Before we can begin with how to handle a tantrum from someone with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), I suggest you check out my page on “The Mindset for Coping with Autism”. It’s a quick and comprehensive read on the nature of the beast you’re dealing with, when a person with autism throws a tantrum.
In my case, my son (Monkey) is low functioning, nonverbal, and fairly aggressive. There are a lot of things working against me when I have my son throwing a tantrum about something I can’t fix, or back down from. For instance I can’t give him snacks all day, all because he will throw a fit if I tell him no.
My tactics for dealing with a tantrum are ever changing throughout the levels of aggression that are presented. My reactions depend on why the tantrum is taking place, and for how long the tantrum has been taking place. It’s a highly flexible process that requires an empathetic eye, and consistent approach.
This first step of dealing with a tantrum, or meltdown, is to get everyone safe. This means rounding up any children in the area, and keeping yourself between the person having the meltdown, and the people that can’t defend themselves.
Children, and people who may be around frequently, should be trained similar to the fashion we train for fire drills. Everyone should know where each other is, and someone should be ready to call for help in case someone gets hurt. The only thing that can make an aggressive outburst worse is if someone else gets hurts in the process. Lots of mixed feelings and resent can come from those situations. Best to do what you can to prevent accidental injuries altogether, than to wrestle with the possible aftermath.
An important part of this process is that everyone needs to stay calm and communicating. An aggressive tantrum from my son can get pretty spread out, and violent, when you consider his size and strength. He is 14 now, and definitely on track to getting my size (6’3″ 200+lbs.). With this being true, it is very important that everyone around him stays calm and collected. There isn’t much room for more than one person being out of control at a time.
Children and siblings really need to be trained for what to do during a tantrum. I can’t stress this enough. The last thing you need is a toddler running out the front door while you’re wrestling you special needs child at the other end of the house. It is imperative to have checks and balances to keep everyone safe, and to make it a process. Processes are safe and reduce panic. It’s simple logic, but often forgotten.
Keep Up the Good Spirits
All tantrums are met with me trying to distract my son to something positive. Not what he wants necessarily, after all, I can’t just give him candy if he is throwing a fit over candy. I simply try to repeatedly change his focus to something he likes. This is where the songs, rhymes, and reciting lines from his favorite books come in to play.
I keep everything upbeat (even when he is squeezing my neck or grabbing at my hands), and I remain positive in tone. Everything is a matter of lighthearted statements:
“No problem, bud”
“It’s no big deal, dude”
“We’re alright. No need to get all crabby patty”
It isn’t a matter of what you say so much as the tone that you use. The fight is already happening. So, there isn’t much point in two of you being upset. Mine as well just be the image of the behavior that you want them to take on. Plus, if there are other children or siblings, it is less terrifying for them if they think someone has things under control.
If you want to squash aggression, it never hurts to start by setting a pleasant and happy tone for the room. For instance, my son is going to mirror the behavior he is presented with, so my tone will have an influence. The trick will be doing this when my nerves are worn, and I’m in the middle of a tantrum, in the middle of a day filled with tantrums. This is the part of autism that isn’t fun or fair, but it isn’t going to get better without a voice of reason in the room.
You absolutely have to figure out how to make it through with a positive voice!
Kill Them With Kindness
If my son’s aggression doesn’t die out with in the first 1-15 minutes then that means we’re in for a ride. It’ll be dragged out and, most likely, nothing will make him happy. This is the Keyser Soze mode that my son will enter, where he is out to prove to me what will really is.
There are two ways I approach this. The first, and most reliable way, is to hug it out. I literally just keep giving him bear hugs, and telling him jokes with goofy voices. Doesn’t matter what I say, just so long as there is a pleasant voice in his ear throughout the fit. I usually do this on the couch, or on his bed; somewhere soft and away from hard corners.
This does a couple of things. It gives Monkey physical pressure, which I have learned children with ASD tend to prefer, and it makes it possible to be so close that he can’t really attack. This is only true if you can handle the size of the person having the meltdown. I’m a big guy. If you’re not, then the hugs may not be suitable. One of those moments where I can’t use your head for you. So, be sure to assess your situation for what will work, or not.
I keep doing this, and keep “killing him with kindness,” until the tantrum subsides. This is true if this method is gaining ground. However, if I am showering him with hugs and lullabies, and he doesn’t start to break from his tantrum within 5-10 minutes, then I need to try something else.
When the hugs fail, that doesn’t mean love is out of the equation. This is the point that I need to get him to his room. The reason I shoot for his room is because, out of the entire house, his room is the most safeguarded place for him to be. All of the furniture has rounded corners, there aren’t any doors leading to outside, and he can flop on his bed without getting hurt.
I keep him in his room and then stand in the doorway. I don’t fight with him, and I don’t change from my pleasant voice. Everything is “I’m sorry bud,” but you have to stay in here until you calm down.
He will keep coming to the doorway and trying to wrestle past me, but I hold my ground and keep telling him:
“no touching- read your books bud- it’s alright bud, just find a book” (repeat, repeat, repeat)
Everything is calm, positive, and redirecting to something new. If the tantrum has gone to this extent it means my son has likely forgotten why he was upset in the first place. If I were to stand there for an hour, and repeat what he isn’t allowed to do, then he is just going to feel like I am picking on him. Instead, I focus on the redirect to something new, such as reading his books.
Riding It Out
The thing that you may need to realize is that a tantrum that is lasting more than a moment is going to take control of your life for the near future. This means you need to accept that you are simply riding out the storm. There really is little room for lost tempers, or an angry approach to aggression with autism. It forces the caregiver to work against everything that we are disposed to do when met with aggression, but you have to fight the urge to get upset or aggressive yourself. It simply won’t work.
Always remember that their feelings are more frustrating, more frightening, and in more control of them than it ever will be for you. Be positive, and shower tantrums with planning (safety), persistence, and love. It is the only way that I have found through the years. I can’t give in to what he wants, and I can’t make him calm down. It is a lot less frustrating for me to just accept that these are realities that come with the territory.
I just need to ride it out.