Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them. Anger and tantrums are common behaviors seen in many autistic children. There are several reasons why autistic children may get angry more easily or have more frequent tantrums than neurotypical children.
Many autistic individuals have sensory processing differences that make them more sensitive to sights, sounds, smells, textures, and other stimuli. Their brains have more difficulty filtering and making sense of all the sensory input around them. This can quickly become overwhelming and stressful, triggering an angry or frustrated meltdown. For example, loud noises, bright lights, crowds, unfamiliar settings, or scratchy fabric may overstimulate an autistic child and cause them to feel irritated. Their tantrums act as an escape mechanism from the unpleasant sensory overload.
Difficulty with communication
Around 30% of autistic children have little to no functional speech, while others have limited language abilities. Even those who are verbal may struggle to communicate their needs, thoughts, and feelings clearly. This frustration over not being understood can build up and get expressed through rages or tantrums. An autistic child might lack the language skills to say “I’m tired and need a break” and instead scream or throw objects to convey their state of exhaustion. Their outbursts are an alternative form of communication.
Rigid thinking and need for structure
Children with autism tend to thrive on routine, predictability, and order. When their rigid schedules or rituals get disrupted, it can be deeply upsetting and distressing for them. For example, a child may get very upset if their favorite cereal isn’t available at breakfast or if their normal driving route to school is changed one day. Transitions between activities are another common trigger for meltdowns. The anger comes from their extreme discomfort with unpredictability and change. Tantrums help release the tension caused by the unwanted changes.
Trouble understanding social cues
Autistic children often miss nonverbal cues about appropriate behavior and struggle to grasp the subtle social norms that guide interactions. Something as simple as standing too close to a peer or interrupting others can seem logical to an autistic child but be perceived as socially rude. When others respond negatively to their inadvertent social faux pas, it may come across as mean or unreasonable to the autistic child, causing them to lash out in anger and confusion. They have a hard time intuitively picking up on socially expected etiquette.
Executive functioning challenges
Many autistic individuals have impaired executive functioning skills – the cognitive processes that help us plan, focus, switch between tasks, control emotions, and handle multiple streams of information simultaneously. Difficulties with attention, working memory, impulse control, and mental flexibility can further increase an autistic child’s anxiety and propensity for meltdowns in frustrating situations. Forgetting instructions, getting distracted by background noise, having to transition between tasks, and trying to process ambiguous information can quickly overload their impaired executive functioning capabilities.
Autistic children are more prone to certain co-occurring medical and mental health conditions that may independently or jointly influence angry tantrum behaviors. For example:
- ADHD – the impulsivity and hyperactivity associated with ADHD may diminish their ability to self-regulate emotions and outbursts.
- Anxiety – the sensory issues, need for structure, social difficulties, and communication challenges involved with autism understandably cause high anxiety. This anxiety fuels their anger and meltdowns.
- OCD – autistic children with rigid obsessive compulsive behaviors and thoughts may have meltdowns when their rituals get interrupted or things happen outside their rigid parameters.
- ODD – the challenges of autism combined with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) can make children more defiant, volatile, and quick to anger when faced with demands, transitions, change, or perceived unfairness.
- Intellectual disability – autistic children who also have an intellectual disability have more limited comprehension skills and adaptive capabilities to cope with change, ambiguity, and interpersonal frustrations.
The accompanying symptoms of conditions like ADHD, anxiety, OCD, ODD, and intellectual impairment build on the core symptoms of autism and often exacerbate emotional outbursts and tantrums.
In addition to the psychological and situational factors described above, there may also be biological factors that influence anger control issues in autism:
- Genetics – research suggests that there may be shared genetic mutations or variants that predispose a child towards both autism spectrum disorder and difficulties with emotion regulation.
- Neurotransmitter imbalances – abnormal levels of brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine which regulate mood, focusing abilities, and impulse control may be another inherited factor.
- Hormones – studies indicate some autistic children have higher levels of androgens like testosterone which are linked with aggression, rage outbursts, and poor emotional control.
- Brain structure and connectivity – imaging studies reveal structural and functional brain differences in autistic children, including within areas like the amygdala involved in emotional processing.
In summary, genetics, neurobiology, and developmental brain changes likely intersect with the psychosocial factors above to influence anger regulation challenges in someone with autism.
How to help an autistic child manage anger better
The following tips can help parents and caregivers support an autistic child in coping better with emotions like anger that may otherwise get expressed as tantrums or meltdowns:
- Stick to routines and preparations warn them of changes.
- Provide visual schedules and reminders.
- Ensure they get enough rest time.
- Reduce sensory input like bright lights or loud noise.
- Teach communication techniques like picture boards.
- Give them outlets like stuffed animals or stress balls.
- Validate their feelings and frustrations.
- Reward positive coping methods.
- Add physical outlets like exercise or trampolines.
- Use behavioral strategies like social stories.
- Try relaxation methods like deep breathing.
Getting accommodations at school, therapy for co-occurring conditions, and medications if recommended can also help minimize daily stress and promote anger management.
Autistic children have greater difficulties controlling anger and are more prone to tantrums or meltdowns than other kids due to a combination of genetic, neurological, and psychosocial factors. Sensory sensitivities, speech-language deficits, need for structure, social challenges, executive functioning impairments, and co-occurring conditions like anxiety all build on each other to lower an autistic child’s tolerance for frustration. But parents can implement various behavioral strategies and accommodations to help reduce the triggers and teach coping skills. With compassion, patience, and the right professional help, autistic children can learn to manage their emotions and minimize aggressive outbursts.