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Tips For Managing Tantrums for Your Child With Autism

Sad child, sitting on a staircase

Every child engages in tantrums. But, for children with autism, tantrums can be more severe, including aggression or self-harm. Trumpet Behavioral Health knows how scary these kinds of tantrums can be, so today, we’re discussing some of our best, ABA therapy-based tips and behavioral strategies to manage tantrums in the moment and prevent tantrums before they begin.

Common Reasons Why Tantrums Occur

There are several reasons why your child with autism may have a tantrum, including:

  • Communication/Social Reasons: A tantrum can serve as a form of communication and/or social interaction. Children with limited communication skills might engage in tantrums to indicate what they want, get attention, or express refusal to a request.
  • Stopping or Refusing a Preferred Activity: A tantrum may also result when a preferred activity or favorite item is removed. This is a common response for young children, and depending on the frequency and severity, it may be an appropriate response.
  • Physiological/Medically Related: In some instances, tantrums can be the result of pain, discomfort, or other medical issues. It is best to consult a physician to determine if there is an underlying medical reason that might be causing a tantrum.

Tips for managing and preventing tantrums:

Offer Choices

Tantrums can often occur when a child or adolescent feels like they have no choice. When appropriate, offer your child choices. Choices can be small, like letting your child decide what toy he wants to play with, to larger decisions like when to do activities or what kind of food to eat. Many times, offering choices works best when you present the choices to your child. For example, instead of asking “What toy do you want to play with?” try saying “You can choose to play with trains or PlayDoh.”

Offer choices for both preferred activities and non-preferred activities, since it gives your child some control over the situation. For example, if you know homework isn’t your child’s favorite activity, offer them a choice by saying something like “Do you want to do your math sheet or reading first?”

Deliver Instructions The Right Way

Sometimes you want to give your child a choice, and sometimes you want to give an instruction. Make the difference between the two clear by stating directions clearly. For example, instead of saying, “Will you close the door?” say, “Close the door.” This will help your child understand when you’re giving a directive and when you’re providing a choice for her to make.

Prepare For Transitions

Asking your child to stop their favorite activity is a common trigger for a tantrum. To avoid a meltdown, be sure to provide your child with a warning before their favorite activity ends. A visual timer can also help your child understand how long an activity will last, making it easier for them to transition to something new.

Make Transitions Special

If you notice transitions are an especially difficult time for your child with autism, consider using a special transition item or toy. The toy should only be used during specific transitions, like going from home to school. By making transitions special, your child may be more excited about a new setting or activity, which can help them prepare for what’s coming next.

Arrange Their Environment

Arranging the environment to help your child succeed can prevent tantrums before they begin. For example, if your child often swipes things off the table when you tell him to do his homework, clear all unnecessary items off the table before telling him to do his homework. By proactively removing distractions or items that cause problem behavior, you can help your child complete more challenging activities without triggering a meltdown.

Give Frequent Breaks

We all get frustrated when we do tasks we don’t love, and children with autism are no different. Let your child take breaks often, especially when they’re doing a non-preferred activity. By giving breaks, you can prevent problem behavior before it occurs.

Break Tasks Down

Giving too many instructions or too complicated of a task can lead to tantrums. Prevent this by breaking down tasks into easy components. Then, give instructions for each small task one at a time. Remember to use directive language rather than choice language. For example, when preparing to go outside, tell your child “Put your socks on,” instead of saying “Do you want to put your socks on?”

Give Positive Reinforcement

Praise and attention is a great way to reinforce desired behaviors. Be sure to give your child lots of positive reinforcement when she practices behaviors you want to see, especially if she tolerates something that typically results in challenging behavior.

By following these best practices, you can minimize the likelihood of a tantrum. The important thing to remember about these tips is to do them before a behavior occurs, not during or directly after a tantrum or meltdown. If you have questions or want more specific instruction on how to help your child, contact Trumpet. Our behavior analysts are well equipped to assess the underlying reasons behind your child’s tantrum and teach them other behaviors instead.