Autism spectrum disorder tantrums



Autism spectrum disorder tantrums are one area my wife and I have gained some pretty solid, first-hand experience with over the past few years.


We’re yet to experience what our daughter will be like when she hits the ‘terrible twos,’ so her tantrums to date (now aged 10 months) have been very short lived-aside from her hatred for going to sleep at bed time-which is still only just crying and whining.


When Andre turned two, we were certainly seeing a steady rise in the intensity of his tantrums and meltdowns. As he was our first child, we figured this must just be the ‘terrible twos’ others had warned us of.


I guess when we started witnessing some of Andre’s peers at his childcare group having their versions of ‘tantrums’ we started noticing some increasing levels of difference between their versions, and our sons.


Of course one very obvious difference was that the others were starting to use not only words, but short sentences, to describe why they were angry or unhappy.


It breaks my heart, truly, but after almost 4 years now, living with my amazing son every-day, I am yet to have any kind of 2 way conversation with him, and look forward to that day like nothing else.





To date, we are yet to hear, or hear of any instances of Andre saying any-more than two words at one time.  About 95% of the time, when he speaks, it’s just one word.


Although his words have increased really well over the past few months, he’s yet to really say any two syllable words or even point to things and call them by name most of the time.


When it comes to tantrums for children like our son, at least in our case, better, more effective communication could assist us greatly, in avoiding a vast majority of these upsets.


The guys at AutismWorks have an awesome range of resources, guides and programs to assist parents and families with some of the emotional turmoil that is often present when Autism is a factor in the home. 


Tyler McNamer, who is autistic, is a true inspiration, for overcoming many of the hurdles he’s faced throughout his life.


He and his father have created a range of awesome, helpful and informative resources that offer families some effective strategies, help and guidance on the many facets of autism.


Just click here to read about their range of tools and services and how to aid your child in managing their emotional states. 




The communication barrier

A huge part of our role with Andre, is figuring what he wants a lot of the time. Aside from not being able to tell us what he wants, he also tends to lose patience quickly and doesn’t seem to have any understanding of time.


This just means that when we say something like “Okay Andre, I’ll find whatever you’re looking for in just a moment, I just need 30 seconds to finish this” he generally loses it even more, as only seems to understand now.


I’m yet to discover if this lack of patience, or grasp on time itself is completely autism related, or something a little more common, but it certainly does cause the most seemingly innocuous, tiny things to escalate very quickly.


Although Andre is a few months away from four years old at this time, we know that we’re likely in the category of when people say things like “It’ll get a lot worse, before it gets better.”


We know our son will have many challenges to face throughout his life, and we will be there for him every step of the way. Autism is certainly something that comes with its extra challenges, so we’re trying to do everything we can now to help better equip our son for the future.


Everything I’ve read about the benefits of early intervention with ASD children is very promising, and like practically every parent on the planet, we want to do whatever we can to support and assist both our children in having a fun, abundant and fulfilling life, any way we possibly can.


One thing we’ve just invested in again, are a good set of flash cards, to try to assist Andre in familiarising himself with the names of things, that he can match with a picture. 


We had tried some of these previously with no luck at all, but we feel that now our son is taking more interest in learning, and developing his word base, it’s probably a good time for us to try this approach again.


Much of the homework we do for Andre’s therapy is helping us with identifying possible causes of his tantrums, or the ‘antecedents.’


Antecedents are a big part of what we’ve been learning so far in our weekly therapy sessions with Andre. They refer to what is happening immediately before a tantrum or other type of challenging behaviour is demonstrated.




The ABC’s




The antecedents, as discussed in previous posts, form the first part of the ABC’s we’re learning about, referring to the Antecedents, Behaviour, and Consequence.


These three areas have been a big part of what we’ve learned so far in Andre’s therapy sessions.


Part of our homework each week is recording different instances of Andre’s challenging behaviours, and taking note of these ABC’s.


As an example, one tantrum our son had this morning was a good example of how you can use the ABC’s, as per below.

(For those in the US, I do apologise, in this part of the world, we spell some words a little differently to you guys, such as behaviour-with the u before the r-just a heads up.)


Antecedent Behaviour Consequence
Andre wanted to watch TV, but I was taking too long to work out which show he wanted to watch.

(Being non-verbal even the picking the right show is all guess work.)

Andre threw his drink bottle, then grabbed the TV remote & threw it at the TV. TV was turned off altogether.


Like anything you don’t want your child to repeat, the idea is that following a tantrum, or ‘challenging  behaviour ‘, the consequence must be something that’s effective enough to make the child not want to repeat the action, so as to avoid having to face the consequence again.


In my example above, turning the television off might seem a bit soft as punishment, but a big issue for Andre, is that since he doesn’t talk, he also seems to have trouble understanding why certain things occur, so when he’s sent to his room, he only gets more upset, crying and wailing, the entire time he’s in there, only upsetting himself more.


That can also be one of the most frustrating parts of dealing with autism spectrum disorder tantrums like our son’s-without words, it’s a matter of practically trying to read his mind,  as well as the process of elimination, just to determine what the issue is.


We witness other kids our son’s age at his childcare facility having tantrums, but there are always words to describe why they’re angry or frustrated, i.e. “she took my block/ he pushed me.” And so on.


An example of this was last night, whilst my wife and I were in the kitchen/dining area preparing dinner for everyone, the kids were in the lounge room, Andre dancing to a Wiggles Netflix special.


All is going well until we notice an increasingly aggressive grunting sound coming from the lounge room, rapidly increasingly to a yelling and the sound of toys being thrown.


Upon entering the room, I see Andre just throwing his arms and body all over the place, crying and grunting, and then I noticed the TV screen has frozen.


We’d had a lot of lightning and rain the whole day and night, so internet connection was not the best. As soon as we exited out and put one of his recorded shows on, all was good again.


With a neuro-typical child, they would’ve likely said “Mum/dad the TV has frozen” or something to that effect, but again, without words, it’s never that simple.


We have of course recognised that the TV alone can be both a huge cause of a lot of Andre’s upsets and tantrums, as well as an effective tool for demonstrating consequence.








Recently we’ve been learning about reinforcement, and how, naturally, children tend to repeat behaviours that are reinforced by something that is appealing, or rewarding.


We still struggle at times to find reinforcers that are appealing enough to our son. A lot of the examples I’ve watched where reinforcers proved effective with children like my son, were involving sweets or candy that the children would naturally want.


With Andre, if it’s not on his list of the handful of foods he does eat; it does not interest him in the slightest. We are yet to see him eat any sweets, he ate chocolate about twice in his lifetime thus far, screwed his face up each time. (Wish I had that problem!)


So for us, some of the most powerful reinforcers we’ve had success with, have involved play of some kind. If we want him to do something he may not want to do, we often show him a picture of the kids pool he has in the back yard that he loves.


If it’s not that, I’ll quickly google pictures of a playground, or of his favourite indoor play centre. These have been pretty good so far but with Andre, nothing is ever really concrete, as can change in a moment.


In one example, we were a little shocked to realise that we had been reinforcing some bad behaviours without even knowing we were doing it.


During an earlier therapy session, we had taught Andre that ‘pack away’ meant putting all the toys or Lego pieces back into the box.


When he would accomplish this task, the idea was to reinforce him doing the right thing, which can be a treat/snack, round of applause, whatever works.


We were then practicing it at home regularly, and he’d often help with putting the toys away but would then let us do the majority of it and usually go off to do something else whilst one of us put the rest of the toys away.


And that was a big part of the problem. He basically never stayed around long enough to complete the task, and get to the reward part, and was instead learning that ‘pack away’ meant he could go do what he wanted and we’d pick up the rest.


In his mind it seemed a matter of not feeling any need to change any of his behaviours, because the desired result was still accomplished.


Since recognising this, we have had more success with the packing away requests, giving Andre more of hard line approach of not intervening ourselves, and making it clear that they all need to be packed away before he can move on to his next activity.







We’ve learned that in order for consequence to be effective, it needs to be swift, following the challenging behaviours, and it needs to be firm, no negotiation.


Of course one of the issues with maintaining effective consequences is consistency. We are having some trouble in this area, which is also likely why changes are a very slow process for our son thus far.


From what we have learned, in order for consequences to be effective, they do need to immediately follow the challenging behaviour-obviously to make it easier on the child to understand which of their behaviours were unacceptable.


We’ve found it especially tricky to enforce swift consequence at times such as when we’re all in the car. Unfortunately this has also meant the car has been the setting for many of the absolute worst tantrums we’ve seen from Andre to date.


In the car, we feel there’s not a whole lot we can take away or deprive him of, as such-as a result of engaging in screaming and other challenging behaviours.


What we’ve had a lot of trouble with, in terms of triggers for Andre’s tantrums in the car, is if either my wife or I need to jump out of the car quickly-to put petrol in/ grab something from the store quickly, leaving Andre and the rest of the family in the car.


For some reason, this is just a massive trigger for our son, so he’ll instantly just start a shrieking scream as soon as one of us leaves the car, and whilst kicking and throwing anything he can get his hands on, he’ll continue to scream until that person gets back into the car.


Regardless of various ways we tried to combat this, we’ve found that it simply means it’s a matter of  we all go, or we all go home-and one of us sneaks back out of the house at some point to get what we needed.


I imagine many people out there can relate to situations like these when you have a child on the autism spectrum, and can probably empathise with how bad and inept as parents it can make you feel sometimes when these situations arise and you suddenly have many eyes on you.


This is certainly on ongoing battle for us, trying to navigate a way through the ASD related tantrums. It has sadly meant there are a lot of places we simply cannot go at this point in time.


This is definitely an area that we will continue to write and update you all about as we continue to learn more and adjust our approaches as many times as it takes to find effective strategies that can be applied and passed on.





Final thoughts


At this point in our journey, my main recommendations, purely based on our own learnings and experiences in this area, are to try to pay close attention to those ‘antecedents’ mentioned earlier, or simply put triggers that tend to lead to these challenging behaviours.


As some dictionaries simply describe it, an antecedent is: something that existed before or, logically precedes another.


If you can identify what triggers may exist for your child, it may help you to avoid those things or actions, or find other ways of navigating through those situations more successfully.


Aside from that, I’d again mention looking at what consequences may be effective for you to use when your child does act up or try to break the rules.






Live, Love and definitely LAUGH


Of course the flip side to that is always important to remember too, which is that whilst trying to install some routine and discipline in some challenging areas, you really want to reinforce, reward and celebrate all of their small wins.


It’s certainly not all doom and gloom, there’s always still a lot of room for laughs in our home, we try to keep at as light as we can, and always try to really make a big deal of small celebrations when Andre is doing well, and really making an effort.


This is always going to be an ongoing journey for our family, so again we will continue to share our journey, in the hopes that something we’ve mentioned might resonate with some of you out there and even shed a little light in some tricky situations.


We always welcome any feedback or comments about your experiences in these areas. We wish you all the very best with finding some effective solutions to your own circumstances with ASD related issues.