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I think the word “tantrum” is overused, especially when it is applied to individuals with autism. I am not saying that my children never threw tantrums; they did. Nevertheless, there is a world of difference between an angry, frustrated outburst when the answer is “no” on candy at the checkout; and the outburst which occurs after too many transitions in too little time.

A tantrum is an outburst of anger and frustration, typically associated with young children. In our culture, frequent tantrumming is usually blamed on the parents. Parents of children with autism know this all too well.

My mother (and my aunts, my siblings, many people at church, and many strangers at the grocery store, etc.) said, “If you would spank that child, he would straighten up/behave himself/fly right.” Ha! We know that didn’t work; we tried it. Will did not understand what a spanking meant. Many ordinary children do not understand it, either.

It is often said in our world (the world of parents of autistic children, teachers, therapists, physicians) that children with autism have “difficulty with transitioning.” This phrase appeared on Will’s IEPC reports for at least 10 years. In our world, we know that this is code for screaming, crying, throwing things, and possibly aggression.

This behavior is not “brattiness.” This behavior is not the result of poor parenting.

Behavior is communication, though. There are many reasons that children with autism have meltdowns, fits of crying, and shutdowns. Adults in our world struggle with the task of putting the puzzle together to help our children.

Will had difficulty transitioning to the next activity. Sometimes he really enjoyed what he was doing and didn’t want to stop. Most of the time it was because he had a hard time moving from one task to the next. He was helped by a “what’s next object.” When lunch was the next activity, his teacher handed him a picture of a lunch tray with pictures of food. (This can backfire when the lunch food doesn’t match the picture, though.) When circle time was next, his teacher gave him a book to hold.

Will was averse to touch and would cry when there was too much close contact in the lunch line, for example. We began “brushing” him to reduce his hypersensitivity.

Language delays, both receptive and expressive, often lead to distress. It was not easy for Will to tell us what was wrong. We needed to teach him phrases that he could use to communicate his needs to us. I often said to him when he was about to have a meltdown, “Will, use your words. Tell me what is bothering you.” Sometimes, we did use time-outs. I would say to him, “Will, go to your room to calm down. Then we will be able to speak.” His room was his refuge. In middle school, he had a refuge room as well.

Tantrumming often has the stain of judgment and shame attached to it, especially as our autistic children grow beyond the toddler stage.  People often wondered how I could remain calm in the face of meltdowns. They would say, “I can’t believe how patient you are with your children.” I think part of it comes from understanding our children; and part because I needed to conserve my energy.

I knew that my mother finally got it when in her weekly call from Florida she told me that she thought she had seen an autistic boy (whose parents were struggling with whether to have him evaluated). She said, “He screams the same way that Will does.”