Tantrums and autism rage: Why does this happen?

A tantrum is your child's way of communicating, "I'm afraid!" "I'm confused!" "I'm frustrated!" "I feel helpless!" when he can't find the words or is nonverbal. We can minimize these moments for our child by understanding why they happen and creating visuals that alleviate anxiety, frustration and loss of control. But first, think about your last really bad day. The kind of day where nothing is going right. You catch every red light, you arrive late for an important meeting, you spill coffee on yourself and on the way home your car goes dead. THAT kind of bad day. Remember how that felt? Now multiply that frustration and anxiety times ten and you'll have a good idea how your child is feeling when he has that explosive tantrum.

by Dawn Villarreal, One Place for Special Needs


Time versus sequence
To understand tantrums, we must first recognize that our perspective is different from our child's perspective. Our day is an organized timeline: Time to go to school, time to get dressed, bath time, dinner time, bed time. From doctor's appointments to park district classes, our world fits snugly into compartmentalized time slots.

Many children with autism, Down syndrome, ADHD, learning disabilities and young children in general, perceive their world as an unbroken chain of events. This child makes sense of his day through a sequenced (first this, then that) process of thinking. His day rests on a foundation of absolutes where the sun always rises in the morning, dinner is always right after dad gets home and mom always gives her special goodnight hug at the end of the day.

Even for those children that love clocks, the allure is the sequence of the numbers more than the ability to know what five minutes versus one hour feels like. How terrible it must be to not have a clear understanding how long each activity of our day lasts. How would you manage your own day in this situation?

Comparing our day
To get a better understanding of time versus sequence, let's compare how Matt (age 2) and his mom go about their Monday morning.

photoxpress photoMatt's mom: "I wake Matt up at 8 a.m. His older brother Sam is already up and dressed. I turn on a cartoon channel while the kids are eating breakfast. I make Sam his lunch for school and by 8:20 a.m. move Matt along to get dressed. We take Sam to school at 8:45 a.m. Most Mondays we'll go to the library, come home and have a snack. We eat lunch around noon and Matt takes a short nap around 1:30 p.m."



photoxpress photoMatt: "Mom wakes me up by saying, 'God morning, Sunshine!' Then I get up out of bed. Sam is already dressed and at the table when I get to the kitchen. Barney comes on and then I eat breakfast. When Barney does his, 'Time for Barney Says,' mom tells me it's time to get dressed. After I have my clothes on, brush my teeth and wash my face, we go downstairs. Sam puts on his jacket and backpack and then I put on my jacket. We take Sam to school. I know we're almost there when I see the crossing guard.

"After mom drops Sam off at the back of the school, we go to the library. When we get inside I will go straight to the Barney DVDs because Barney is my favorite. Then I will go to the third row of books and run back forth five times because I like the way the colors of the bindings look when I do that. Then mom lets me pick out a book and check it out. When we leave, we will go home and mom will make me a snack."

Your chlid's memory
Because Matt doesn't understand time, he has learned to navigate his world by memorizing every detail of the day. But it's not enough to memorize just one day. He has to memorize all seven days because mom doesn't do the same thing everyday.

On Tuesdays, Matt misses his nap to see his speech therapist. On Wednesdays there's a trip to the park and Sam's baseball practice. Thursdays include a trip to the grocery store and a play group. It is truly amazing how much information Matt crunches in his head in order to make sense of his waking hours, seven days a week. Now let's look at what happens when Matt's schedule gets changed without warning.

The following Monday Matt's mom overslept.

Photoxpress photoMatt's mom: "I forgot to set the alarm clock and woke up late. I rushed Sam and Matt out of bed and downstairs for breakfast. Matt was very whiny and it took forever to get him to finish breakfast. Sam got himself ready but Matt was really dragging. I couldn't let him stay in his pajamas because I had planned to visit my girlfriend and her son after we took Sam to school.

"When I got downstairs with Matt, Sam already was waiting by the garage door with his jacket and backpack on. I told Matt to get his jacket and he just started screaming. I yelled, 'We're late! Let's go!' I put Matt's jacket on and pushed him into the car. He cried the whole way to school. Because we were so late I had to sign Sam in at school. Matt didn't want to get out of the car. I had to pull him along into the school. Matt was just terrible and I was so angry with him.

"He calmed down when we got back in the car. I reminded him that we were going to Sarah's house to see Jimmy. I turned the corner to the main road and Matt started screaming again. After five minutes driving like this, I called Sarah and cancelled. When Matt gets like this I can't take him anywhere and he's in a bad mood the rest of the day."

photoxpress photoMatt: "Mom woke me up but she didn't say, 'Good morning, sunshine' so I stayed in bed and waited. She called me again with an angry voice so I got up and went to eat breakfast. I waited for Barney to come on so I could eat my breakfast but it didn't come on. Plus Sam was still in his pajamas which never happens when we eat breakfast. That was confusing so I waited until Sam went upstairs to get dressed and then I ate breakfast even though Barney wasn't on.

"Mom wanted me to get dressed but I was anxious because there was no 'Time for Barney Says.' Mom had her angry face on and she moved me upstairs to get dressed without waiting for Barney. I was feeling bad but I thought I could pick up the day again when Sam puts on his jacket. But when I got downstairs, everything was wrong again. Sam already had his jacket and backpack on. How am I supposed to put my jacket on when he already did his? I wanted him to start over again so I could put my jacket on but mom wouldn't let me. Doesn't she understand that I need to see Sam put on his jacket before I put mine on?

"If things couldn't get any worse, there was no crossing guard outside on our way to Sam's school. And then mom PARKED her car in the parking lot. Sam is supposed to walk through the back of the building, not walk up the front. Mom's going to get him in trouble! Wait a minute, mom wants us to get out of the car too? Are we spending the day here? I can't go to school with Sam, I have to go to the library! Has mom lost her mind?

"Whew, we left the school. I was worried thta we were going to stay there. I'm still anxious that Sam is going to get into trouble because he walked into school the wrong way. But at least I can count on the library and the rest of the day going back the way it's supposed to be. Hold on, what's this? Mom turned the wrong way. Doesn't she know which way the library is? We have to go to the library! I tried to get mom's attention. Then she said something about Jimmy. We can't go to Jimmy's house. On Mondays we go to the library. Has the world gone mad? Will I get a snack? Will I even get lunch? We have got to start this day over because I just don't know where I am anymore. Forget the library, nothing's going to make this day work except going back to bed and starting over."

Understanding markers
In this scenario Matt can no longer predict what will happen next. All of his markers are off (Good morning sunshine, Barney, etc.). Imagine the high state of anxiety your child must feel. He has completely lost control over his environment. Knowing this, can we really blame our child for his tantrums?

If you read through Matt's day, you will notice that many of his markers are insignificant to you. As a parent you are keeping track of the time, not all the small details going on. But your son places great importance on those small details. Once you recognize the importance these markers are for your son, you can begin to understand how changes in your daily routine can greatly upset your child.

For instance, dad coming home from work is a very specific marker. In many home situations, dad coming home represents a shift to the evening routine of dinner, bath and bedtime. What happens if dad comes home for lunch? The child shifts his internal schedule thinking, "If dad is home now, then dinner is next." To see dad leave for work, perhaps for the second time that day, completely knocks that chld's schedule out of whack. Does he go back to the sequence of events that begins with dad leaving in the early morning? Going forward would mean moving into the bedtime routine. The child is completely lost in his day. What we might consider a happy opportunity (dad stopping by for lunch) could create extreme anxiety in a child that relies heavily on these markers.

What we as parents must do is change the child's markers from the internal system he has created to one that we can recognize. This is called a visual schedule. Using a visual schedule helps the chlid see the routine of the day and also allows you to build in changes. Far from being rigid, a visual schedule can actually help the child to become more flexible with transitions.

Read our next article Using Visual Schedules to Control Tantrums to learn more about visual systems and how we can use them throughout our day to reduce frustrations and anxiety.

More reading:

Using Visual Schedules to Control Tantrums
Using MORE Visuals to Manage Tantrums and Frustration Issues

Visual schedule resources - Many articles and how to's for creating your own visual schedule and routine charts.
- Articles and strategies for handling anger, frustration and tantrums.
Concept of time - Articles that include strategies for teaching time concepts to children.
Behavior social stories - Over 30 social stories to teach various positive behaviors at home and school.

Dawn VillarrealAbout the writer

Dawn Villarreal runs One Place for Special Needs, a national disability resource that lets you find local and online resources, events and even other families in your neighborhood plus thousands of online disability resources! Stay awhile and check out the site. She is also moderator of Autism Community Connection, a Yahoo group for families in Illinois. Reprint permission granted by including: Reprinted with permission from One Place for Special Needs http://www.oneplaceforspecialneeds.com