Many people think they understand tantrums. A child is screaming and throwing themselves down in the store? Clearly the child is automatically a brat, and the parent doesn’t know how to discipline. No other logical explanation, right? WRONG!! Children with Autism are not able to vocalize their disputes. It is literally like being trapped inside of your own body, unable to appropriately express yourself. Even happiness and excitement can sometimes lead to a meltdown. If the child is unable to express how they feel to you, they become frustrated and angry in an instant. That happiness the child felt is now taken over by frustration, and with no way to verbalize it and receive help, it is above all overcome by what we call a tantrum. The child, (as far as he/she knows) has no other way to express his level of anger or frustration other than physically. A tantrum can involve, but is NOT limited to: screaming, kicking, hair pulling, head butting, pinching, scratching, flailing, hitting, biting, etc. These behaviors could be to themselves or others. It all usually ends with the child throwing himself down onto anything in their way. The fit of rage may not even be towards a person. Let’s say that a child hit his head on a table, and unsure of how to verbalize it or to appropriately react, anger overcomes him and he lashes out at the object. Many people see a child in this state of “blindness,” and automatically write them off as a maniac or a brat. If you were to visualize an adult who has had a stroke, but can hear, understand, and process everything you say to them, but have no way to communicate back, you could only imagine the level of frustration they would experience. Many actions the child demonstrates during tantrums are actually coping mechanisms.
Children with Autism have many sensory issues, they may require pressure, certain music, or possibly silence to calm them down and take them out of their enraged state. Too much noise can cause them to have a tantrum. Many kids scream to block out all the other noises they hear. Some hit because they want pressure on their hands, but can’t tell you. Throwing themselves on the ground is a form of pressure. Sometimes a tight hug or long hand squeezes can create enough pressure. Our Madicyn needs pressure so badly at times that we have resorted to lying on top of her to apply enough pressure. It may sound cruel to those who don’t understand, but it calms her almost instantly and many times makes her giggle. It can take her from an aggressive child to our happy, smiling Madicyn again. Sometimes the child may pull you on top of them for pressure, while a stranger may look at that as a violent tackling. It’s just a coping mechanism that the child cannot verbalize, but is in their own way communicating the need to you. Many times after the child gives us the clear signals, we make them tell us what they want. They tend to be repetitive, so if you verbalize their need, they may repeat it, and eventually make a connection to verbally ask for it next time. We try a lot of sensory techniques to help get the child to snap out of a tantrum. We take a “sensory break,” which can consist of swings, brushing, weights, running, squeezes, headphones (to block out sound), music, and much more. It is important the child knows what sensory options are available, so they can easily decipher what works best for them personally. Once we find a solution for a situation, we calm the child down with whatever it may be, and then we continue with the activity we were working on. The most important thing is to finish what you were doing to show the child, life will go on, and the obstacle will still be there for them to complete…no matter how severe of a tantrum they throw.
We work through tantrums with patience, redirection and understanding. Chances are the child is just as frustrated as we are, if not more. Sometimes we will deal with a tantrum of flailing, screaming, and dead weight on the floor. The best way we have found to deal is to basically ignore all of it. Simply stay calm and firm in your decision to make them complete the task requested. When we say there is patience involved, it is no joke. You can stay in one spot in what seems forever, until they finally give in and decide to do the task. Since they learn more by example, yelling and spanking just teaches them that yelling and hitting is acceptable. When the child has had too much stimulation, it is best to let them have a fit, but not give into their wants. Yelling can cause an overload of sensory, and make matters worse. Spanking is also adding to sensory and can make it a more traumatic experience for both of you. If you remain calm, quiet, and firm we have found that it is usually the best option, and makes for a shorter tantrum. Over time, once a child realizes they get no reaction for their behaviors, and ultimately end up doing the task anyways, the frequency of tantrums usually lessens.