Understanding Autism and Tantrums

It is expected that if you have young children they will experience temper tantrums. However, parents of children with autism and disorders on the autism spectrum scale are often faced with more severe tantrums and meltdowns. Many parents describe feeling isolated, defeated, overwhelmed and even unable to leave their home due to the frequency and severity of the tantrums. Generally, children will experience tantrums if they are tired, hungry or upset. As we learn about our children’s mood and behaviors, we gradually learn to predict when they may experience difficulty.

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However, with autistic children, tantrums often are unpredictable. One reason they occur is due to their inability to understand the message being communicated. At times, this occurs in situations where the child is asked to shift their attention from one activity to something else. Children who do not suffer from developmental disabilities may struggle with tantrums when asked to shift from something enjoyable, watching their favorite movie to something that is not preferred, preparing for bed. However, autistic children can easily experience difficulty even when the shift is to another pleasant activity. Autistic children’s inability to understand and recognize that the new activity can also be enjoyable can result in tantrums. Another reason why autistic children experience tantrums is related to difficulty with transition. These types of tantrums are often related to the child’s inability to understand the message entirely. For example, telling an autistic child that you are going to take him or her for ice cream, may result in a tantrum when it is time to leave. The child’s inability to make a connection between ice cream and time to leave may have been interpreted as something else.

For autistic children, tantrums are a way of expressing themselves. Escalation occurs when their needs/wants are not being met. Tantrums though, are not just related to an autistic child’s inability to understand the message. They are also in part related to the parent’s inability to understand the message the child is attempting to convey. For example, a parent may offer an autistic child some cookies as a snack however; the child desires ice cream and proceeds to have a meltdown. A parent may try to offer other options however; the child does not have the ability to communicate his or her desire for ice cream.

One technique to help reduce tantrums is to implement visual aids. Giving an autistic child a visual aid for each transition (i.e. a visual aid of the car when you indicate it is time to leave and another visual aid of the restaurant at the time you are driving) can reduce the likelihood the child will misunderstand the message. Visual aids that represent time, along with periodic reminders, can also help an autistic child comprehend that the time for the activity is coming to an end. Another technique that can be helpful is using sequential visual aids (i.e. using 3 pictures on a strip). Sequential visual aids can help autistic children learn not only natural progressions but also visually see each task being completed and what remains.

Significant research supports that music is beneficial for autistic children. Since language acquisition is processed in the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain and music is processed on the right cerebral hemisphere, researchers believe that autistic children are able to comprehend language by the brain shifting to using the right cerebral hemisphere. NDSI Providers directions to an autistic child using a melody can help the child comprehend the request being made. Using techniques that are more understandable, such as music can reduce the pressure the child may feel and also make the activity more enjoyable. Providing directions while snapping fingers, tapping your foot or changing the pitch in your tone as you speak can help a child not only comprehend what is being asked but also predict what may be asked in the future.