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How To Deal With Autistic Temper Tantrums

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What Is A Tantrum

How to Handle an Autism Tantrum | Autism

Physically speaking, a tantrum can universally be described as shrieking, flexing of the body and flailing of arms and/or legs, and falling or throwing ones self to the ground in fits of rage and discontent. Dr. Jean Mercer, Professor Emerita of Psychology at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey states that a tantrum is dependent upon the motivation of a child at a given age.

Infants: may be hungry or in pain

Toddlers: under stress or tired

Pre-schoolers: testing their boundaries

School-aged and older: tantrums are translated to meltdowns

Mercer argues that the motivation of a child in the throes of a tantrum is not to get ones way but a form of communication which expresses anxiety and stress. More often than not, as adults we know our limitations and have the ability to say, Thats it! Ive had enough! We take control of the situation or walk away, but sometimes, deep down, we want to throw ourselves to the ground and scream too. Many children do not have that ability yet.

Provide Negative Consequences For Tantrums

Temper tantrums need negative consequences so your child will learn not to throw them. Ignoring the behavior can be a great strategy to reduce tantrums. After all, it’s not much fun to pitch a fit without an audience.

Look the other way, pretend you don’t hear anything, and act as though you aren’t bothered by your child’s temper tantrum. Although the screaming may get louder at first, your child will eventually learn that throwing a temper tantrum won’t get your attention.

Sometimes, a timeout is warranted as well. If your childs behaviors are too disruptive for him to remain in a store, for example, take him to the car for a timeout. Then continue your shopping trip when he is calm.

Know that you’re not alone in this experience and that most kids follow a pattern. One study observed 330 tantrums in a clinical setting with mothers and their children. They found that most tantrums last for three minutes. Also, it’s typical for a tantrum to start off with aggressive behavior, then dissolve into distress. After the study, most parents noted that their child’s behavior improved, but when they did have a tantrum again, it followed the typical pattern.

Autism Meltdown Coping Strategies

If your child, or someone else you know, is suffering from a sensory meltdown, you should be aware of the different techniques and tools that can reduce sensory overload and help contain the situation. Remember that people react differently to different support methods, so try to establish what works best for the individual.

  • Stay calm and ask them if they are okay or need anything. Reassure them that everything will be okay.
  • Identify what might have triggered the meltdown and, where possible, either remove the person from the trigger or the trigger from the person. Note their pattern of behaviour to avoid or anticipate potentially triggering environments.
  • If they aren’t triggered by physical contact, offer to place a hand on their shoulder or hug them deep pressure therapy can help with meltdowns, but only from the right source.

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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.

Be A Safe Space For Your Child

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Meltdowns cannot be stopped, but they end quickly once the autistic is allowed space and freedom to let it happen. Your screaming autistic child going through a meltdown has zero emotional control during this time, and all they can do is feel it.

Your job as the parent is to be a safe space for them. Be the number one person they can be themselves with instead of the person theyre afraid to experience this with. This is the side of autism no autistic person wants anyone to see because it is so embarrassing.

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Check Out Our Video On The 5 Steps To Build A Sensory Corner

In some instances, children on the autism spectrum experience extreme meltdowns due to high levels of over-stimulation. In these instances, your child might even engage in aggressive behaviors, such as screaming, kicking, or biting. Anger can be an outcome of over-stimulation, though the childs intent is usually not to harm others, it is just that their level of tolerance has hit capacity. This can be very stressful for you as a parent, especially if occurring in a public place. In these instances, the most helpful thing to do is to find immediate ways to de-escalate the situation.

Give your child the space they need, while also ensuring their safety and the safety of others around them. If you are able to safely move them away from the area of over-stimulation, this also can be helpful.

Removing the audience when possible is also helpful, as the presence of others may only make the situation worse. In most instances, allowing space will help de-escalate the situation on its own. When your child is starting to calm, it is best to get on their level physically, limit your verbal interactions, and offer any on-the-go calming tools you might have available. For example, a fidget tool or small, weighted item or lap pad.

Deal With The Situation Appropriately

Autistic tantrums and autistic meltdowns should be dealt with differently.

Autistic tantrums

Non-autistic temper tantrums are different from non-autistic tantrums, because emotions are harder to understand. Autistic children who experience alexithymia are not going to understand what their feelings are, despite their behavior illustrating it for them.

Instead of saying you know how they feel, teach them an appropriate way to work through their emotions. It may not be socially acceptable to start screaming in a store, but your autistic childs brain doesnt understand why that matters.

Traditional discipline doesnt work for many autistic children. In fact, not being able to have a toy related to their special interest is worth more in punishment than being grounded for a month.

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Signs Of Typical Tantrums:

  • Experienced by children 1 year to 4 years of age may be more intense around age 2.
  • Usually last around 15 minutes.
  • Recovery is quick and the child will continue to go about his or her day.
  • Occur approximately two to five times per day.
  • Reasons tend to center around the child not getting what he or she wants or experiencing pain.
  • The child is able to communicate what they want in a developmentally age-appropriate manner.
  • Can include screaming, crying, dropping, kicking and maybe one maladaptive behavior , but not all.

Recommendations To Help Parents Prevent And Reduce Tantrums

Autistic Meltdowns: What to do?

Evidence-based interventions like applied behavior analysis can be used to reduce the severity or number of tantrums and other problem behaviors for children on the spectrum. While this type of therapy is limited to those diagnosed with autism, ABA strategies can also be effective for neurotypical children . Here are five tips based on ABA principles that parents can use to help their kids cope and lessen the number of tantrums.

  • Determine tantrum triggers.Like all behaviors, tantrums serve four key functions for children. These functions include escape, access to tangibles, access to attention and sensory stimulation. Identifying the reason behind the behavior in this case, the tantrum can help alleviate the current challenge, as well as proactively reduce the behavior in the future. Common triggers include transitions, food selectivity, interruption of a preferred activity, demands from others, and difficult or disliked situations, such as toilet-training.
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    What Is An Autism Meltdown

    A meltdown is defined as an intense reaction to sensory overwhelm. When a child with autism is overwhelmed, he/she knows no other way to express it other than with a meltdown. This might involve emotional verbal outbursts such as screaming and crying or physical reactions like kicking, biting or hitting.

    How Meltdowns Differ From Tantrums

    Because meltdowns and childhood tantrums share similar qualities, the phrases autism tantrum and autism meltdown have been used interchangeably. Still, theres a key difference between the two.

    Though neurotypical adults may experience emotional outbursts similar to temper tantrums, generally speaking, tantrums are far more common in children.

    On the other hand, autism meltdowns arent limited to children anyone with autism can become overstimulated and experience a meltdown.

    Additionally, tantrums are generally goal-oriented.

    Tantrums are often related to a want, while meltdowns are related to a trigger, Jane explains.

    Its really important to understand the difference because meltdowns are never a voluntary choice within our control, and how you respond to a meltdown versus a tantrum is very different.

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    How Autistic Meltdowns Differ From Ordinary Temper Tantrums

    Many parents of typical children refer to their child’s tantrums as “meltdowns.” The word “meltdown,” of course, comes from the catastrophic, dangerous exposure of radioactive material in a nuclear power plantand few typical temper tantrums rise to that level of intensity.

    Autistic meltdowns, however, come closer to the euphemistic meaning of the term. In addition, autistic meltdowns have specific qualities that make them different from the average temper tantrum.

    What To Do And What Not To Do When Your Autistic Child Is Experiencing A Meltdown

    Autistic Child

    You can follow these 5 tips to help a child experiencing an autistic meltdown:

    1. Make sure the child is safe:

    The most important point in helping a child or an adult who is having an autistic meltdown is to ensure their safety! Due to the magnitude of the sensory overload, there is always a possibility for the child to get hurt while having a meltdown. Therefore, we need to try to protect them and make sure they are safe. It might be necessary to remove the child from the environment and take them somewhere quiet, so they feel safe.

    • Get them to a place where they feel safe. It is often the most effective way to deal with a meltdown.
    • Get them to a corner or to the car, can be a good option when you are out.
    • Try to hold them if there is a possibility of them hitting their head or injuring themselves.

    2. Make sure you are staying safe as the childs helper:

    It is not uncommon for kids to unconsciously hurt others while having a meltdown. Especially when they grow up it can be very possible to hurt their parents who are trying to help them. So, make sure you wont get hurt while you are helping them. If the child is physically large, often this requires more than one person to move the child to a calm and quite place without causing any injury.

    3. Dont try to talk to them and reason with them during a meltdown:

    4. Try to stay calm:

    5. Dont try to discipline them during a meltdown:

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    How Can You Tell An Autistic Meltdown From A Tantrum

    1)Goal oriented vs overload. A tantrum in a young child typically stems from frustration from not getting what they want in that moment: wether it is a toy, being able to button up their own shirts, or not wanting to go to bed . While tantrums in young children can be more frequent when they are tired, hungry or not feeling well, they are always goal oriented. Either the frustration at not getting what they want, not being able to do what they want, or even not being able to communicate what they want properly. An autistic meltdown on the other hand is all about being overwhelmed. For someone with autism, when they reach the point of sensory, emotional, and information overload, or even just too much unpredictability, it can trigger a variety of external behaviours that are similar to a tantrum , or it can trigger a complete shutdown and withdrawal.

    2)Tantrums need an audience. Tantrum behaviour will usually stop when the parent ignores the behaviour, when the child is removed from a public space where the behaviour is occurring, or when the child gets whatever it is they want . An autistic meltdown will occur with or without an audience. They can occur when the person with autism is entirely alone. They are the response of an external stimulus overload that leads to an emotional explosion .

    Try Distracting Your Child

    This will only work if you spot the tell-tale signs of a meltdown before your child loses complete control. You can distract your child by doing anything which makes your child happy. The aim is to focus on something which is comforting but not over-stimulating. This could include something like making silly faces or singing your childs favorite song.

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    What Is An Adhd Meltdown

    Children who are diagnosed with ADHD often struggle with hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattentiveness. At times, these behaviors can lead to a child having difficulty with self-control and expressing their emotions. When theyre having a hard time and feeling sad, disappointed, frustrated, or upset, they may express their negative emotions through an angry outburst or temper tantrums.

    As a parent, its important to recognize this as a symptom of ADHD versus typical misbehavior. Due to having ADHD, your child may have a more difficult time with emotional regulation than their peers and may need some additional support working on things to help such as anger management techniques exploring ADHD medications to mitigate these issues.

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    How To Support Your Child

    Tantrum with Teacher, from the “Developing Observation Skills” Bundle of Classroom Moments

    Taking steps to support your child may reduce or prevent meltdowns. It can help to:

    • Have a visual system to show them whats coming up that day. Timetables or visual timers can be useful.
    • Use emotion thermometers or labelling to help communicate.
    • Be consistent. Put routines in place. Make sure your child knows when things are happening. Try to keep the routines every day.
    • Think about how you will support your child if unexpected events happen.
    • Help you child understand what to expect in certain situations. Social Stories can support with this.

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    How To Differentiate A Temper Tantrum From An Autistic Meltdown

    It can be easy to mistake a temper tantrum for a meltdown as they both have similar symptoms. However, you need to accurately differentiate between the two in order to fully support your kid with his struggles.

    When trying to understand whether your child has a temper tantrum or a meltdown, pay attention to these signs:

    • Temper tantrums usually happen in front of other people, while meltdowns may occur without an audience as well. If you ignore a child that has a temper tantrum, the behavior will most likely stop immediately. However, autistic meltdowns occur as a response to an overwhelming situation that causes loss of control regardless of an audience.
    • Tantrums usually hold a goal behind them. The child wants something and starts showing off in order to get his desired outcome. Tantrums tend to be triggered by fatigue or illness, while meltdowns can happen in any type of external stimuli overload. Autistic meltdowns are not goal-oriented they are a response that manifests through loss of control.
    • Unlike tantrums that come with anger and frustration, autistic meltdowns stem from a feeling of overwhelm. Temper tantrums are usually handled with incentives or distractions these strategies might not work for meltdowns.
    • Tantrums usually happen during childhood and adolescence, while meltdowns can occur at any age.

    Temper Tantrums And Autism

    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.

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    Recognize The Purpose Or Motivation Behind The Tantrum

    A temper tantrum usually occurs when a child is denied something they want. That could be anything: choosing a TV show, picking out a candy bar at the store, or deciding what shirt they want to wear.

    Because young children havent yet developed the skills necessary to appropriately assert their independence and desires, they might express their frustration by kicking, screaming, hitting, or other acting out behaviors.

    Thats the general explanation for why temper tantrums occur, but the first step in taming a tantrum is to understand the motivation behind the behavior. When you are able to identify the why of your childs behavior, youll respond more appropriately, not giving in to their behavior while reinforcing positive behaviors.

    Every tantrum is different, and your child could be acting out for any number of reasons. Due to their young age and emerging language skills, however, your childs behavior can be understood pretty quickly.

    Here are some of the most common motivations behind temper tantrums:

    • To get attention

    Differences Between Tantrums Vs Autism Meltdowns

    How to Handle Tantrums in Children with Autism

    The key difference between a tantrum vs a meltdown is that a tantrum is a choice, aimed at reaching a goal, and can be stopped, while a meltdown is an involuntary response to a stimulus.

    Autistic children can experience both tantrums and meltdowns, so it’s essential to understand their causes and symptoms. For other signs of autism in children, check out our blog post.

  • Causes
  • In both meltdowns and tantrums, the caregiver should pay attention to what might have caused it and why the child might be reacting the way they are.

    Tantrums are most often caused by frustration from a child not being able or allowed to do something. Tantrums are not usually a result of sensory overload, and they can be worsened by tiredness or hunger.

    When it comes to autism meltdowns, various environmental factors can affect different people. Remember that the trigger may not seem like a big deal to a neurotypical person or even to another autistic person, so it’s important not to dismiss an autistic person if they say they are uncomfortable.

    Some common triggers include:

    Sometimes, too much unpredictability or change in routine can trigger a meltdown.

  • Age
  • A sensory meltdown can occur at any point across an individual’s lifetime. However, autism meltdowns can feel worse for children because they are less likely to understand what is happening or be able to remove themselves from a situation. Adults with autism may have learned masking techniques to disguise meltdowns.

  • Rewards
  • Audience
  • Physical Harm
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