in stopping the cycle of tantrums, rage, and meltdowns and can help the youngster regain control with minimal adult support.

Rage

If behavior is not diffused during the initial stage, the child may move to the rage stage. At this point, the youngster is disinhibited and acts impulsively, emotionally, and sometimes explosively. These behaviors may be externalized (e.g., screaming, biting, hitting, kicking, destroying property, self-injury), or internalized (e.g., shutdowns, withdrawal). Meltdowns are not purposeful, and once the rage stage begins, it most often must run its course.

Intervention

Emphasis should be placed on youngster, peer, and adult safety, as well as protection of school, home, or personal property. Of importance here is helping the child with Aspergers regain control and preserve dignity. Adults should have developed plans for (a) obtaining assistance from educators, such as a crisis teacher or principal; (b) removing the student from the area (removing the upset student from the peer group is far less memorable for the peers than is moving the entire peer group away from the upset student); or (c) providing therapeutic restraint, if necessary. Especially in elementary and middle school, every effort should be made to prevent allowing a student to have a meltdown in view of peers as this behavior tends to “define” the student in the peers’ minds in years ahead.

Recovery

Following a meltdown, the youngster with Aspergers often cannot fully remember what occurred during the rage stage. Some may become sullen, withdraw, or deny that inappropriate behavior occurred. Other children are so physically exhausted that they need to sleep.

Intervention

During the recovery stage, kids are often not ready to learn. Thus, it is important that adults work with them to help them to once again become a part of the routine. This is often best accomplished by directing the child to a highly motivating task that can be easily accomplished (e.g., activity related to a special interest). If appropriate, when the student has calmed sufficiently, “process” the incident with him or her. Staff should analyze the incident to identify whether or not the environment, expectations, or staff-behavior played a role in precipitating the incident.

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