Hello I have a seven-year-old with autism and he has bad tantrums and curses. I’m a single mom, what can I do to stop this and help him grow out of it? — Brissa
Along with the many well-intentioned efforts to understand, manage and treat the special needs child, there have been a number of stock phrases that have come into common use. Unfortunately, many of these phrases, meant to reassure, are false. One prominent sentiment is the frequently verbalized belief that your child “will grow out of it.” Wrong! Your child will not grow out of it; he or she will learn out of it.
I have seen adults who ask me “Where were you when I was three years old?” because the fundamental problem—not simply learning normal behavior—was never addressed. Hearing that your child will grow out of it (and there are a host of similar euphemisms) is like being told to watch and wait while a fire consumes your living room.
How long are you supposed to wait? Until Alex (I will call him Alex) is 12 years old? 15? 18? Passive non-intervention is not the answer. Your son is seven years old—not exactly young anymore. No need to watch and keep your fingers crossed; there is a sensible, systematic solution to your child’s tantrums. Let’s see if we can get you started in a direction that will actively make a difference.
Language is a major part of the solution. How is Alex’s language ability? Why the frequent tantrums? Is he having a difficult time communicating? Is he frustrated by something he cannot express? Alex is able to curse and that (at least in part) is good news! If he can curse, that means he can communicate with others—perhaps even in complete sentences. If a child can organize thoughts and express them clearly (even, for the time being, as cursing), there will be less frustration, fewer tantrums, and more of a sense of control. Organized thoughts are a key to long-term lasting success. Here are some examples of what I do to increase organized thinking and language for Alex:
1. Don’t respond to your child if he is not clear with what he is saying (even if you know what he means.) Give him a chance to express himself
2. Help the child by asking him questions in complete sentences.
3. Do not encourage him to simply repeat your words.
4. No baby talk.
5. Have the child answer “yes” or “no” correctly to appropriate questions. Often this requires patience and frequent repetition of your question.
6. Listen to your child, even when he is not making sense. (It may make sense to him). Try to understand what he is saying. Siblings are often my best interpreters.
Next, find out why? Why the tantrums? When do the tantrums occur? Is there a pattern—does he tantrum when he is interrupted, or when he is taken away from something he likes? I have yet (and I have seen thousands of people on the spectrum) to meet a child who actually enjoys a full-blown tantrum. One of my clients, also seven years old, has tantrums almost constantly.
She does not have event constancy; she does not have the idea that she can return to what she is doing at a later time. She must have what she wants immediately. Once the child learns the concept of temporality—of later—the persistent tantrums stop. Here are some things to do to effectively help children like Alex:
1. I take him to a pizza/ice cream place and ask him to tell me what flavor ice cream his mother wants.
2. I ask him to open a locked door to see if he stops, thinks, and tells me that it is locked.
3. I ask him to wait until later to see if he then reminds me, in effect, that now has become “later.”
4. When he asks me for something with “please,” I tell him “no,” to see if he can accept it. (See explanation in my book, Uniquely Normal.)
5. Can he explain why his brother needs to go into the car first (from the street side)?
6. I ask him if he wants some juice, then ask if it’s okay to serve myself first. Can he wait and pay attention to what I am doing?
Tantrums do not usually occur in isolation. Tantrums have a social context. Do the tantrums originate in school? Outside the home? Can you be just about anywhere when he has a meltdown, when he refuses to follow you and your family? Take an objective look at the circumstances surrounding the tantrums; see if there is a pattern.
When a child has a tantrum, look at the situation from the child’s point of view. (The objective view of a professional can be crucial here.) Anyone—even teachers and administrators in schools—can inadvertently cause a special needs child to throw a tantrum. This often happens when the adult is explaining what the child did wrong; the child picks up right away on the negative tone but cannot understand what he did wrong.
The child then reacts to the tone, gets upset, angry, and becomes even stubborn or agitated or withdrawn as he further disconnects. In this scenario, the child needs to know he is not at fault, which is easier said than done (another one of those clichés). I have had children in my office listen to my phone call to the teacher, listen as I explain that it was not the child’s fault that he had a tantrum and got suspended from school. We must defend our kids and educate those who surround them.
I have not focused specifically on the cursing. When Alex is less frustrated, more able to express himself, and understands that he can get what he wants at a later time, his anger will subside. The cursing will naturally diminish. I wouldn’t overreact to the cursing—although you do need to respond. Be curious: what is the cursing about? Some of my clients’ best sentences have come from cursing. Cursing is emotion-based and there is usually a message there for those who are attuned.
Each child has a different underlying story, Another child, Cory, cursed out his mother. Cory said he hated her. The family called me just as they were about to institutionalize him. Cory had a completely different perspective. I looked at the situation from his point of view: his mother, not Cory, belonged in the mental hospital. Realizing this, at last feeling understood, he calmed down. He liked one thing—making up his own computer games—so I hired a video gaming guy to come to my office. At that point Cory started to feel respected, understood, and felt better about himself. He is now at Rochester Institute of Technology studying computers and gaming.
PS: Regarding tantrums, I recommend reading about Corey, Mitch, and Jared in the book Uniquely Normal: Tapping the Reservoir of Normalcy to Treat Autism. I can also send you my article on tantrums:
This article was featured in Issue 85 – Top Strategies for Supporting your Family