All children have periods of emotional dysregulation from time to time, and for many, this results in tantrums. This lesson offers some ideas for handling tantrums specifically for students who have Asperger’s syndrome.
Tantrums and the Asperger’s Student
Dara has been teaching first grade in an inclusive classroom, where typically developing peers and children with disabilities learn side by side, for several years.This year, she has two students with Asperger’s syndrome in her classroom. Dara has learned that Asperger’s is a disorder on the autism spectrum, with many features of autism but in a milder iteration.Dara’s students with Asperger’s are engaged, intellectually curious, and passionate. However, they are also very inflexible and struggle with regulating and communicating about their emotions. This means that they are prone to frequent tantrums, or aggressive and intense fits of temper.
Dara wants to learn more about how to handle tantrums in students with Asperger’s.
Causes and Prevention
First, Dara starts to pay attention to the antecedents to her students’ tantrums; in other words, what tends to happen right before these tantrums that leads up to them? Dara understands that if she documents these antecedents over time, she might be better equipped to prevent these tantrums in her students.Typically, tantrums in students with Asperger’s may come from hunger, fatigue, or overstimulation.
These students might also be frustrated because they realize they are missing something, like a social cue or the objective to a lesson, but they are not really able to put their finger on what they are missing.After charting the causes of her students’ tantrums for a few weeks, Dara feels ready to intervene. When she sees that an activity might become overstimulating, she takes these children aside and previews the activity with them. She finds them quieter places to work or gives them a chance to pursue a different activity.
This level of prevention can go a long way toward handling tantrums in students with Asperger’s.
At the same time, not every tantrum is avoidable, so Dara starts to think about what she needs to do if a tantrum does take place. She believes that the most important job she has is keeping all of her students physically safe.This means that when a student is having a tantrum, she gently and quietly moves them away from other children, preventing them from accidentally hurting someone with their flailing body. She also ensures that there are no sharp objects nearby that the student might grab.Dara stays close to her students during their tantrum, though she only touches them when necessary. She takes deep breaths to keep herself calm.
She watches them with an eye toward their safety, and she works to let them know that she cares about them as they ride the tantrum out.
Offering Language, Scripts, and Social Stories
Dara also understands that one of the reasons students with Asperger’s are prone to tantrums is because they have less access to language for discussing feelings, and they do not implicitly understand social cues and norms.To help them, Dara explicitly teaches her students language they can use to talk about their emotions.
Dara works with social stories, or excerpts of scripted language from the perspective of a hypothetical child, to help her students. She uses scripts and social stories about feeling angry, feeling sad, and feeling overwhelmed.Dara uses these stories repeatedly, knowing that repetition will aid her students’ long-term memories. She references the same, consistent language when she sees her students’ emotions escalating, and she is proud when she sees them become better able to put words, rather than explosions, to their stronger emotions.
Finally, Dara understands that part of the work of handling tantrums in students with Asperger’s comes after the tantrum itself.
When her students have calmed down from the tantrum and have been regulated for a few hours, she pulls them aside to talk about what happened. She asks them to reflect on what they were feeling, what led them to feel that way, and what other ways they might have responded to those emotions.Dara is patient with the fact that her students cannot always reflect easily, and she offers suggestions and theories about what might be going on for them. She encourages their families to engage in the same kind of reflective talk following their children’s tantrums.
All children have tantrums sometimes; in fact, many adults do, too! However, tantrums are more frequent and can be more difficult in students with autism spectrum disorders, like Asperger’s syndrome.If you teach students who have Asperger’s, it is helpful to start by determining antecedents to their tantrums and then working to prevent them.
It is important to try to maintain students’ physical safety and calm during a tantrum. You can also teach your students language for expressing their emotions by working consistently with social stories and scripts.Finally, make sure you make time and space to reflect on students’ behaviors and experiences after the tantrum has ended.