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How to Deal with Tantrums of My Autistic Child?

20 June, 2022
Q I have an autistic child; he is 5 years old and currently he is attending a diagnostic kindergarten. I have noticed that his behaviors are changing a lot (I should admit that he is developing some good habits too). Last Thursday I had to drag him home while he was crying asking for something in the classroom they have given him to hold and taken away when it is time to go home. (He is having a habit of holding in to objects for a longer period of time).

He was so agitated, angry and throwing things and scratching me. I was so worried because this is the first time he behaved in such a manner that I could not simply handle him. Still that incident is haunting me. Now he is following the same thing if he wants something. Earlier also he used to scream and cry if things are not the way he wanted but it was easy to control him but now it is not (I've already spoken with his teacher and the principle and they are still investigating the incident.

Answer

In this counseling answer:

•When you are teaching skills and when you see new behaviors, find positive ways to reinforce that behavior by using verbal praise, or by setting up a system by which your child can earn points, or stars on a chart, etc… that he can turn in for something he wants. This latter positive teaching technique also teaches a child how to wait for something he wants.

•You can calmly get your child to a safety zone and require that he remain in the safety zone until he is finished with his tantrum. The idea is not to engage in discussing, no scolding, no sympathizing, no reacting to the tantrum. When the child is done with his tantrum, he can come out of the safety zone. This is not a punishment.


As-Salamu `Alaykum dear sister,

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In my last response to your post I introduced you to some basic principles of Applied Behavior Analysis as it is the preferred model for behavior change within the community of Autism and Special Needs Children.

Once you have completed a good analysis of problem behaviors, the next step is to complete that assessment by identifying skills deficits and barriers and then identify alternative behaviors and skills to learn that will help your child.

Once your assessment is complete, you then begin to develop a program with interventions to apply that will help your child learn those new skills and alternative behaviors.

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Below I will briefly introduce you to these next steps of identifying and teaching “alternative behaviors” instead of using the problem behaviors that a child can use to get wants and needs met, or to tolerate frustration and disappointment. I will also briefly talk about skills deficits, skills building, and positive programming.

Teaching Alternative Behaviors: Alternative behaviors are behaviors that an individual can use instead of the problem behavior to get his needs met. In other words, an alternative behavior serves the same function of the problem behavior but is more socially acceptable. For example, if your child has difficulty letting go of toys and has a tantrum when an item is taken from him, then the function of that behavior might be to either get that toy back or to relieve the stress of losing the toy. But, if you help your child to attach to a toy that he can keep with him that does not have to be given back then this might serve the same function as holding on to another toy. If this doesn’t work, then that is not the same function.

If the function of the behavior is to get attention, then we can find alternative behaviors to get the attention that are more appropriate. If the tantrums are an expression of a power struggle, then give the child something that he can be in charge of, and/or a small area that he can control. This may not solve all power struggles, but it will help. Teaching alternative behaviors can help reduce a major portion of problem behaviors.


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Identifying Skills Deficits: Some tantrum behaviors are a result of frustration or inability to tolerate a level of unavoidable discomfort. Some skills deficits to look for include the lack of tolerance for discomfort (such as giving up a preferred item because it does not belong to you); being unable to wait for something (patience); communication skills; and self care skills. Communication skills deficits are often among the most frustrating and alienating for a child with autism, and working on communication skills is usually emphasized in a positive programming ABA program.

This summary of alternative behaviors to teach and skills deficits to identify and teach is just a small example. Over time, as you conduct more functional analysis, as taught in my last response, and assess for skills deficits, you will become aware of the core areas that you can focus on to help improve your child’s response and approach to his environment and people so that he can get his core needs met in appropriate ways.

With that said, I want to mention that using positive reinforcement is always the best approach. When you are teaching skills and when you see new behaviors, find positive ways to reinforce that behavior by using verbal praise, or by setting up a system by which your child can earn points, or stars on a chart, etc… that he can turn in for something he wants. This latter positive teaching technique also teaches a child how to wait for something he wants.

With that said, using planned ignoring is also a very helpful way to reduce tantrums, but you only want to use this approach if you are ready. Intermediate reinforcement of a behavior is the most powerful way to increase a behavior, so you don’t want to ignore tantrums some of the time but then respond some of the time, because if you do, you will inadvertently be increasing the tantrums.

However, if you are able to withstand the tantrum behavior consistently, but are worried about safety, you can use what I call “modified” planned ignoring. You can calmly get your child to a safety zone and require that he remain in the safety zone until he is finished with his tantrum. The idea is not to engage in discussing, no scolding, no sympathizing, no reacting to the tantrum. When the child is done with his tantrum, he can come out of the safety zone. This is not a punishment.

Punishment will likely be experienced as attention, and many tantrums that might begin with frustration become a habit once the child unconsciously learns that he can get attention this way also. The child wants and needs the interaction. So, in response to a tantrum you want to consistently minimize the experience of attention and interaction. Then, give a lot of attention at OTHER times… when the child is not engaging in tantrum behavior….praise your child when he does something or says something kind, or when your child practices a communication skill…etc. Give your child attention for no reason at all… and make sure he gets enough.

For example, make clean up time fun… play children’s songs and sing while you clean up your child’s play mess and invite him to pick up his mess with you. Make up funny poems and ask your child to help you make up some funny poems while you are tending to your baby. Ask your child help in taking care of the baby… and let him help you make lunch.

These are just ideas to think about. Naturally you will want to think of things that are practical for you and that you can realistically, but creatively integrate into your day. Remember bath time can be one of the funniest times of the day for some children, and if mom isn’t so worried about what the bathroom looks like after all the splashing, she can have some fun too.

This is a very brief overview of things to look for in finding ways to help your child overcome the barriers in getting his wants and needs met in appropriate ways, and in responding to triggers in an appropriate manner. Once you have identified your child’s skills deficits and the alternate behaviors that you want to teach your child to use that will serve the same function as the problem behavior served; you will want to identify creative ways to teach these skills and alternative behaviors to your child. This is best done by assessing what works with your child so that you can set your child up for success as you introduce these skills and alternative behaviors.

There isn’t enough room here to elaborate on the actual skills building and behavior teaching techniques available in this response. You may have already identified the ways that your child learns and what techniques work for your child. However, I want to emphasize again, how very helpful it is to have a professional agency that works with Autistic children help you to develop a program in your home that will identify these skills and positive behaviors using a positive behavior programming model.

Your child is still young and, while he is young, you have a window of opportunity to teach him while his brain is forming neurological pathways. If at all possible consider this as an option.

For now, take some of the keywords that I mentioned and google them. If you do, you will find a wealth of information and ideas and techniques that can help you to put together your own personal program to use daily. You might also consider talking to your child’s teacher and see if she is willing to co-develop a program with you using some of the positive programming interventions that you find helpful after conducting a functional analysis. Some keywords to google include: Positive programming, ABA (applied behavior analysis), positive reinforcement, functions of behavior, skills deficits, skills teaching.

Play around and do some research and try to get into a support group with other parents who have children with autism so that you can share ideas with each other as well. I pray this response has been helpful.

Salam

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Disclaimer: The conceptualization and recommendations stated in this response are very general and purely based on the limited information provided in the question. In no event shall AboutIslam, its counselors or employees be held liable for any damages that may arise from your decision in the use of our services.

About Maryam Bachmeier
Dr. Bachmeier is a clinical psychologist who has been working in the mental health field for over 15 years. She is also a former adjunct professor at Argosy University, writer, and consultant in the areas of mental health, cultural, and relationship issues.