Handling a Public Tantrum with
Your Child with Autism
You’ve likely experienced this scenario:
You’re at the grocery story, the park, or waiting in line at the pharmacy and your child with ASD starts act out. They may throw themselves to the floor, cry, scream, or any number of behaviors that cause the people around you to stare or whisper to each other. This can be embarrassing, but it’s critical to understand that children with autism aren’t misbehaving — they’re simply reacting to upsetting feelings that they haven’t learned how to express without this type of display.
Some call this a “meltdown.” At The Cardinal Center, and throughout our industry, we choose to refer to these events as “tantrums.”
What Is a “Tantrum”?
A tantrum is an intense response to a situation that has become overwhelming.
At The Cardinal Center, our definition of a tantrum is a little different depending on the client. We identify common behaviors that the child expresses when they’re upset, and if two or more of these behaviors are present in one of these outbursts, we officially define it as a tantrum.
At its heart, a tantrum occurs due to a perceived loss of control over the things happening around your child with ASD. This can be expressed in a variety of different ways, in any combination of the following areas:
- Verbal: shouting, screaming, crying
- Physical: kicking, lashing out, biting
- Social: withdrawal from activity, refusal to interact
Managing a Tantrum
The most important thing you can do during a tantrum is remain calm. Your child is already overwhelmed enough by the situation, and seeing you panic or get upset can make it more severe.
If you are able to lessen sensory stimuli in the area, such as lowering the volume of music or dimming the lights, do so. Kindly ask that anyone staring move along and reassure them that the child is merely overwhelmed by their environment. Allow your child space to process, as it often takes a significant amount of time to recover from sensory or information overload.
Anticipating and Mitigating Future Tantrums
Identifying the Cause
Recordkeeping is important to help your child with autism. Keep a detailed journal of what occurs when your child does have a tantrum. Helpful patterns can emerge and assist in identifying potential triggers. Once you’ve identified these triggers, it’s time to figure out how they can be avoided.
Common Triggers and Solutions
Some of the most common triggers of autism tantrums come from overstimulating environments, changes in routine, and communication difficulties. Below are some potential solutions to use in each scenario:
- For an overstimulating environment – calming music, avoiding crowds, removing bright lights, creating a low arousal environment
- For changes in routine – picture symbol, reassurance that the rest of the day will remain the same
- For communication difficulties – visual supports, social stories, speaking in shorter sentences, using technology as an aide
Remember that your child with autism is unique, and what works for another child may not work for yours. Seek additional supports when necessary.
If a Tantrum is on the Horizon...
Your child with autism will show signs of distress before having a tantrum. They may exhibit anxious behaviors such as pacing or try to seek reassurance through repetitive questioning. Your child may also try to self-soothe through a behavior such as rocking or become very still. When these behaviors begin, there is still a chance that an outburst can be avoided.
Some strategies you can try at this stage are distraction and diversion. For example, giving your child a fidget toy or turning on music for them to listen to. Remember to stay calm yourself: if your child with autism sees you react, they may likewise react and have the tantrum anyway.
How We Can Help
It’s important to remember you’re definitely not alone. When it’s appropriate for your child with ASD, group therapy can help in making overwhelming situations more manageable. Come see how we at The Cardinal Center can help mitigate and minimize tantrums.
Get in touch. We're here to help.