Tantrums in Autism: new study says it's behaviour not frustration - Autism Awareness
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, 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. Laura says:

    Late to the party here. I hear this, and I appreciate what Katelynn added to this conversation, unfortunately neither perspective solves MY problem.
    I have an autistic, non-verbal 7yo who’s regularly having what you’d call “tantrums” (notice how nobody uses this trivialising term for adults?) as opposed to sensory meltdowns (I’ve mostly learned to avoid triggers for those) …but to dismiss it as “behavioural” and ignore him is hardly helpful. Most of us learn not only to express, but hopefully to RESOLVE the issues causing our frustration, so we no longer need to resort to tantrums. Clearly, a continued inability to solve problems will continue to cause frustration, whether or not adults have “extinguished” the behavioural expression of it. Ignoring & distracting might be useful short-term behavioural strategies, but they’re not helpful or mature ways to deal with our problems in adulthood, and surely developing those skills is the long-term priority.
    What I want to know is how can I learn to better understand the causes? How can I teach my kid to problem-solve so he doesn’t need to resort to crying?
    I’d find it easier to ignore “tantrums” in a verbal child, knowing they’ve got better alternatives to practice. How can I teach a child like mine more effective ways to negotiate the problems causing his anger and unhappiness? How do we address trauma in a non-verbal child? Depression? Are there mental-health therapies for the non-verbal? (as in counselling, not therapies to “fix” their autistic traits?)

  2. Casey says:

    I don’t find this discussion offensive whatsoever. My son is 8 years old and living with autism spectrum disorder. My son has his fair share and struggles dealing with challenging behaviors and struggles with controlling his anger that he feels when he is overly frustrated or overwhelmed. For example, when my son’s tablet gets frozen or a Game Stop’s working he will throw it 10 ft into the air and scream at the top of his lungs, and he’ll say “no connection”!! Every child is different and every parent has their own unique style of parenting. My recommendation is to do what works best for you and your children. Let your child teach you what works best for him or her. That is the best advice I can give you. To take offense to articles on autism is truly not necessary we all need to be more open-minded everyone is entitled to their own opinions and expressions and educational purposes as well. To become offended because someone made an article about this topic, is in vein. This article I found to be informative and helpful as I’m sure many other parents probably found it to be the same way. I didn’t find anything offensive within the article. I do whatever I can to try to help my son. It’s extremely overwhelming to be a parent with a child on the Spectrum and have no family support or friends. You can feel very alone and isolated in your own world. But I stay very busy I work in the medical field I keep my dreams in line and I stay focused on my goals. I try to be the best person that I can be I try not to complain too much because I am focused on the blessings that I do have. If you start looking at how full your glasses instead of focusing on how empty it is, and change your perspective in life, you start noticing the little things and how life is really a beautiful thing. I am still battling with my son’s tantrums to this day. I don’t have a magic answer or formula to fix it or to change it or to make it better. I’m just trying to live one day at a time maintain my sanity in the process LOL and be the best mom I can be for my son. That’s all I can do. That’s all I know. It’s one thing to have autism yourself and it’s another thing to be a parent of a child with autism too. They are both equally challenging and equally difficult in their own ways. We all have our struggles and challenges we all have obstacles to overcome every day. I want to thank the author for taking the time to dedicate her life to trying to help children and families living with autism. Thank you for your article and thank you for trying to help. I appreciate it. I’ve screenshot your recommendations several of them I already do. I can personally attest that these are very good suggestions and I highly recommend them to other parents if you haven’t tried them yet please do so. One of the best recommendations I can give you when your child is having a tantrum it’s number one you’ve got to stay calm when they’re angry and 🥴 frustrated. The reason why this is so important, as I have learned many times the hard way, as that it’s like putting fuel on top of a fire. It just amplifies the intensity of the frustration that’s already brewing in your child. Your child is watching you and listening to you whether you think he or she is or not. When you scream or holler or you spank or you throw something or you lose your composure in front of your child, your child loses faith and trust in you and they lose their foundation and they feel unsafe and scared. I’m only speaking of my own personal experiences by the way I’m not trying to say that anyone else does that here just my own personal experience so please don’t think I’m trying to say anyone does that. I have lost my composure I have become so frustrated and I’ve screamed and yelled because I just felt like I had to let it out. We all have anger we all have frustration it’s a normal emotion. It’s how we handle it that matters and counts. My son has taught me to be patient my son is taught me to use my calm down techniques and teach him in return and show by example how to use them. I’m not perfect. There are a lot of ways I can improve as a parent but I think we all can no one’s perfect. But please please when someone has taken their time out of their life to help others let’s respect that and let’s be kind. Please try these recommendations if you’re struggling with this. I personally find the rewards works and so does the method of distraction. 😊

    • Thank you for taking the time to share your perspective and experiences. I appreciate your message of respect for different knowledge, views, and experiences.

  3. Mandy says:

    Why didn’t anyone reply to the grown autistic girl?  She makes more than one good point. I don’t think she should be ignored? I’m offended that nobody replied to her, so I cannot imagine how she must feel! I’m not bashing and I’m very new to the autism world do I may be totally misunderstanding. Please clarify!

    • Mandy, there are a lot of comments that happen on this website every day and people who are reaching out for help. Katelynn was expressing her viewpoint and giving her advice from her experience as an autistic person. Her points are very valid. I try and answer as many comments as I can on the website, but am often overwhelmed with the correspondence. I am also a parent of two autistic adults who require significant support. I published Katelynn’s comments because they are insightful will hopefully help change the viewpoint of readers. Anyone is welcome to respond to any posted comments on this website.

  4. Katelynn Moore says:

    As an autistic adult, this incredibly offensive. Our tantrums and meltdowns come because we are forced into a world that does not fit our needs. I need to communicate properly despite not  intuitively understanding how you want me to communicate. I’m supposed to deal with loud noises and uncomfortable clothing and weird food and bright lights that are all physically distressing and while looking completely fine to you. Your children are trying to get your attention because they are in distress and, instead of helping relieve that stress by modifying their environment and not forcing them into uncomfortable situations, you are incentivizing them to deal with the pain. I’m grateful that I was not born with an accompanying intellectual disability and that I mostly communicate verbally so I’m capable of expressing my experience to neurotypicals. Please stop listening to neurotypicals who study autistic children and start listening to autistic adults who were once autistic children. They are throwing tantrums because they are in distress and there’s no other outlet. Modify their environment and give them other outlets (like a quiet room or a weighted blanket or the space and means to safely throw the tantrum). I have meltdowns as an adult. My family, friends, boyfriend, boss and coworkers know what I need in a meltdown and know the tools I need to prevent them. That’s what your child needs. 

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. Christine Fournier says:

    Can you give the full reference for this research ?

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