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This article is an excerpt from OAR’s “Understanding Autism: Professional Development Curriculum.”

For students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), temper tantrums may be triggered for a variety of reasons. Because many children with autism have difficulties communicating in socially acceptable ways, they may act out when they are confused, afraid, anxious, or stressed about something. It’s important for classroom teachers and staff to understand why tantrums occur and, more importantly, how to deal with them effectively.

Temper tantrums can occur when a child’s needs are not being met, such as needs for:

  • Information
  • Sameness
  • A tangible item

Or it may be that their expectations (of themselves, others, or the environment) are not being met. In other cases, a tantrum may occur because there is too much stimulation in the environment.

Dealing with tantrums and anger is easier and more effective if you understand the stages of a tantrum and know interventions you can use at each stage.

Stages of a Tantrum
  • Rumbling: During the initial stage, young people with ASD exhibit specific behavioral changes that may appear to be minor, such as nail biting, tensing muscles, or otherwise indicating discomfort. During this stage, it is imperative that an adult intervene without becoming part of a struggle. Effective interventions during this stage include:
    • Antiseptic bouncing involves removing a student, in a nonpunitive fashion, from the environment in which the difficulty is occurring to provide an opportunity for the student to regain a sense of calm.
    • Proximity control allows the teacher or parent to move near the student who is engaged in the target behavior. Often something as simple as standing next to a child is calming.
    • Support from routine can be provided by displaying a chart or visual schedule of expectations and events to give security to children and youth with ASD who typically need predictability.
    • Home base is a place in the school where an individual can escape stress. The home base should be quiet with few visual or activity distractions and activities should be selected carefully to ensure that they calm rather than excite.

All of these strategies can be effective in stopping the cycle of tantrums, rage, and meltdowns and can help the child regain control with minimal adult support.

  • Rage: If behavior is not diffused during the rumbling stage, the young person may move to the rage stage. At this point, the child is disinhibited and acts impulsively, emotionally, and sometimes explosively. These behaviors may be externalized (e.g., screaming, biting, hitting, kicking, destroying property, or self-injury) or internalized (e.g., withdrawal). Meltdowns are not purposeful, and once the rage stage begins, it most often must run its course.
  • Intervention: Emphasis should be placed on child, peer, and adult safety, as well as protection of school, home, or personal property. Of importance here is helping the individual with ASD regain control and preserve dignity. There should be developed plans for:
    • Obtaining assistance from educators, such as a crisis teacher or principal
    • Removing the student from the area (removing the upset student from the peer group is far less memorable for the peers than is moving the entire peer group away from the upset student)
    • Providing therapeutic restraint, if necessary

Especially in elementary and middle school, every effort should be made to prevent allowing a student to have a meltdown in view of peers as this behavior tends to define the student in the peers’ minds in years ahead.

  • Recovery: Following a meltdown, the child with ASD often cannot fully remember what occurred during the rage stage. Some may become sullen, withdraw, or deny that inappropriate behavior occurred. Other individuals are so physically exhausted that they need to sleep.
  • Intervention: During the recovery stage, children are often not ready to learn. Thus, it is important that adults work with them to help them to once again become a part of the routine. This is often best accomplished by directing the youth to a highly motivating task that can be easily accomplished, such as an activity related to a special interest. If appropriate, when the student has calmed sufficiently, a staff member can process the incident with the student. Staff should analyze the incident to identify whether or not the environment, expectations, or staff behavior played a role in precipitating the incident.

For the child with ASD and his or her family, the disorder is a lifelong challenge. School is particularly challenging because it places the child in a setting outside the home where communication and socialization ⎯ skills that are often hard for children with autism ⎯ are fundamental building blocks. As anyone who has faced a challenging situation understands, unfamiliarity and stress can lead to frustration and unhealthy behaviors. Educators can play a significant role in helping children and young people with ASD adjust to new and unfamiliar situations, especially when they understand how best to deal with difficult behaviors like tantrums.

The “Understanding Autism: Professional Development Curriculum,” from which this article was taken, provides more information about the characteristics of challenging behavior and practices for dealing with that behavior.  It includes scripted PowerPoint presentations, facilitator notes and handouts, activity worksheets, and video clips.