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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.). But, you do want to make the distinction between a tantrum and a meltdown. Those are two different problems that should be addressed differently (more on meltdowns here).

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.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

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.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

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!

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

Creating Daily Schedules for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

"I have a 4 year old boy, Chris, who has been diagnosed with autism (high functioning), and I need help on making a daily schedule or routine that will help us both. I’m currently at a loss. Nothing seems to be working. I would love examples of schedules. Please assist in this matter!"

A daily schedule definitely benefits high functioning autistic (Asperger’s) children by providing the structured environment that is critical to their sense of security and mastery. If you spend any time in a kindergarten or elementary school, you will be amazed at the teacher's ability to organize the students’ day.

When you understand the nature of attachment in your son, you will realize that shared communication and goals replace his attachment patterns. The daily schedule communicates the family's shared goals and allows the child to contribute to his accomplishment. Each time he follows the schedule, he has a small – but cumulative – experience of mastery of his environment.

Follow these simple steps to create a daily schedule for your family:

Step 1 - Analyze Your Day—

Do a simple, but consistent time study. The easiest way to do this is to print a daily calendar. Note what each family member is doing at each time of the day. Look for the problem times, and think about how the schedule can be structured to eliminate problems related to behavior, stress, fatigue, hunger, and disorganization.

Step 2 - Brainstorm What You Want—

Take the time to think about what you want in your family life (e.g., less confusion in the morning, homework done by dinner, kids in bed by a certain hour, family play time, relaxation, a clean house, etc.). Focus on a balance of activity and rest for your family. Take an honest look at the needs of your son – as well as your needs.

Step 3 - Write It Down—

Get a poster board and a marker, and write it down for all to see. Post it in the kitchen, and tell your son that you will now be following it. You're likely to get some opposition, so stand firm.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

Step 4 - Follow the Schedule for a Week—

Check the schedule often, and let it guide your days for at least one week. Instruct your son to check the schedule and follow it. If you must remind him, do so. But, your goal is for him to learn to take responsibility for his part of the schedule.

Step 5 - Tweak the Schedule—

After the first week, take a look at what is working and how the schedule needs changing. Make changes in the schedule, and write it on a new poster. Continue to follow your daily family schedule until it is second nature. In a few weeks, you may be surprised at how this simple tool has changed your family life for the better.

Here is just one of many examples of schedules for high-functioning autistic (Asperger’s) kids:


7:30 - 8:15 a.m. – You and Chris prepare for breakfast.

8:15 - 8:45 a.m. - Breakfast and clean-up: As Chris finishes breakfast, he reads books or listens to music until free play begins.


8:45 - 9:00 a.m. – Sharing time: Conversation and sharing time; music, movement, or rhythms; finger-plays.

9:00 - 10:00 a.m. - Free play: Chris selects from one of the interest areas: art, blocks, library corner, table toys, house corner, sand and water.

10:00 - 10:15 a.m. - Clean-up: Chris puts away toys and materials; as he finishes, he selects a book to read.

10:15 - 10:30 a.m. - Story time (the length of story time should vary with the age of the youngster).

10:30 - 10:50 a.m. - Snack and preparation to go outdoors.

10:50 - 11:45 a.m. - Outdoor play: Chris selects from climbing activities, wheel toys, balls, hoops, sand and water play, woodworking, gardening, and youngster-initiated games.

11:45 - 12:00 noon - Quiet time: Chris selects a book or listen to tapes.


12:00 - 12:45 p.m. - Prepare for lunch, eat lunch, and clean up: As Chris finishes lunch, he goes to the bathroom and then read books on his bed in preparation for nap time.

12:45 - 1:00 p.m. - Quiet activity prior to nap: Story, song by parent, quiet music, or story record.

1:00 - 3:00 p.m. - Nap time: As Chris awakens, he reads books or plays quiet games such as puzzles or lotto on their cots (kids who do not sleep or who awaken early are taken into another room for free play with books, table toys, and other quiet activities).


3:00 - 3:30 p.m. - Snack and preparation to go outdoors.

3:30 - 4:30 p.m. - Outdoor play: Chris selects from climbing activities, wheel toys, balls, hoops, sand and water play, woodworking, gardening, and child-initiated games.

4:30 - 5:15 p.m. - Free play: Chris selects from art (activity requiring minimal clean-up time), blocks, house corner, library corner, and table toys.

5:15 - 6:00 p.m. - Clean-up: After snack, parent plans quiet activities such as table toys; songs, finger-plays, or music; stories; and coloring. Chris may help parent prepare materials for the next day.

Children on the autism spectrum crave structure and predictability in their day. However, they may react strongly when faced with an unexpected change in their daily schedule. When creating daily schedules be sure to match the schedule format to your youngster’s skill level: 
  • The fluent reader can use a written schedule, with words selected at your youngster's reading level.
  • For the beginning reader, the schedule can pair pictures with the words describing the events to the day.
  • For a non-reader who recognizes pictures, the schedule can include a picture to represent each scheduled event.
  • For a youngster who can’t read and doesn’t recognize pictures as depictions of actual objects and events, the schedule can consist of objects that represent schedule entries (e.g., a book can represent “reading time,” or a wrapped snack bar can represent “snack time”).

A daily schedule lays out the events of the day that affects the child. But, remember that schedules have value only when they are used. Your son should preview his schedule at the start of the day. After each activity is completed, he can check off that item on his schedule or otherwise indicate that the event is finished (e.g., by removing the event's picture from the schedule board). If an event in your son’s schedule is unexpectedly cancelled, you may find that he will adjust more quickly to the change if the two of you sit down together to review the schedule and revise it to reflect the altered plan for the day.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

Here are some additional ideas from parents of high-functioning (Asperger’s) kids:

• "Don't forget to breathe. My daughter changes drastically when there is ANY transition that deviates from her normal day-to-day routines. Posting "to do" lists is good. I let my daughter decide what order to do her morning before school things on a numbered list. I find that even in school, this helps her fourth grade teacher see that visual cues help. Mostly, touching my daughter physically, on her elbow seems to be her most responsive spot, and asking, "Can I ask you something?" instead of giving commands from across the room works great so I don't escalate in frustration as she really is not capable at times to "hear me". Also, LOTS of activities that allow rocking, swinging, being "squished" by pillows or rolled up tight in a favorite blanket ...having time to decompress with their favorite activity right after school. Allowing them to pick friends when they are ready, but encourage them by becoming acquainted with moms and other kiddos who your child "clicks" well with."

• "Give him a lot of small chores to help you, and often say, “After we do this, then you can do that.” Give him pockets of free time, ask him how he wants to use it. Use a list for yourself, but not for him. He will get the list in his brain in a short time. Thru the day 3-5 times, say “We only have 8 or 10 or 12 things left to do.” Possibly the momentum of the number lowering will trigger him to cooperation."

• "I break the schedule down into parts and put the visual schedules up near the areas where he needs to complete the tasks (e.g., the "get out of the house" schedule to go to school is by the door; the bathroom bedtime routine is in the bathroom). This gives the visual schedules a context. You can try googling it for some ideas too on what they can look like. I modeled mine after the ones that are in my son's schools. Weekends were the hardest for us until we sat down at the breakfast table that morning and made a visual schedule for that day as well. So long as we keep to the routine, we do far better. I've heard that there are also some apps to help with this, though I have not explored them yet. I find that when we have this structure, he is also a bit more adaptive if we need to make a slight change."

• "If he attends school, this will be part of his routine... Wake up same time in the morning, put clothes on, eat breakfast, brush teeth, comb hair, and go to school. After school, you need to get him in an activity so he can be around other kids his age in a "social" environment (e.g., Gymnastics, T-Ball, Soccer, etc.). When he gets home, get a snack, do homework, "playtime" or "practice", dinner, bath, then bedtime. Life is busy and most can't stay on such schedules, but let him know several times the day before what activities you all have for the next day... Remind in the morning, after school, before bed... Also remind him of the activities you all have planned that day, even if it it's going to the store... It is best to try to slowly change his routine without him knowing so he can get used to change.... but start off with a certain schedule. My son was diagnosed 2 years ago when he was 10. He is now 12, and these are things I did for him without knowing he had high functioning autism. Today you wouldn't know he had it because he is very social. Get play dates, get him in to sports even if doesn't want to, push him - push him, because the end result is worth it."

• "One way I know is to put a laminated sign by his breakfast spot that shows him combing hair and brushing teeth in the bathroom. Then in the bathroom, another sign shows him in his room getting clothes on. Then in his room, it shows him grabbing his backpack and coat and setting it by the door. Our key to success is NO downtime in the A.M. If he gets started playing and then has to stop to head to school - it's no good. If he's "off track," you can prompt him by asking him what he should be doing right now rather than telling him. Always put it on him so he learns it's HIS responsibility. In the P.M., you can make your routine more time oriented (e.g., 3:00 - 3:15 snack, 3:15 - 3:30 computer time, 3:30 - 4:00 free choice or quiet reading, and so on)."

• "Yes, routine, routine, routine. Also make sure that if there's a major change, try to let him know ahead of time. In a perfect world we can predict changes, but obviously that doesn't happen, particularly in school. Have safety nets (people) set up in place so that if a sudden, unexpected change happens and a meltdown occurs that he has support to help him through it. The more you can tell teachers and staff members at school about his needs and "triggers," the better off he is. After a while it gets to be second nature for everyone, and it does get better!!"


More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

•    Anonymous said… clocks in every room.always give countdowns between changing task..surprise changes are hard and a part of life so they are him thru those will have good days and bad days...if you know the routine will be different tell him early and prepare him for it..don't try to follow a schedule that works for someone else, do what is best and works for you guys..
•    Anonymous said… I just watched my son and see how he likes schedule as long as its within reason. I would do the same thing everyday and then he would find his nitch. Im aspergers too though so its easy for me. But we are moving around so much these days because we are not in a permanent place til after the holidays that im really surprised hes doing very well with it. The only problem hes having is so frustrating at 15 is going number 2 in his pants. Sometimes its just a streak but like he holds it. I keep that on a schedule too but weve been chenging time zones. I always try to warn him ahead of time what the day will be like if its not the normal routine.
•    Anonymous said… In 5 minutes....that's how we run our lives  😊
•    Anonymous said… Maybe try creating a visual schedule with pictures for each step in your routine so he knows what comes next without you having to give a million warnings and prompt him constantly. Like others have said, consistency is key!
•    Anonymous said… My 10 year old even stopped watching tv before school this morning, he said "you only give me 12 minutes of Pokemon every morning and that is finished"  😂 😂 😂 😂okay then go outside and play  😊 once you get routines happening they are a dream. He ALWAYS takes his plate to the dishwasher etc lives by routine!!!! You just have to establish one which can be slow going. Get the sticky back things so he can pull off "breakfast" and put it in a done pocket. Have a clock with hands he can change by the routine. Just stick with a plan give it at least 3 days before you give up and remember they need to be taught EVERYTHIBG! But once the hard work is done it's awesome
•    Anonymous said… The only thing that'll make it work is consistency. . consistency from EVERYONE in his life. 1 person throwing off his schedule/ routine, can set you back days of progress... Learned that the hard way... Otherwise, what works for my 5yr old is letting him know the list of tasks. 2 at a time. We are going to do this, then this.. After 2nd task, then I share the next following.  Sometimes he gets distracted with his own interests, but the way I found works for us, to bring his attention back is, " addison, right now it is __________ time. Not ________ time. We've got to stick to our agenda and then it can be _______ time. But right now we are doing, said things"
•    Anonymous said… The problem is in life something unexpwcted will rise and he needs to be prepared for that. Cant always have a routine but one thing should stay consistant is his mom in this knowing he can count on her.

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