For many parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the unpredictability of behaviors and melt-downs can be incredibly stressful. Understanding the trigger or function of those behaviors and trying to manage the environment to alleviate or prevent those triggers is important.
What are the most common behavior triggers for kids with autism?
Keep in mind that each child with autism is unique, and the triggers of a tantrum can vary widely. In fact, 40-50% of children with ASD have challenging emotional and behavioral problems that are considered to be of clinical concern. A study by Yale University also found that more than a quarter of kids with ASD have disruptive behavior disorders, most likely caused by a key mechanism in the brain that regulates emotion functions.
Understanding your child's individual triggers can help you anticipate and prevent tantrums, as well as develop effective strategies for building childhood resiliance and managing triggers when they do occur.
Here are some of the common causes:
1. Sensory overload
Many children with autism are highly sensitive to sensory stimuli such as loud noises, bright lights, or strong smells.
2. Change in routine:
Individuals with autism often rely on routine and predictability to feel safe and secure. A change in routine, such as a new caregiver or a disruption in their daily schedule, can be unsettling.
3. Communication difficulties
Communication difficulties are a core feature of ASD, and many individuals with autism struggle with social communication, language development, and nonverbal communication. Frustration with being unable to express themselves effectively can trigger a tantrum.
4. Physical discomfort
Some children with autism may have difficulty communicating when they are experiencing physical discomfort, such as hunger or pain. This can lead to a build-up of frustration.
Tips to Managing Tantrums and Behaviors
As a parent, it's important to have a toolbox of strategies for managing tantrums and behaviors in a way that’s compassionate and effective. Here are five top tips for managing autism tantrums and behaviors:
1. Develop a consistent routine
Children with autism often need routine and predictability. Creating a consistent daily routine can help your child feel more secure and less anxious, which can reduce the likelihood of tantrums and difficult behaviors. It's important to create a schedule that works for your family and is flexible enough to accommodate unexpected changes. Try to establish a set schedule for waking up, meals, playtime, and bedtime. Use visual aids such as pictures or a schedule board to help your child understand and follow the routine.
2. Use positive reinforcement
Positive reinforcement can be a powerful tool for encouraging positive behaviors and reducing negative behaviors. When your child exhibits a positive behavior, such as sharing a toy or using appropriate language, offer praise and a small reward, such as a sticker or a favorite snack. This will help your child learn that positive behaviors are rewarded, which can motivate them to continue exhibiting those behaviors.
3. Acknowledge their requests
Because so many kids with autism struggle with communication, knowing their requests were heard is incredibly important. That doesn’t mean, however, that you always grant their request if it’s not appropriate. For example, if your child asks for a snack on their assistive communication device, tell your child you know they want a snack but then gently remind them that they will get a snack as soon as they finish the task they are currently doing. Try to avoid saying “no” all the time. Instead, say “I hear that you want to go outside, but we need to wait for now. We can go outside after we finish lunch.”
4. Use visual supports
Many children with autism benefit from behavioral activities that include visual supports, such as picture schedules and social stories. These tools can help your child understand what is expected of them and can reduce anxiety and confusion. For example, a picture schedule can help your child understand the steps of a daily routine, while a social story can help them understand and prepare for a new experience, such as a doctor's visit.
5. Use clear, concise language
To reduce the likelihood of tantrums, practice effective communication with your child. Use simple, direct language and give clear instructions. Try to avoid using sarcasm, humor, or figurative language, as these can be confusing for children with ASD. Be patient and give your child time to process information and respond.
6. Redirect attention
Sometimes, distracting your child's attention can help deescalate a tantrum. Try redirecting your child's attention to a favorite toy, activity, or sensory input. For example, you might offer your child a fidget toy or suggest they play with a calming sensory activity such as kinetic sand.
7. Provide sensory input
Sensory processing difficulties are common in children with autism. To help them regulate, some kids need lots of sensory input, others are sensory averse, and many need a combination of both. Providing your child with appropriate sensory input, whether it’s deep pressure, removing loud noises, or tactile stimulation – can reduce the likelihood of tantrums. Some examples of sensory activities include deep pressure massages, weighted blankets, or playing with water. Others include activities such as swinging, jumping on a trampoline, or playing with sensory toys such as fidget spinners or stress balls.
8. Stay calm and patient
Tantrums and difficult behaviors can be stressful for both you and your child, but it's important to remain calm and patient. Responding with anger or frustration can escalate the situation and make it more difficult to manage. Instead, try to remain calm and use a soothing voice to help your child regulate their emotions. Remember that your child is not misbehaving on purpose and that their behavior is a form of communication.
9. Validate emotions
Tantrums are often a result of intense emotions that a child may be struggling to express. Try to acknowledge and validate your child's emotions by saying things like "I see that you are upset" or "It's okay to feel angry." This can help your child feel heard and understood, which may reduce the intensity of the tantrum.
10. Ensure your and your child’s safety
During a tantrum, your child may lash out or engage in self-injurious behavior. It is important to ensure that your child and those around them are safe. Move any potentially dangerous objects out of reach and provide a safe space for your child to express their emotions.
11. Forgive yourself
We don’t always have our best day, and sometimes it’s hard to manage behaviors. Most importantly, disregard any judgment from others who don’t know or understand what’s going on with your child. If you’re in a store with a full cart of groceries, don’t hesitate to leave the store with your child and leave the cart. When you go to a restaurant, consider asking to pay the bill as soon as the food arrives to allow you the freedom to leave if your child needs to. Don’t be afraid to ask for help – many times people want to assist but aren’t sure what to do.
12. Get help
If you’re struggling to manage your child's behavior, seek professional support. This may include working with a behavior therapist or psychologist who specializes in ASD. These professionals can provide you with strategies and techniques to manage your child's behavior and improve their overall well-being.
Understanding Child Tantrums: “Every Behavior Serves A Function”
"Tantrums and challenging behaviors are forms of communication," explains Michelle Zube, MA, BCBA and HYM lead behaviorist. "It's important to take a step back and ask yourself, 'What is it that my child is trying to communicate?' or 'What is it that my child needs?'. Every behavior serves a function (i.e., to escape, get attention or access to tangibles, a sensory need). Trying to understand the function can help to respond to behaviors and be less reactive."