Dealing with tantrums

tantrumThe dreaded tantrum. Tantrums can test the limits of even the best parents, especially when you’re dealing with one in public. Any parent of a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) knows that kids with ASD are more susceptible to tantrums and have more triggers than other children. What’s not always obvious to parents is that your child is not simply acting out, he’s likely trying to communicate with you and often struggling to do so.

It can be difficult to identify what your child needs from you, mid-tantrum, so many parents find it helpful to compile a behavioral record. This record can help you identify patterns and possible triggers for tantrums, such as a schedule disruption, sleep deprivation or sensory stimulation. You’ll want to include details about what happened immediately before the tantrum, specifics about the tantrum itself, as well as what happened right afterwards. Other information that is important to identify triggers are time of day, location of the tantrum and the people who were there.

Your behavioral record can help reduce tantrums in the future, but what do you do when your child has a tantrum in the middle of the grocery store, in school or anywhere else? Here are some strategies for coping with tantrums in children with ASD. Please keep in mind that every child is different and what works for one may not be appropriate for another.

Don’t feed a tantrum

Emotional behavior breeds on reaction, so try to stay calm and even-tempered. This may be easier said than done, it is easy to feel flustered and frustrated when your child is out of control, but staying calm is critical to avoid worsening the situation. Sometimes you have to fake being calm, even if you don’t feel it. Try taking deep breaths to keep your voice even and remember that, as the adult, your child is looking at you to lead by example.

Avoid negative language and set clear expectations

This technique is simple, but may seem counter-intuitive. Try to refrain from telling your child to ‘stop’ or ‘don’t’ do something, instead tell your child what you would like him to do. For example, rather than saying “Stop yelling” or “Don’t yell”, tell him to “talk quietly”. Doing this helps your child understand what you want from him and doesn’t make him feel that he’s doing something wrong. Kids with ASD often struggle with don’t/stop statements, so avoiding them can help avoid tantrums and make these statements more effective when they are really necessary.

Divert attention

This method works best when the tantrum is just beginning. Once you notice that a tantrum is on the horizon, try to immediately redirect your child’s attention on something else. If you wait until the tantrum is in full force, it may be too late to easily distract him.

Visual cues

Children that are non-verbal may have frequent tantrums caused by frustration from their inability to communicate. Using image cards, such as those used by the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) can help kids with ASD communicate and can also help set expectations by giving them a visual representation of the desired behavior.


Counting is a strategy that can work in combination with rewards. If your child has asked for something that he is allowed to have, but then starts to throw a tantrum start the counting strategy by saying “No crying.” And start counting when your child takes a breath. Stop counting when the crying begins again. Repeat the phrase “No crying” and resume counting each time your child stops crying. Once the crying has stopped for a count of 10 you may offer the reward. It is important not to negotiate or use words other than numbers and the “No crying” phrase to avoid confusion.

Be aware of sensory triggers

Some tantrums can be caused by sensory issues. If your child hears a noise, smells or sees something that makes him uncomfortable, it may lead to a tantrum, particularly if he has a hard time escaping the offending sensory issue or is reprimanded for taking action to avoid it. If you think your child might be struggling with sensory issues, an occupational therapist can be helpful to create a plan for sensory integration.

Tantrums are stressful and sometimes embarrassing, but they do eventually end. Be sure to discuss your strategy for dealing with tantrums with everyone who is responsible for your child so you can present a united front and set clear expectations. It’s important for all caregivers of children with ASD to understand that tantrums are often caused by fatigue, frustration, sensory issues and hunger and that identifying your child’s limits and triggers can go a long way to avoid future tantrums.

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