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How to Navigate Tantrums with a Child with Autism

Posted by Gabriel Williams on

All children will inevitably go through some sort of phase of throwing tantrums. How these tantrums are dealt with can often determine if throwing tantrums will turn just be a phase, or become learned habits. For children on the autism spectrum, it can be particularly difficult navigating tantrums and dealing with them appropriately. Here are some strategies to help you handle these situations when they arise.

Tantrum vs. a Meltdown

One of the main things that makes handling tantrums with a child on the autism spectrum is that they often look very similar to meltdowns: screaming, crying, kicking, and pounding. The key difference is that meltdowns are the result of sensory overload, discomfort, anxiety, or other physical or emotional stressors. A tantrum involves the display of inappropriate behaviors, as previously mentioned, in an attempt to get something they want or need.

Identifying a Tantrum

If your child starts displaying outbursts of inappropriate behavior, pay close attention to what is happening and what they are communicating. Do you notice any potential sensory issues, non-verbal signs of physical discomfort, or indications of high anxiety? These may be signs that the behavior is due to internal factors of stress leading to a meltdown. If your child has asked for something they are not allowed, or if circumstances don’t allow for it, or if they seem to be inappropriately seeking attention, these are indications that the behavior is a tantrum.

How To Handle a Tantrum

If the situation is a meltdown, then it’s important to identify the stressor and to what you can to address it, such as by practicing healthy coping skills, removing them from the stressful environment, or engaging in a calming activity. When it comes to tantrums you will want to approach the situation a bit differently. It’s important to identify the motivation behind the tantrum, without giving into the behavior. Remember to pay close attention to non-verbal communication when identifying the reason for the tantrum. Calmly explain that you understand why they are frustrated, that their communication style at the moment is inappropriate, and explain that you will talk to them about it when they are calm. While it can be difficult to walk away from your child when they displaying outbursts, it is important to not reward the inappropriate behavior. When it comes to children on the autism spectrum, be sure that you are still able to keep an eye on them in case they begin engaging in self-injurious behaviors during their tantrum.

Look For Opportunities To Reward Appropriate Communication

The most important aspect of dealing with tantrums is rewarding your child when they act appropriately. Be intentional about this and go out of your way to look for times when your child asks for something they are allowed appropriately when they behave well if they are told “no” to something, and if they are able to stop a tantrum and act appropriately on their own. Couple it with lots of praise for a job well done, and you can expect to see their communication improve over time.

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