Helping Kids on the Autism Spectrum Who Get Frustrated Easily


When my 15y/o son with autism (high functioning) meets with disappointment, and when things don't go just as he wants them to, he has his meltdown …then it is so difficult to get him redirected back to doing what he should be doing. Are there any tips you can give me about how to try to get him back on track, to help him accept that something didn't work out or that he can't do or have something he really wanted?


What you’re referring to here is low frustration tolerance (i.e., needing immediate pleasure or needing to avoid pain at the cost of long-term stress and defeatism). Low frustration-tolerance originates from the youngster’s dysfunctional and irrational beliefs. Behaviors are then the result of avoiding frustrating events which, paradoxically, lead to increased frustration and even greater mental stress.

Low frustration tolerance occurs when the youngster gets very frustrated and has an unwillingness or inability to tolerate the necessary short-term discomfort that is sometimes required for long-term gain. 
The opposite of this would be HIGH frustration tolerance. High frustration tolerance is simply the ability to tolerate or cope with discomfort and hard work in the short-term in order to achieve one's long term goals. Kids and teens with high frustration tolerance tend to be much more flexible, logical, rational and calmer in their thinking, behavior and general approach to life – and they are far less likely to suffer mental health problems as a result.

Here is what I would say to your son if I were meeting with him one-on-one…

Low frustration tolerance is just what it sounds like. You do not tolerate even the most minor frustrations well. You are easily irritated. You have a short fuse. Now …here is how you can increase your ability to deal with stressors, irritations and frustration without blowing your cool:

When the irritation happens and before you lose your cool, you have a thought or some belief which either lowers or increases your frustration. Consider some of the situations that irritate or annoy you. Look at some of the thinking which may be causing you to be more irritated or frustrated than you need to be. Here are some examples:
  • "I can't stand being frustrated, so I must avoid it at all costs."
  • "I can't take this."
  • "I can't wait that long."
  • "I should always be happy and content."
  • "It shouldn't be this difficult."
  • "It shouldn't be this way."
  • "My mom should stop doing things which annoy me."
  • "Things must go my way, and I can’t stand it when they don't."
  • "This is too much."

It is important to listen to what you are thinking, because then you can change what you are thinking. If you change your view of what is happening, you can change how you feel about it. If you can tune-in to what is going on in your head, you can rewrite the script. A large part of feeling frustrated comes from feeling helpless. Realize that you aren't completely helpless.

Now here is what I have to say to you, the parent...

There are nine distinct dimensions reflecting differences in temperament that influence how kids on the autism spectrum respond to the world around them. Understanding these may better help you to understand your son and figure out strategies for coping better with his temperament:

1. ACTIVITY measures the amount of physical energy a youngster puts into behavior and daily activities. An active child moves around a lot, even when sleeping. These kids prefer more active kinds of play over quiet activities such as reading. Many resist sleeping and fall asleep only when they're exhausted. Moms and dads need to notice what works when they are trying to calm an active youngster at bedtime.

2. ADAPTABILITY measures a youngster's adjustment to changes and transitions. Highly adaptable kids can be taken anywhere, anytime. They can sleep anywhere. As they get older, they are easy going. Kids low in adaptability react negatively to changes and need a lot of time before settling into situations. Unexpected situations can arouse strong reactions. Kids low in adaptability resist change, and often insist that every detail of daily routines be followed. They frequently are clingy. You can help them feel more in control by giving them simple choices to make (e.g., “Would you prefer doing your homework before or after dinner?”).

3. APPROACH/WITHDRAWAL measures a child’s initial reaction to a new activity, person, or situation. “Approaching” children tend to have a positive first reaction. These kids are often also very active and may go barreling into new situations, sometimes frightening other kids nearby. Helping them to slow down a little is very useful. “Withdrawing” kids have a negative reaction to the first time they experience something new. Sometimes they slowly warm-up to a situation, so it's important not to rush them into things. Let them set the pace at which they assimilate into what is going on.

4. DISTRACTIBILITY measures a youngster's tendency to be diverted by noise, interruptions, and other things going on around them. Highly distractible kids are acutely aware of everything that's going on around them. Simply explaining to a youngster, "You're getting distracted" can help him become more aware and regain his focus. Kids low in distractibility focus well, even in challenging environments, such as school.

5. INTENSITY refers to the level of energy a youngster puts into self-expression (i.e., the amount of volume and drama in the youngster's life). Intense kids express themselves with great vigor and gusto. Older kids speak in extremes (e.g., “Today was THE BEST or THE WORST day ever”). When they are in a good mood, they can be delightfully enthusiastic about something. When they are in a bad mood, a negative reaction from a parent can unleash a major tantrum or meltdown, abusive back-talk, threats of violence, or threats of running away. Moms and dads of intense kids need to learn how to not escalate with them. You should speak in a matter-of-fact tone of voice with them. After an eruption is over, try to help them learn more appropriate ways of expressing themselves that will be less offensive to others around them.

6. MOOD is a measure of a youngster's disposition. Some kids complain a lot. Others smile a lot and are always content. Some tend toward optimistic, others pessimistic. Kids who are more serious may have an analytical way of looking at things. If they tend toward pessimism or negativity, you can use their analytical perspective to your advantage. Speaking in a measured tone, help them understand what is upsetting them; help them broaden their perspective. Help them see things in new, more adaptive, ways.

7. PERSISTENCE/FRUSTRATION TOLERANCE measures a youngster's ability to complete a task in the face of obstacles. Kids with low frustration tolerance tend to give up easily when something doesn't go easily. Children and teens with low frustration tolerance do not like to be left alone. Kids who are low in frustration tolerance can be helped to increase their persistence by gradually stretching out the “adult response-time” to their kid's demands for help. Try breaking tasks down into smaller and easier pieces. Encourage them to do something until they can complete it. Kids with high frustration tolerance can persist in the face of difficulties and are more comfortable entertaining themselves. They sometimes find it difficult to walk away from something unfinished. You can help by giving them advance warnings (e.g., “Dinner is in five minutes”).

8. REGULARITY measures how predictable or unpredictable a youngster's biological functions are (e.g., hunger, fatigue, bowel movements, etc.). “Irregular” kids will rarely do anything with any predictability. Moms and dads should resist nagging a youngster about eating with everyone else. Instead, try making healthy snacks and food available for when they ask for it. Kids who are more irregular may handle chaos and spontaneity better than kids who are very “regular” and who do better in predictable and structured environments.

9. SENSITIVITY is a measure of a youngster's sensory threshold. A youngster low in sensitivity is better equipped to handle a stimulating situation (e.g., crowds or shopping). A youngster high in sensitivity has a low tolerance for exciting or stimulating situations, and will be prone to meltdowns. He over-reacts to physical stimuli (e.g., sights, sounds, taste, smell, and touch). Sensible accommodations to help sensitive kids can make coping easier for the youngster (e.g., learning when to turn down the volume).

Understanding your son's temperament will go a long way toward helping him fit into a society that is quick to judge harshly behaviors and emotions that are "different." To the extent that a mother or father can learn to accept a youngster for who he is, it greatly helps that child or teen to learn to feel good about being himself.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

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