Autism Tantrums: 5 Tips to Keep Parents Calm

Autism tantrums. A child tantrums as their mother looks distressed.

Parenting a child with autism presents various challenges, especially when dealing with autism tantrums. Tantrums are common for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and can arise from many factors, including changes in routine, frustration, or inappropriately asserting independence. These outbursts can overwhelm parents, causing stress, frustration, and sometimes guilt. However, with the proper coping strategies, parents can better manage their emotions and provide the support their child needs.

At ABA Centers of Florida, our ABA therapy services work to alleviate many factors contributing to autism tantrums. By helping a child with ASD develop socially, behaviorally, and verbally, they can better handle these emotions in the future. Still, no matter the age or severity of ASD, tantrums happen and require a proper approach to benefit the child more effectively in the long run.

What Are Autism Tantrums and Why Do They Happen?

Autism tantrums are outbursts of frustration, anger, and distress that children with ASD may exhibit. These tantrums can manifest in various forms, including crying, screaming, hitting, and throwing objects. A tantrum is usually a goal-oriented action, especially once children learn they can achieve rewards such as a wanted behavior or desired object by having a tantrum. As a result, children often display tantrums when they can’t get something they want, like a candy bar at the store, choosing a TV show, or choosing what they want to wear.

Children with ASD are particularly susceptible to tantrums as they struggle with communication, sensory processing, and changes in routine. Tantrums are a child’s way of expressing their emotions and needs, and they often occur when the child feels frustrated and unable to communicate their feelings effectively. Parents and caregivers must understand that tantrums are not a result of bad behavior but rather a coping mechanism for children with ASD. By recognizing this, parents can approach their child’s tantrums with empathy and patience.

What Are Autism Meltdowns, and How Do They Differ From a Tantrum?

Autism tantrums often get confused with autism meltdowns, but the two actions are very different in their causes and desired outcomes. Unlike tantrums, meltdowns are not part of a reward request system. Since individuals with ASD commonly have difficulties reacting to certain stimuli, such as sights, sounds, textures, and smells, meltdowns usually result from overstimulation of these senses. The easiest way to view a meltdown is as an attempted escape from the source of discomfort or oversensitivity. In more technical terms, meltdowns are involuntary responses to an overload and represent the physical manifestation caused by a perceived threat within the individual.

One primary difference between autism tantrums and meltdowns is the age range when these events occur. Tantrums most often happen in younger children who have not yet fully developed their ability to express frustration and desires appropriately. In contrast, meltdowns are not age-related and can happen anytime, even in adults. Meltdowns are often more severe, last longer, and are more challenging to respond to than tantrums.

How to Differentiate Between a Tantrum and Meltdown

Tantrums and meltdowns may look similar on the surface and share comparable symptoms, but there are several ways to differentiate between the two while they happen. Of course, one of the most important ways to differentiate is through experience, but this doesn’t always provide a clear answer.

The underlying situation says much about the cause of a tantrum or meltdown. Parents and caregivers should analyze the events that occurred before an event and use this information to take the appropriate remedial approach, which we will review shortly. Here are a few things to remember when differentiating between a tantrum and a meltdown:

  • Tantrums can start rapidly and without any warning. Usually, the primary indicator of a tantrum is the denial of a child’s request.
  • Meltdowns are instead often accompanied by signs of distress in advance. These warning signs can be obvious or subtle, depending on the individual.
  • Stimming is a common sign of an incoming meltdown. This self-stimulatory behavior can manifest in rocking, pacing, hand-flapping, finger-flicking, and other bodily actions. While distress is not always the cause of stimming, be wary of these actions if the child is in a stimulating or overwhelming environment.
  • Tantrums almost always occur with an audience. Since the target goal of these behaviors is to achieve something the child desires, attracting attention is part of what fuels their tantrum.

5 Ways to Stay Calm During Autism Tantrums

1. Remember the Developmental Role of Tantrums – Children will have tantrums at some point as it’s a natural part of their learning and development. They have not yet learned the necessary skills to display these actions appropriately. As such, parents should never give in to these behaviors but should certainly recognize their child’s needs and why a tantrum occurred in the first place. The reward loop that catalyzes tantrums can break more quickly when a child learns that they won’t always receive what they want by lashing out.

2. Use Positive Reinforcement – Used for various purposes and in many contexts, positive reinforcement aims to introduce desirable stimuli after a desirable behavior. The reality is that children don’t always exhibit an emotional response when frustrated – plenty of times, they act appropriately or do the right thing when denied something they want.

Therefore, reinforcing these positive behaviors is just as important as it is to avert negative behaviors. Doing so will help teach your child which behaviors are suitable and help them understand how to react in a social circumstance. Plus, the bottom line is that kids love praise. Hug your child, give a high five, or say “Good job!” when they display these positive behaviors. Over time, this will significantly help reduce the number of tantrums they display.

3. Never Blame Yourself – Parents often immediately think the worst when a child displays a tantrum in a social environment or public. They may feel as if they’re bad at parenting and don’t have control of their child, or their child is intentionally acting out to embarrass them.

Don’t blame yourself in times of intense stress or anxiety following a tantrum; instead, understand your child’s emotional state and your own. Take time to address their needs, and then take time to address yours. Feeling overwhelmed is the last thing you want to do when trying to dismantle a tantrum. Stay calm and be understanding of their situation.

4. Prioritize Self-Care – Caring for a child with autism can be overwhelming, and it’s essential to take care of oneself to manage stress levels effectively. Parents should schedule breaks and engage in activities that help them relax, such as exercise or hobbies. Additionally, parents should communicate their needs to their support system and ask for help when necessary.

It’s important to understand that self-care is not selfish but necessary to maintain a healthy mind, ultimately benefiting the child. By taking care of themselves, a parent can remain calm during tantrums and provide the best support for their child.

5. Consider ABA Therapy for Your ChildABA or Applied Behavior Analysis therapy can effectively alleviate many factors contributing to autism tantrums. This therapy aims to help children with ASD develop socially, behaviorally, and verbally, which can enable them to handle their emotions better and reduce these attention-seeking behaviors. However, even with therapy, tantrums can still occur and require a proper approach to benefit the child more effectively in the long run.

Get Started With ABA Therapy

ABA Centers of Florida is ready to help your child learn the necessary behavioral skills to alleviate the severity of tantrums and meltdowns. While ABA therapy is not a clear-cut solution to eliminating tantrums, it teaches children on the spectrum how to display their emotions more desirably, ultimately reducing much of a parent or caregiver’s stress and anxiety.

Contact us today at (772) 773-1975 for more information regarding our services or to receive a consultation.

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