Autism. Tantrums

I've been taking some time to write up this blog into a book. So far I'm still back at the six-month in mark. I wrote this about tantrums, and posted it up on Katrina's parenting blog, but it's probably good to have a recap here too. The nice thing is that we only now get one tantrum every second day, if that. So things have definitely improved.

Tantrums are a special feature of daily life with an Autistic Spectrum child. From the age of two and a half to about four, my son Campbell had, on average, six or seven major tantrums per day. They involved kicking, screaming, head banging, running through the house, throwing things around and other generally uncontrollable and extremely undesirable behaviour.

A number of times, I tried to explain to people around me how difficult I found it dealing with the constant outbursts. I’d be greeted by knowing looks from parents of other small children. “Oh, yes,” they would say. “Just the other day my Jack threw one in the supermarket. Soooo embarrassing!” The implication was that there was nothing different about my autistic child, because every child throws tantrums. Tantrums are normal.

And that is true – to a degree. I had already experienced them with my older daughter Jemima, who had been an expert at the pinching, hitting and hair pulling kind from the age of two. At the age of three she wrote ‘No Mummy’ on the wall when something didn’t go her way. (It was in black permanent texta, but that’s a whole other story.) Up to the age of five she was having regular screaming matches with me when she got overtired, which unfortunately was a lot of nights in a row.

But there are differences with ASD tantrums. One of the differences is that they are almost completely unpredictable. I could usually understand why my daughter threw her wobblies, but even now I can hardly ever pinpoint the exact reasons why Campbell explodes.

One morning, when he was three and a half, we had been outside and had just come back inside the house. Campbell sat down, took two shoes and one sock off, and then just began crying. He yelled for his sister and dad who were out at her hockey game and then screamed, “James’ room, James’ room,” at the top of his lungs. At that point he ran sobbing to James’ bedroom where he climbed into the cot and continued to cry for the next half hour.

I had no idea what had happened and I still can’t even try to guess at it.

The other difference with ASD tantrums is that it is almost impossible to talk or reason the child out of it. Campbell is still only now, at the age of 6, learning that he can use words to express his anxieties. Back when he was smaller, with much poorer receptive language, it was useless to say what I would have said to my daughter at the same age, which was something like, “hey honey, next time you’re sad, you can use words to say how you feel.”

I think ASD tantrums are like the tantrums of a 12 to 18 month-old in that you’re dealing with pure emotions that are completely out of the child’s control. You are also dealing with a child who is constantly anxious and overwhelmed – much more so than with neurotypical children. I once heard an autistic adult say, “I still feel like I’m constantly on the edge, on the precipice of everything,” and I realised that when Campbell was younger, his tantrums were his reaction to falling off the edge.

With many neurotypical children you can often head the tantrum off at the pass, but with an ASD child, there’s only a tiny window for bringing calm back to the situation. With many neurotypical children, you can often talk about the tantrum once everyone is recovered. With ASD children, it’s very difficult to revisit anxious feelings. With neurotypical children, you know that tantruming is a stage that every child will go through. It will almost always be over by the age of six. With an ASD child you don’t know when, if ever, it will stop.


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