A toddler girl clearly upset and unhappy with a temper tantrum and autism

Tantrums in Autism: new study says it’s behaviour not frustration

We’ve all been there: watching as our child completely breaks into uncontrollable rage/tears in front of us. Sometimes it’s in the privacy of our own homes, but when you have a child with autism, more often than not it will be in public as well. Up until recently, there has been a common misconception that poor communication/low verbal skills in people with autism is a cause of their more frequent tantrums due to being frustrated at not being able to communicate their needs and wants. While it is likely frustrating not to be able to communicate easily, new research from Penn State College says this is not the main cause of tantrums in those with ASD.

Tantrums are rarely about communication challenges

Cheryl D. Tierney, associate professor of pediatrics, College of Medicine, Penn State Children’s Hospital says:

“There is a common pervasive misbelief that children with autism have more tantrum behaviors because they have difficulty communicating their wants and their needs to caregivers and other adults. The belief is that their inability to express themselves with speech and language is the driving force for these behaviors, and that if we can improve their speech and their language the behaviors will get better on their own. But we found that only a very tiny percentage of temper tantrums are caused by having the inability to communicate well with others or an inability to be understood by others.”

So how can we help reduce tantrums in those with autism?

Tierney states that we need to focus more on improving behavior rather than speech and langauge to reduce tantrums. Parents need to know that behavior may not improve as speech develops. They will need additional support to see improvement in behavior.

Tantrums are normal behaviour in all young children. Tantrums are about growing skills and developing independence. They happen when something blocks a child from doing something they want. The child may not yet have the skills to express strong emotions in other ways. For example, a temper tantrum may happen when a child gets frustrated because he can’t button a shirt, or a child may get upset when she is told it’s time for bed but she wants to stay up. In children with autism, this is all the more complex because of the added element of meltdowns that can look like tantrums but need an entirely different set of skills and responses. Below are three helpful hints to deal with tantrums in those with ASD.

  1. Determine if it’s a tantrum or a meltdown. We have written before about the difference between an autistic sensory meltdown and a tantrum, and how they each need a slightly different approach. While they might look similar on the outside, sensory meltdowns are not about frustration, and don’t have a goal. They are a response to external stimulation. Tantrums can often happen if your child is tired, hungry, or not feeling well, but they are always goal oriented, and they are always played to an audience. A meltdown will happen whether or not anyone else is around. A tantrum is designed to elicit a goal-oriented response from the person who is on the receiving end of it. Learning to distinguish between a meltdown and a tantrum is the first step to helping your child learn to manage either situation.
  2. If it’s a tantrum, remember that every child is different. What worked with one of your kids may not work with another. Try a variety of methods to see what works with your child.
  3. Remove the audience. A tantrum will often stop if the audience is removed: if the parent removes themselves, or the child is removed from the public space. If you know that your child tends to have tantrums in large groups, start with smaller gatherings until they have learned other coping mechanisms and behaviours. If you remove yourself, stay where your child can see you, but ignore them until they calm down.
  4. Children may also be distracted out of their tantrums. If the child seems like they are getting frustrated with an activity, suggest something that they already know how to do, and are good at. Start quietly playing with another toy, and wait for your child to come over and join you. Music or a pet can also be a great distraction.
  5. Change the topic.  For example, if they are angry about brushing their teeth or going to bed, start talking about something fun you are going to do the next day.
  6. Try incentives. If they are having a meltdown over an activity that is necessary, you can try playing a short game, or bringing out a special toy with the idea that they get back to the task at hand once they have calmed down.
  7. Don’t forget to praise your child once the tantrum is over. It can also be good to acknowledge their feelings: ” I see you were really frustrated with not being able to get your socks on, I understand why that would make you upset. Good work on calming down. May I help you try again?” Learning to cope with challenging emotions is a very important life skill. Children should definitely be congratulated when they manage to calm themselves.

Remember tantrums are normal. It is up to us as parents and caregivers to help our children learn new skills to deal with the strong feelings they will encounter as they learn new skills. Verbal communication IS important, but learning how to deal with life’s ups and downs is not a skill you necessarily need words for.

Recommended Reading

No More Meltdowns

From Anxiety to Meltdown

Managing Family Meltdown

Sulky, Rowdy, Rude

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  1. Debby Dillman says:

    I’m a District Resource Room Teacher for Autism and Related Disorders and have believed that tantrums are behavior for quite some time. The difficulties lie with other professionals coming to observe and provide direction that believe tantrums are anxiety or part of Autism. Consequently, the recommendations for behavior support often enable tantrum like behavior as the individual quickly learns that they get whatever they want regardless of how they behavior. It is very frustrating!

    • Remember that tantrums are goal-oriented. These are different from meltdowns and people often think they are the same thing. Have a look at these video clips of Bo Hejlskov Elven. He has 5 of them so far on You Tube. Here is the first one. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUUEItx-Aw0

    • Kimberly A Garcia says:

      It’s a challenging topic. My five year old non verbal Granddaughter went into a meltdown/tantrum for two minutes before I realized she accidentally turned down the volume on her tablet. While this is a frustration of communication, she will do the same behavior if she is told no for something different. I agree on changing the behavior. For example , every night when it was time to take the tablet, and go to bed, she would meltdown. A trick I learned in therapy was to tell her to press pause, as that was what he did when it was time to work. Now every night I say, hit pause. She does and I say “Grandma will put it on the charger, time for bed”.. and bam no issues at all. We need a DSM-V of just tips and tricks for our kiddos. If you are a caregiver like me 24/7 365 days a year it is not just a matter of want.. it’s a matter of resources.

    • This is a great tip that you shared! What sometimes causes our children stress is they think that the item will not be there later for them or they don’t know when an activity will end or start etc. The pause button made sense to your granddaughter – the iPad was just going to sleep, not disappearing altogether. There is a saying from Ross Greene that goes, “Children do well if they can.” If they aren’t doing well, they are missing a tool or strategy to self-regulate and keep calm.

      We do need these kinds of tips. Transitions are often a trigger for meltdowns. Having routines and rituals around putting things away or ending an activity (with a song, saying bye bye, see you tomorrow – that kind of thing) does wonders and makes sense to our individuals on the spectrum.

  2. Christine Fournier says:

    I found this citation to be of special interest in the paper :
    “Why does the hypothesis that a communication deficit leads to tantrums in children with autism persist in spite of evidence to the contrary? The reason may in part be because of the effectiveness of interventions, such as functional communication training (FCT), which use behavioral techniques to teach children to use words, and not inappropriate behaviors, to communicate. As stated by Durand and Merges (2001), functional communication training “involves teaching alternative communication
    to replace problem behavior” and “is an empirically validated approach to positive behavioral support for challenging behavior” (p. 110). Several controlled case studies have shown that FCT is associated with a decrease in tantrums.”

    Teaching the child to communicate (verbally or non-verbally) is important, but it is as important to teach the child that communication is more efficient than the tantrums.

    • Thank you for posting this citation. When I give talks, I always stress the importance of having a reliable mode of communication that works for that individual.

  3. Christine Fournier says:

    Thank you for your reply Maureen. Following the link, I was able to find the full reference to the study so I could read the whole paper, and not just a summary done by a third party.

    Susan D. Mayes, Robin Lockridge, Cheryl D. Tierney. Tantrums are Not Associated with Speech or Language Deficits in Preschool Children with Autism. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 2017; DOI: 10.1007/s10882-017-9546-0

    • Thank you, Christine. I appreciate you sharing the entire paper. Have a great day!

    • lynn Getzinger says:

      I work with a male adult individual, and I find communication is essential , as well as praise. Where else could I look for more info, I have been with him for three years and in the beginning behaviours were brutal, he is now  16 months behaviour free. I find your articles helpful as well.

    • A good communication system is essential. It sounds to me like you have developed a solid relationship with this young man and that trust you have with him is what also lessens challenging behavior. You are following the principals of Low Arousal (www.lowarousal.com). Keep up the great work!

  4. Christine Fournier says:

    Can you give the full reference for this research ?

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