Ask the Expert: Managing Tantrums

Q: Even though my 8 year old son has autism and cannot speak, I can usually can tell what he wants or needs. I try hard to give it to him quickly, otherwise he gets very upset. But sometimes I just can’t get there quickly enough, or we don’t have what he wants. His tantrums are getting worse now and he is bigger so I can’t control him like I used to. There are times I have no idea why he is so upset. What should I do?


A: When a child cannot speak, most parents do a great job of anticipating the child’s every need from a young age. They get to know every cry, every look, and every situation and what it means. They even anticipate what their child needs just to avoid the inevitable pain of watching him/her struggle with frustration. This is a natural way of showing your love and helping your child, but as the child gets older, he needs a different kind of help. He needs to be able to ask for things. He needs to have a voice. How? Even if he cannot talk, he can still learn to communicate.

Start with something you give him regularly, such as juice with breakfast. Pour the juice as you always do, hold it up until he looks at it, and have him indicate that he wants it – in any way that works for you. This may be to point to it, or to point to a picture of it, or to clap his hands together. You are teaching him that his behavior can have an affect on your behavior, and that he doesn’t need to cry to get his message across. Once he’s got the juice thing down, try other common objects, like a favorite toy. Choose a different gesture, sign or picture to represent this toy. Initially, accept any attempt from him to communicate using the method you choose. You will see his face light up once he realizes that you understand!

Gradually, you can move toward having him initiate the communication. If/when this happens spontaneously, do what you can to reward it by giving him the object he is requesting. It may help to post pictures on your refrigerator of certain items that are readily available. He can point to it, or hand it to you – have him choose between two options, then three, then four, etc. Some children respond better to using basic sign language or modified signs. Speak to your child’s speech therapist to get more ideas. As he learns these skills, you need to back off on doing everything for him – expect him to ask for it! Believe it or not, this will build patience and his ability to wait for things. Most importantly, he will be less frustrated, feel more in control of his environment, and those tantrums will decrease!

-Dr. Jean Jacobson, Ph.D., LIFEPlan Clinical Director
  25 years experience in developmental disabilities