From the January 2019 issue

When is a Tantrum More Than a Tantrum?

It's easy to dismiss tantrums as a part of growing up, but there could be more to your child's outbursts. Here, a board-certified behavior specialist with Autism Home Support Services offers insight and advice.

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The kid crying and kicking at the grocery store. The child screaming and stomping in the mall. These moments are all too familiar to parents.

“All children want to get their needs met, and typically developing children usually have the ability to communicate that,” says Emma Rork, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) with Autism Home Support Services.

That’s why a hungry, sleepy or frustrated child throws a tantrum. Typically, once the need is met, the child calms down, so it’s easy for parents to dismiss these outbursts as common kid behavior.

But that’s not the case for kids on the autism spectrum. Communication delays hinder their ability to express their needs in ways their parents understand. “What might seem like the obvious trigger for a tantrum might not always be the reason behind it,” Rork says.

It’s confusing for parents, but there are signs to look for. Here, Rork weighs in on how typical tantrums differ from outbursts from a child on the spectrum.

Tantrum triggers

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The candy aisle at the grocery store is a mecca for kid meltdowns, especially if you deny her request for that Hershey’s bar. She’ll scream and stomp until she gets it – or until you’re able to distract her with something else.

Grocery store trips with a child on the spectrum could lead to chaos that’s more complicated than wanting candy. He may not show any clear signs of what’s making him upset, and once things have started to escalate, Rork says, he will have a hard time calming down.

“It may be more difficult to calm or distract the child because they are using this tantrum behavior to continue trying to communicate what they want or need.” Rork says.

Another common kid hangout that can cause a major meltdown? A play place. The bright lights and loud noises could be too much to handle.

“In these type of situations, we may see tantrums lasting longer than usual until they are able to get their needs met,” she says. “For example, they may continue to cry at the mall play area until they are able to leave, cry when they are tired until they are able to nap (similar to most kids!), or have a tantrum at the store until they get the snack that they want.”

Seeking professional help

If your child is having frequent tantrums, struggling to calm down and communicate, Rork suggests reaching out to your child’s pediatrician.

“About at the age where they are starting to speak – around that age of 1-2 – is where you’re going to start seeing those signs,” which also include avoiding eye contact and delays in social reciprocity.

Pediatricians administer the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) around 18 months and 24 months. Around that time is when parents will start to get a reliable autism diagnosis.

“When a doctor does give a diagnosis of autism, they may suggest up to 20-40 hours (per week) of intensive ABA therapy,” Rork says.

Rork, who has worked with children with special needs for 10 years, has spent the last six years practicing ABA – short for applied behavioral analysis – therapy. While she understands that the autism diagnosis coupled with the weekly hours of therapy is overwhelming, it’s also imperative. Research shows that the neuroplasticity of the brain is best before age 3, which means children can make more progress having more intense therapy early on.

“I like to tell my clients that autism is a diagnosis based on behaviors and behaviors can change. Utilizing ABA we can focus on increasing positive behaviors (such as communicating wants and needs), and decreasing behaviors that may be barriers to daily functioning (such as tantrum behavior),” Rork says.

The folks at AHSS work with kids in-home and at their Northville location on ways to effectively communicate their needs – and help reduce tantrums. AHSS uses natural environment teaching strategies, which goes beyond sitting at a desk. It offers “real world” training for kids and incorporates play to build on their skills.

“In ABA therapy, we use positive reinforcement to increase more desirable behaviors to access their wants and needs. If the child can demonstrate a more appropriate behavior, such as politely asking for candy, you should reward these more desirable and appropriate behaviors when you can,” Rork says. “This teaches the child that asking is what will earn the reward next time, instead of having a tantrum.”

Content brought to you by Autism Home Support Services. For more information on ABA Therapy and Autism Home Support Services, visit autismhomesupport.com.

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