How to handle tantrums in autistic children

Updated July 19, 2017

Autism is a lifelong condition affecting one in every 150 children nationwide. Children with autism often have difficulties with social skills, understanding emotions of other people, empathising with others, and communication. They may have a fixation on objects. Autistic children often have temper tantrums, even in later adolescence. During a tantrum, the autistic child does not care how those around are reacting to his behaviour. Being prepared to deal with an autistic child's tantrum in public can help to defuse the situation.

Take care of the child's needs. Autistic children will often throw tantrums because of frustration with the inability to communicate their needs. Being hungry or tired can play a big role on the child's mood; if these needs are taken care of, the child will be much less irritable and more likely to cooperate.

Avoid a break in routines. Autistic children have a fixation on routines and if a routine is broken, the child may become very upset and throw a tantrum. While it isn't always possible to keep a routine as ritualistically as an autistic child desires, keep the autistic child's schedule as consistent as possible.

Be aware of environment. Autistic children are often sensitive to annoyances or overstimulation caused by loud noises and persistent, harsh sensations such as a shirt tag that may cause itching. If your child is covering her eyes or ears, this indicates she may be experiencing sensory overload. Be aware of cues in the environment that set off your autistic child's tantrum; when the child encounters them, move him to a quiet and comforting environment.

Choose your battles. A child with autism cannot control her emotions once the tantrum reaches a certain point. Keep a log of your child's tantrums and note possible patterns that may lead to them. Recognise the signs and triggers of a meltdown and defuse them before they happen.

Be safe. The child's safety and that of others around him come first. Remove anything from the area that might be of danger to the autistic child if his tantrum becomes out of control. Physical restraint may be necessary if the tantrum gets out of hand.

Remain calm. Order your child to comply with your request to calm down firmly, but be simple and straightforward. Do not be too complicated in reasoning with the autistic child. Repeat your order until the child calms down. Do not get angry or emotional, as it will only make things worse.

Ignore the tantrum. If the tantrum is about something unreasonable, condition the child to learn that she can't always get what she wants by throwing a tantrum. A tantrum is a power play for the child to get what she wants when she's unable to communicate that desire. Condition the child to accept his circumstances by learning to ride the experience out till its conclusion. In the meantime, relocate the child until she calms down.

Distract your child from the tantrum. Have puzzles or a special toy ready to use whenever you child throws a tantrum.

Consider the reaction of others. Your child may scream and yell in a complete meltdown. Learn to deal with the reactions of others calmly and not give in to your child's every demand. Others may stare, make comments, and think of you as a bad parent. Resist the urge to react to these people. If anyone comments, indicate to him that your child is a special-needs child.

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About the Author

Based in Portland, Dwight Benignus has written since 2007 for the economics blog Raincheckonomics. His essay, "Voice of the Future," has been published by Elder & Leemaur Publishers. He graduated from the University of Texas at Dallas with a Bachelor of Arts and Technology and is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in renewable energy engineering from the Oregon Institute of Technology.