Soothing autistic children
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Tips for distress behaviours

Many parents who have challenging children think that they are alone in what they are going through. We’ve been supporting parents and carers of autistic children since 2012, and I can tell you – we have heard it all. Whatever is happening with your child, someone else has experienced this as well.

Common behaviour issues

What might be considered ‘challenging’? What might be challenging to you may not be to me, and vice versa. Here are some of the most common things we hear about:

  • Problems with getting to school – school refusal
  • Kicking, hitting, pinching – physical aggression / violence
  • Refusal to take part in or stopping an activity
  • Tantrums about activities needing to be done in a certain way or at unrealistic times
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Self harm
  • Rigid mindset, lack of compromise, inflexibility
  • Screaming
  • Verbal aggression
  • Controlling family members / friends
  • Inappropriate sexualised behaviour / language
  • Repetitive behaviours

‘Behaviour is communication’

Autistic children often have difficulty communicating, and may use behaviours such as these to tell us when something is wrong. Many things can cause challenging behaviours in our children. Here are some of the top instigators:

  • Confusion about what is happening
  • Frustration
  • Need for stimulation
  • Anxiety
  • Short attention span
  • Lack of control
  • Uncomfortable (too hot, too cold, itchy, etc.)
  • Communication problems if non verbal
  • Rumination – going over and over something that has upset them
  • Change of routine
  • Transition of settings
  • Medical – pain / medication
  • Hangry (so hungry they are angry!)
  • Thirsty
  • Tired
  • Forgotten prompt
  • Being let down

What’s different about our children’s behaviour?

It’s important to remember that distress behaviour is not autism-specific.  All children exhibit these kinds of behaviours at some point. However, there are some distinct differences we can see in our kids. How might the challenging behaviour we experience differ from that of a neurotypical (and typically developing) child?

  • It comes out of the blue
  • The level of upset is out of proportion / extreme
  • It can take much longer to calm down
  • Or, child calms down very quickly, while the parent is left reeling!
  • Either overly sensitive to other’s feelings, or there appears to be no empathy
  • Not age appropriate, for example a teenager having what looks like a ‘toddler tantrum’
  • Anxiety underlying
  • There is a greater need for planning / visuals
  • The child may not respond to ‘normal’ behaviour sanctions or rewards (e.g., time outs, sticker charts)
  • Frequency
  • Persistent and more severe

Tantrums, shutdowns and meltdowns

Distress shows itself mainly in three ways for autistic individuals: tantrums, shutdowns and meltdowns. A tantrum is a controllable outburst – if you were to give the child what they were tantruming about, the tantrum would stop. Meltdowns and shutdowns happen when the person is completely overwhelmed by emotion, sensory overload or both. In a meltdown situation, the person may become out of control, even violent, in a frantic bid to regulate themselves. In a shutdown, the individual becomes very quiet and may even hide in or under something in order to reduce sensory input.

What can we do to help reduce distress behaviours?

Of course, every child is different. However, there are some strategies that can help to reduce anxiety and upset for our children, and thus reduce anger and aggression.

For every parent that is experiencing challenging behaviour, there is another who has found ways to manage it (at least to some extent). It requires work and patience but it can get better. It’s important to talk to other parents about what you are going through.