From the February 2018 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.

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 Jenna Kuhn, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) with Autism Home Support Services.

That’s why a hungry, sleepy or frustrated child throws a tantrum – to let mom and dad know what he needs. And typically, once the need is met, the child calms down, so it’s easy for parents to dismiss these sorts of tantrums as common kid behavior.

But that’s not the case for kids on the autism spectrum. In fact, communication delays hinder their ability to express their needs in ways their parents will understand. “What we would think would be a clear sign of a tantrum is not always a clear sign,” Kuhn says.

It can be confusing for parents, but there are some signs to look for. Here, Kuhn weighs in on how typical tantrums differ from an outburst 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. If you deny her request for that Hershey’s bar, she’ll inevitably scream, cry and stomp until she gets it – or until you’re able to distract her with something else.

But going to the grocery store with a child on the spectrum could lead to chaos that is more complicated than just wanting candy. In fact, a kid with autism might not show any clear signs of what is making him upset, and once things have started to get out of control, Kuhn says, that child will have a hard time calming down.

“For a child with autism, it is more difficult to distract the child from having their tantrum,” Kuhn says, “because they are still trying to communicate what it is that they want or need.”

Another common kid hangout that could cause a major meltdown? A play place.

It seems like the perfect spot for kids to blow off some steam and interact with their peers. “Most kids would enjoy the opportunity to run around and be able to play,” Kuhn says. “They want to go seek out new kids and activities, but a kid with autism may find it overwhelming.”

The bright lights and loud noises could cause a meltdown, but for parents, it might be difficult to decipher why your child is having a temper tantrum at a seemingly fun space.

“It is common for kids with autism to have a difficult time communicating that it is too loud, too bright or just too much going on for them in a given situation,” Kuhn says.

Ultimately, she says, it comes down to not having the language or ability to communicate if they are uncomfortable in a situation.

“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 and struggling to calm down and communicate, Kuhn 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, Kuhn says.

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

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

Kuhn, who has been working with children with special needs for 13 years, has spent the last five years practicing ABA – which is 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,” Kuhn says

Kuhn and the team at Autism Home Support Services work with kids both in-home and at their Northville location on ways to effectively communicate their needs – and help reduce tantrums.

“A kid with autism may need direct training to learn those requests and learn how to get what they want,” Kuhn adds.

How does it work? 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 the candy, sitting in the cart and waiting patiently until getting into the car, you should reward these more desirable and appropriate behaviors when you can,” Kuhn says. “This teaches the child that asking or waiting is what will earn the reward next time, instead of having a tantrum.”

It’s all about providing children on the autism spectrum with the right tools to communicate what they need and want, so tantrums can become a thing of the past.

For more information on ABA therapy and Autism Home Support Services, visit

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