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Helping Children With Autism Handle Temper Tantrums

written by: Finn Orfano • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 9/11/2012

Children who have autism spectrum disorders can be prone to temper tantrums. These episodes can range in intensity from mild to quite severe, and certain procedures should be followed by parents and teachers in order to calm the child down. Learn more about handling autism-related temper tantrums.

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    Causes of Temper Tantrums

    Children with autism often struggle with communication issues, poor impulse control, and emotional problems. All of these factors can contribute to temper tantrums, which are sometimes referred to as "meltdowns". When a child with autism has a temper tantrum, parents and other caregivers are sometimes caught off guard by the intensity of the kicking, screaming, punching, and crying that occurs. They want to help calm the child down, but are unsure of the best ways in which to accomplish this.

    There are several factors that can increase the likelihood of a child with autism having a temper tantrum. Unexpected changes and disruptions in routine can easily upset a child who thrives on a structured schedule and becomes confused or angry when plans are altered. Some children with autism are prone to temper tantrums when they are asked to comply with a rule or decision that they dislike, and others tend to have meltdowns when they are extremely tired, anxious, or overstimulated. Adults who have the task of handling temper tantrums in children who have autism can try several different techniques that are designed to minimize the risk of physical harm to both the child and others.

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    Methods for Handling the Tantrum

    Caregivers who are familiar enough with the autistic child to know that a temper tantrum is imminent can attempt to diffuse the situation by re-directing the child's attention to something that holds his or her interest. However, sometimes a tantrum will occur so quickly that the child is already lashing out physically before an adult can take steps toward prevention. The most important guideline for parents, teachers, or other adults to keep in mind when handling temper tantrums is to remain calm at all times. The child with autism who is having a meltdown will often become more upset if the adult also loses control of his or her emotions.

    If the child is in close proximity to other children or adults during a meltdown, it is best for the caregiver to quickly relocate the child to a spot that is free of objects that can be thrown and isolated from people who could be hurt. The caregiver should allow the child to work through the tantrum but should not call special attention to the behavior. Often, a child with autism will resolve their temper tantrum fairly quickly and without much incident, though health professionals can be consulted if the tantrums are frequent, long in duration, or excessively violent in nature.

    Once the temper tantrum has ended, caregivers can continue working with the child in finding ways to better manage frustrations and anger. When children with autism learn to express their emotions in a more productive manner, temper tantrums tend to decrease in intensity and frequency.