Autism Tantrums: How to Resolve Problem Behaviors

I did a survey a few years ago and asked both autism parents and professionals about their #1 Autism ABA struggle and the top response was dealing with challenging behaviors. So in today’s blog, I’m discussing how to deal with autism tantrums.

I often get questions like this: What should I do if my child or client displays problem behavior (screams/argues/bites/kicks/flops to the ground) when a demand is placed (take a bath/do homework/go to bed)?

The answer to the question is similar regardless of the functioning level of the child, the type of problem behavior or the demand. Whenever problem behaviors occur, I believe the demands are usually too high, the reinforcement is too low and/or we don’t have adequate control of the reinforcement.

Before we can treat problem behavior, we need to accurately define what the behavior of concern looks like. Many people throw out vague words to describe problem behaviors displayed by their children or clients with autism.  They might say Billy was “very off” today, “he was anxious” and/or “had a complete meltdown.” Even the word “tantrum,” which many professionals (including me) use routinely, doesn’t describe what exactly the behavior looks like.

In order to help parents or non-ABA professionals describe problem behavior more accurately when a parent or professional says “he was anxious,” I ask, “What did that look like, was he pacing, tapping his fingers, taking short/shallow breaths?” Likewise, if they say, “He had a tantrum,” I would ask what that looked like. Did the child fall to the floor, kick adults, hit the sides of his head with his fists? While I can’t count anxiety or autism tantrums easily, I can count more specific behaviors.

Once you better define the behavior and decide which behaviors you are going to target first, I would recommend you take some data (how many times the behavior occurs per hour or per day).

Next, I would look at activities when the problem behavior almost always occurs (when it is time to take a bath) and when the behaviors of concern never occur (while your child is playing on the computer).

You then should look at ways to “re-pair” activity that is resulting in problem behaviors such as the bathing routine. Some pairing techniques for bath time might be to get foam for the tub or bath paint/toys for instance and try to sandwich harder activities with fun activities (first bath then computer). A heavy focus on pairing and manding, as well as an 8 to 1 ratio for positive to negative comments, is usually helpful too. In fact, the key to controlling problem behavior, in general, is to spend 95% of your time preventing problem behaviors, not reacting to them.

If problem behaviors persist or are severe you will need a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) or a related professional to help you since applying the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis is extremely complex and treating severe problem behaviors is outside of the scope of this short blog.

Looking to resolve autism tantrums and problem behaviors? I’ve got a case study template to help!
Claim Download

7 comments

  1. I am a grandmother of a non-verbal autistic grandson who is 10 years old. He will sometimes react aggressively…which to me seems out of the blues. But after reading this article I realize that probably isn’t the case. I would appreciate any help I could get. I have him every couple of weeks, and sometimes overnight. Thank you ahead of time for any help.

    1. Hi Michele,

      I hope you were able to download the Problem Behavior Case Study Template directly under the blog about tantrums. You can read all my blogs, read my books (The Verbal Behavior Approach and More Talking, Less Tantrums) and consider joining my online course (www.MaryBarbera.com/AAH) for professionals and “gung-ho” parents. We’ve had several grandmothers take the online course and it would really help you!

  2. My functionally non-verbal son is in his 40s and is fairly well-behaved with some OCD behaviors. When he was a toddler, I went to an annual meeting of what was then The National Association for Autistic Children. A psychologist gave us an assignment to complete during a luncheon break. We were to draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper and on one side of the line, we were to list all the behaviors that our child had that “drove us nuts”, but that were “normal” for children their age. On the other side of the line we were to list all of the behaviors our child had that “drove of nuts” but were autistic traits. Most of the parents present were surprised to find that the list of behaviors that were “normal” for the children the same age as their child was far longer than those that were autistic traits. The psychologist said, “I have one question concerning the longest list. If you don’t tolerate it from your “normal” children, why are you tolerating it from your autistic child? Now we’ll move on to the behaviors that are characteristic of autism and I’ll give you some concrete ideas for changing those behaviors.” What an eye-opener that was. It was well worth the trip I made from Canada.

  3. My 16 year old daughter does not speak, she understands a lot, she has tantrums with pulling her own hair out, teachers said to ignore it, when i ignore her she will tap my arm and/or place the hair on my arm. She has a large bald area on the top and side of her head. What are your thoughts on this

    1. Hi Sue, I’m sorry that your daughter is having significant problem behavior. I would ask the school (in writing) for a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) to come in and complete a Functional Behavior Assessment and write a Behavior Intervention Plan so that this serious self injurious behavior can be treated effectively. I would also recommend you read my book (The Verbal Behavior Approach) and consider joining my Autism ABA Help online program (www.MaryBarbera.com/AAH).

  4. Hi. I have worked with an agency for 8years in the autism department. I have encountered cases of all ranges but my passion is with the younger children. I recently completed the RBT course and have read your book and several other pieces from you.Currently, I am finding myself in a difficult case and am honestly confused myself as to what the next step should be. My client is 5years old,non verbal, and on the spectrum. We begin session just as you would suggest and to everything any book suggest as far as schedule boards,token economy’s,reinforcements,incidental teaching opportunities,Manding and transitioning assistance. However,as soon as i put a demand on him that he does not want to hear it is an instant tantrum that includes hitting,kicking,biting,throwing. the demand can be even a simple demand during a play activity that he enjoys. During the tantrum he often looks for the reaction and will at times follow me if I remove myself with planned ingnoring to seek me for the aggression. Any suggestions as to what will help or should do.. ??

    1. Hi Melissa,

      I advise spending 95% of your time preventing problem behaviors. I have a free 75-minute online workshop that goes more in depth about this and, in the workshop, I show videos of me working with young children with autism. Go to MaryBarbera.com/workshop for more info.

Leave a comment