One of challenges parents face with children and teens on the autism spectrum, are the meltdowns. A meltdown can last in the upwards of fifteen minutes plus, and there is very little a parent can do to console their child. The promise of consequences doesn’t work, screaming only makes things worse and the best a parent in this situation can do is to wait out the tantrum.

Parents in this predicament often end up asking themselves, “now what?” In the absence of an answer, parents will often find themselves walking on egg shells regarding their relationship with their child, until the next tantrum. Often the next tantrum with frustrated parents ends up with the parent losing his or her cool or with the child throwing his next tantrum.

Well, there is an answer and it is twofold. The first part of the answer lies in understanding your son or daughter’s fundamental issues in interacting with the world at large. Given that the main issue people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) face, is a difficulty in reading and interpreting nonverbal cues, it should come as no surprise to a parent of an ASD child, that ASD children and teens make up their own rules in the absence of understanding ubiquitous nonverbal rules. Perhaps making up their “own” rules is a bit of stretch. What ASD children and teens do, is go along with the stated rules. They don’t understand or respect the concept of hierarchy, cliques and subsequently, double standards.

So, this is the first part of the answer; a parent must understand, his or her child is socially blind and relies on stated rules as a social walking stick. As a result, when most children and teens with ASD discover that a rule they have used to navigate socially no longer applies to an important social interaction, he or she understandably panics.

For the second part of the answer, we are going to need a working example for a social walking stick ASD children and teens will typically use. Let’s go with the concept of fairness. I have seen several children and teens throw epic tantrums over conflicts with others they considered unfair, and I along with other parents have exhausted ourselves trying to explain to these children and teens that life isn’t always fair.

I no longer do this, specifically I no longer attempt to reason with a child or teen who is experiencing a meltdown, due to a social rule that doesn’t apply to a situation. This is because, when a child or teen is having a meltdown, he or she is operating from the reptilian brain. The most primal and least intelligent part of the human brain.

The answer lies in being proactive. You want to reach them when they are calm and in a good mood. For example, if you catch your child or teen having a conversation in which they express rigidity around the concept of fairness, have a conversation with them about this rule. I would suggest in the middle of the conversation giving one to three examples of people who experienced unfairness and turned out okay. Frame it in a way where, you want the child or teen to understand that bad happenings are a part of life, such as unfairness and what really matters is how a person handles such challenges.

By doing this, you have refined your child or teen’s social walking stick around the concept of fairness and hopefully other concepts. You will have also set your child or teen to experience an easier time in practicing flexibility the next time he or she feels treated unfairly.

In summary, the answer is twofold. The first part of the answer to your child or teen’s tantrum lies in understanding what overt social rules your child or teen rigidly adheres too. The second part is to practice helping your child or teen adopt a more flexible attitude in how these rules are applied across social situations. With practice, you will notice your child or teen experience an easier time in managing his or her emotions when upset.

Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.

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