Dealing with Tantrums in Children with Autism: Positive Behavior Change Strategies

Temper tantrums and meltdowns are one of the most stressful things parents manage with their children. Almost all children, no matter their age or whether they have a disability or not, will have temper tantrums from time to time. Of course, the intensity of these tantrums and the frequency of these tantrums vary quite a bit from one child to the next. Some kids only have a temper tantrum occasionally, while others might have very frequent tantrums that occur on a weekly or sometimes even daily basis all the way until they are in middle childhood. Adolescents can have tantrums, although meltdowns in a teen will likely look different than what they looked like during early and middle childhood.

READ MORE: Autism and Impact on Mental Health

Tantrums in Children with ASD

When it comes to children with disabilities, including children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), temper tantrums or meltdowns might occur very frequently. There are many reasons for this. From sensory overload, reinforcement of specific behaviors, and lack of skill development in particular areas, children with autism can have high rates of outbursts.

Every child is unique. What works to stop or prevent one child’s tantrum might not work for another child. However, there are some things that are important to consider for all children when trying to help manage their challenging behaviors. There are also a few intervention strategies that are most likely to help any child if used in the right way. We will explore some recommendations for how you, as a parent or caregiver of a child with autism, can help reduce temper tantrums or meltdowns that your child experiences.

READ MORE: Aggression in Children with Autism? How to Manage Aggressive Behavior

The Reason Behind the Behavior – The Function

When trying to manage your child’s temper tantrums, it can be helpful to understand the reason behind their behavior. Why do you think your child is behaving that way? To help you better understand your child’s behavior, consider the following:

  • Antecedent
    • An antecedent is something that happens before a behavior occurs. So, look clearly at what happens right before your child has the temper tantrum. Did someone tell your child they couldn’t have something? Did your child get told they had to stop doing something they want to continue doing (like playing video games)?
  • Behavior
    • What does the temper tantrum look like? By being clear about the tantrum and being able to describe what the meltdown looks like for your child, it will be easier to notice if your child is making progress toward having fewer and less intense tantrums. You’ll also be better able to focus on the behaviors you don’t want your child to have and identify behaviors that can be ignored, addressed or encouraged.
  • Consequence
    • What happens after your child has a tantrum or meltdown? What do other people around your child do in response to the tantrum? What does your child do? What do they have access to? Understanding the consequences (what happens after the tantrum) will give you insight as to what might be reinforcing your child’s tantrum.

WATCH VIDEO: A Closer Look at ABA Therapy for Autism

Four Functions of Behavior

Consider whether your child’s behaviors could be due to one of the four functions of behavior. The four functions of behavior refer to the four potential reasons a person behaves in any way. The four functions include:

  1. Access (getting something)
  2. Attention (getting attention – this could be “good” or “bad” attention)
  3. Escape (to get out of doing something or to avoid something)
  4. Automatic Reinforcement (sometimes referred to as sensory stimulation)

Other Things to Consider

In addition to the antecedents and consequences related to a behavior, it is important to consider the following when trying to help your child manage temper tantrums.

  • Basic Needs
    • What has your child been experiencing related to their basic needs? This includes things like their sleep, hunger, and opportunities to express physical energy or movement. When basic needs aren’t properly fulfilled, meltdowns can happen more frequently or be more intense.
  • Situational Events
    • Has something changed in your child’s daily routine? Has an unexpected event happened recently? These types of changes might increase the likelihood that your child has a temper tantrum.

Be Proactive – Using Antecedent Interventions

Although it might not seem like you are addressing your child’s temper tantrums directly, being proactive is one of the most important things you can do to decrease how often your child has a meltdown. For instance, you might set up a daily schedule that includes when electronics are available to prevent tantrums related to your child not getting his electronic devices whenever he wants them.

READ MORE: How to Implement Effective ABA Therapy Strategies at Home

Reward An Alternative, Good Behavior – Positive Reinforcement

Instead of just focusing on what your child is doing “wrong”, focus on what they do “right.” Take some time to think about what you think your child should do to prevent them from having a meltdown. Whatever your child’s particular challenging behaviors are, what would you like them to do instead? What do you think would be a more appropriate, more acceptable behavior for your child given the situation that usually results in a tantrum? If your child throws a fit when it is time to do homework or to clean their room, what behavior should your child do instead?

After identifying possible behaviors your child should do instead of the challenging behaviors, plan for how they can access positive reinforcement for those replacement behaviors. Positive reinforcement is something that occurs after a behavior that makes it more likely that behavior will happen again, like rewarding a “good behavior”.

Make the “Right” Behavior Easier and Reducing the Response Effort

You might have to start very small when reinforcing replacement behaviors. For instance, if your child needs to clean their room when asked, you might need to break down the task of cleaning their room into very small steps and then reinforce each of those small steps one at a time while slowly working on getting your child to do the entire task.

Reducing the response effort refers to making the more appropriate behavior easier for your child. This could be making the task simpler for your child to do, such as giving an easier homework sheet or fewer problems to complete. Another example is putting a “help me” or “break” picture icon near your child so they can easily use these icons to express themselves instead of having a meltdown when they are stressed.

Using Prompts and Visual Supports

Sometimes, it can be helpful to give your child a little bit of extra help to calm down or to engage in the replacement behavior when they are having a meltdown. You might even give them extra help if you anticipate that their behavior might start escalating.

Some ways that you can offer extra help is by giving your child a verbal reminder of what they can do in the situation that might trigger a meltdown. For example, you can say, “Remember, you can ask for help.” when your child is doing their homework to remind them to use the skill of asking for help instead of getting too overwhelmed by their homework which could then lead to a meltdown.

You could also use visual supports, such as rule boards or schedules which reminds your child of set expectations. For instance, if your child has tantrums related to not being able to use a tablet, you might have a “First/Then Board” which shows that they need to do something first before getting the tablet.

Additional Help to Manage Your Child’s Tantrums

To get further help in addressing your child’s temper tantrums or meltdowns, contact Behavioral Innovations. Our experienced Behavior Analysts can help you come up with an individualized behavior intervention plan that will work for your child based on your child’s unique needs, abilities, and behaviors of concern. Contact us by filling out a short form or call 855-782-7822.

Previous ArticleAutism and Non-Compliance: Teaching Kids with ASD to Follow Directions Next ArticlePreparing Your Child with Autism for the New School Year