Temper tantrums and autism often go hand in hand. Nearly every parent is forced to deal with a temper tantrum at some point, but tantrums in autistic children are typically much more severe than "normal" tantrums. To manage meltdowns effectively in these children, it is important to understand the causes behind them. While every child is different, the same basic issues trigger most children with autism.
Link between Temper Tantrums and Autism
Young children often have tantrums when they become overtired, angry, or upset. These tantrums are generally mild and cease when the child realizes the parent is not paying attention. In autistic children, tantrums may escalate and become violent. Children with autistic disorders may not fully understand or remember why they are upset, and the tantrums do not ease or stop when ignored. These children experience a greater loss of control than other children do.
Disruption of Routine
Even minor changes in routine can trigger temper tantrums in autistic kids. Routines and schedules allow kids to feel secure and in control of their environment. Knowing that snack time always follows a nap, or that therapy occurs every afternoon before dinner, reduces anxiety and provides comfort. When appointments, out-of-town guests, or a surprise trip to see Mickey Mouse alter daily schedules, children with autism may become extremely confused and angry. The resulting tantrums can be violent and prolonged.
Overstimulation and Sensory Overload
Many children with autistic disorders become over stimulated by noise or activity in the environment. Autistic children are more likely than other kids are to suffer from sensory integration disorders that increase their sensitivity to light, noise, or certain textures. Environmental stimuli such as tags on clothing, flashing television lights, overheated rooms, rough carpet, or dogs barking may all cause a meltdown.
Frustration and Communication Difficulties
Autistic children have difficulty understanding directions, expressing their thoughts and feelings, and forming connections between words and their meanings. Due to their inability to communicate, these children are easily frustrated and more prone to temper tantrums and rages. Questioning your child to determine the source of his frustration is generally a bad idea while he is in the throws of a meltdown. You are likely to increase his frustration and cause the tantrum to intensify.
Managing Tantrums in Autistic Children
Because autistic children have temper tantrums for different reasons than other children, and because they are unable to express themselves clearly, managing their meltdowns can be difficult. Autistic children rarely throw fits to manipulate adults or elicit an emotional response from others, which makes punishment an ineffective strategy. Preventing tantrums is important, as stopping them once they begin is nearly impossible. Autistic tantrums may quickly worsen into violent, dangerous rages. Fortunately, you can manage temper tantrums and autism.
Stick to a Strict Schedule
One of the easiest ways to ensure your home remains tantrum-free is to create a routine. Before you begin, you must spend a few days noting your child's natural clock and preferences. If your child wakes at the same time every morning, or becomes tired at the same time every night, write that information down and use it as a base for the rest of your schedule. Once you have established a routine in your home, your autistic child will likely feel more comfortable and secure, and the tantrums should become increasingly less frequent.
Reduce Environmental Stimulation
If your child reacts negatively to loud noises, bright lights, or warm temperatures, consider making some changes in your home to reduce these triggers. Create a calm space in your home for your child to go when he feels over stimulated or frustrated, and make an effort to reduce the overall activity level inside your home during the hours your child is home and awake. White noise machines, calming music, or the sound of fish tanks soothes some autistic kids. It may take some time to determine what works best for your specific child, so do not become discouraged if your first few attempts fail.
Redirection and Distraction
When you sense a meltdown is imminent, it may be possible to redirect your child's attention to prevent a full-blown tantrum. Distract your child by diverting his attention to a calming activity, or introduce a comfort object to calm him. If your child wishes to be left alone, do as he wants and leave the room. Stay within hearing range, however, in case he needs you or loses control and puts himself in danger. Often, a change of environment will be sufficient to prevent a tantrum from occurring.
Keeping Your Autistic Child Safe
Safety should be your primary concern when managing temper tantrums and autism. Autistic children can lose emotional and physical control quickly, which may lead to broken furniture or bones. If you believe the tantrum has escalated to this point, it is important to move your child to a safer location and remove any hazards in the immediate environment. If your autistic child becomes a threat to himself or to others, seek outside help.
Develop a safety emergency plan with your child's doctor or therapist, and put that plan into action before your child injures himself. Consult your child's doctor if the tantrums seem to be worsening in frequency or intensity, as a number of medical conditions can cause tantrums in autistic children, including migraines, seizure disorders, and ear infections. With some time and effort, it is possible to understand and control your child's temper tantrums.