02 June 2017

Poor communication not root cause of tantrums in autistic kids

A study shows that outbursts occur just as frequently among autistic children who can communicate effectively.


Speech and language problems are common in autism. Many children with autism aren't able to speak clearly and some can't speak at all.

In a recent study, researchers found that children with autism who have clear speech and a high ability to communicate have just as many outbursts as those who don't.

The study was published online recently in the Journal of Development and Physical Disabilities.

Tantrums are not autism-specific

"There is a common pervasive misbelief that children with autism have more tantrum behaviours because they have difficulty communicating their wants and their needs to caregivers and other adults," said lead research Dr Cheryl Tierney.

"The belief is that their inability to express themselves with speech and language is the driving force for these behaviours, and that if we can improve their speech and their language, the behaviours will get better on their own," she explained.

"But we found that only a very tiny percentage of temper tantrums are caused by having the inability to communicate well with others or an inability to be understood by others," Tierney said in a news release from Penn State Children's Hospital.

She is section chief of behaviour and developmental paediatrics at the hospital.

Language usage

The study included 240 children with autism spectrum disorders, aged 15 months to about six years old. The researchers analysed the connection between language and tantrum frequency in these children. The study authors also assessed the children's IQs and their ability to understand words and speak clearly.

There are no available statistics on the prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder in South Africa, but there is no reason to believe that it is any less or more than other countries according to Autism South Africa.

It is of utmost importance that the diagnosis be made in the earlier stages of life, Health24 previously reported. In early childhood development, it is the behaviours that are not present which determines whether the child falls within the autism spectrum or not.

"IQ is extremely important because a child that has the mental capacity to understand and use language may display different behaviours compared to a child who doesn't have the mental capacity and comprehension to use language," Tierney said.



The researchers said they found that IQ and speech deficits accounted for less than 3% of the children's tantrums. Children who spoke at a two-year-old level with normal development had more tantrums than the kids with lower speech skills, the findings showed.

Tantrums still prevalent

"We had children in our sample with clear speech and enough intelligence to be able to communicate, and their tantrums were just as high in that group," said Tierney.

"We should stop telling parents of children with autism that their child's behaviour will get better once they start talking or their language improves, because we now have enough studies to show that that is unlikely to happen without additional help," Tierney concluded.

The study's findings rule out speech issues and IQ as the main driver of tantrums among children with autism, but more research is needed to pinpoint exactly what causes these outbursts. The researchers speculated that problems regulating mood and low tolerance for frustration likely play a role and should be investigated.

Positive approach to tantrums

The researchers also said that applied behaviour analysis – a type of therapy – and having the support of a well-trained and certified behaviour analyst can make a positive difference for children with autism.

"This form of therapy can help children with autism become more flexible," Tierney added.

It can show them how to get their needs met and overcome any communication barrier present with family members or peers when they use behaviours that are more socially acceptable than having a tantrum.

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