It is not uncommon for any child to throw a temper tantrum when things do not go their way. While a child with autism may appear to be throwing a temper tantrum, it is more likely to be a meltdown.
Difference Between Tantrum and Meltdown?
While both a temper tantrum and meltdown may appear to be the same, there is a big difference between the two. In a temper tantrum, the child is looking for a certain type of response — getting what they want, whether it be attention, a toy, or something else. The child can usually stop the tantrum once they get what they were seeking. When a child with autism has a meltdown, it is usually a reaction and the child usually has no control over it.
Meltdowns are Communication
When a child with autism has a meltdown, they are usually trying to communicate that something is wrong but they cannot find any means of telling you other than the behavior. The meltdown is a sign that the child is in distress and should not be treated as bad behavior. The child is not able to control their emotions and has no way of expressing them that is more acceptable.
Some children with autism are nonverbal and cannot talk, so a meltdown is their only means of communication; even children who can talk may not be able to find the words to say what is wrong. Or the child may lack impulse control. Problem-solving skills may not help the child achieve what is needed.
How the people around the child react to such an outburst is key to the child learning more appropriate reactions in situations like this. The first thing is to remain calm, even though this can be difficult when faced with such a situation. Your initial reaction might be to shout at the child, but this will only make them more upset. By staying calm, you are setting an example for the child and they can learn by watching you!
Don’t Give In
Just like a child throwing a temper tantrum, it is important to not give in to the child. Giving in reinforces that the meltdown is an acceptable behavior, even though he has no control over this.
Praise Appropriate Behavior
Once the child has calmed down, tell the child how proud you are that he/she has pulled themselves together. And when the child does use their words to express their feelings or what they want, praise them for doing the right thing. Reinforcing positive behaviors has a much more successful outcome than berating the child for negative behaviors.
Help the child Develop Problem-Solving Skills
At times that the child is calm and not upset, help them practice expressing their feelings and figuring out solutions for how to react to different situations. This is a good time to utilize social stories — stories that actually have a problem and a solution in them. You can also talk about different situations and ask the child how he/she thinks you might react in that situation.
Time Outs and Reward Systems
For younger children, time outs may be effective means of helping them realize that there are consequences to their actions. In older children (approximately 7 or 8) you might implement a rewards system where positive behavior is reinforced. A token system is one rewards system that was implemented at school for my son.
Many children who have meltdowns on a regular basis do so at times where you can predict it: homework time, bedtime, or when it is time to stop a favored activity. Yes, times when you are asking them to do things that they do not like, or telling them that they cannot do something they like. For situations like this, you can utilize time warnings, one-step directions for tasks involving multiple steps or preparing your child for certain situations.
Is the Meltdown Nonviolent or Violent?
If the meltdown is not violent, the best thing to do is to ignore it as much as possible. Even saying “Stop this” can result in the meltdown continuing or growing in intensity.
But if the child is getting violent or aggressive, the best thing to do for everyone in the area is to take the child to a quiet place. Sometimes a time out location will work, but if the child is really out of control they may not stay where they are supposed to. If this is the case, find a quiet area where there are no items that can be considered as rewards and the child will be able to calm down without harming themselves or others.
If the aggressive child is older and you are not able to remove them from the room, the best thing to do is to remove yourself and others from the vicinity. This is to ensure that the child is not getting any attention or reinforcement. In extreme instances, it may become necessary to call 911.
Help with Behavioral Techniques
If your child’s meltdowns are frequently frightening you and disrupting the rest of the family, professional help may be needed. Behavioral therapy can help you and the child move past the aggression, relieve stress and improve your relationship. The parents can learn to manage the behaviors more effectively and the child can learn to control the disruptive behavior.
Parent-Child Interactive Therapy (PCIT)
This form of therapy has proven to be very effective with younger children between the ages of 2 and 7. The parent and child go through a series of exercises together while the parent is coached by a therapist via an earbud. The parent learns how to focus on the child’s positive behaviors, accept minor misbehaviors and be consistent in applying consequences for negative behaviors and aggression.
Parent Management Training (PMT)
This therapy teaches the same things as PCIT, but works with the parents to develop the skills needed to effectively deal with the outbursts.
Collaborative and Proactive solutions (CPS)
CPS is a program that focuses on the outbursts being caused by a lack of behavior skills rather than an attempt to get attention or test limits. Therapists work with the children to develop the lagging skills in behavior so that they can respond to situations more effectively.
Importance of Figuring Out Explosive Behavior
If meltdowns continue to be occurring more often, are more intense or continue past preschool, they can be very concerning. Aggressive behavior becomes much more dangerous to everyone, especially the child, as the child gets older. It can also cause problems at school and with friends.
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