It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between a child who appears to be misbehaving due to a disability and a child who is actually misbehaving. Both can throw tantrums, both can hit (or kick or even bite), and both can cause headaches and embarrassment for the child’s parents. However, there is a fine line between autistic tantrum and temper tantrum. I like to say that the difference is subject matter: a neurotypical tantrum can be caused by many reasons–tiredness, frustration, discomfort, hunger, anger, etc. But it can also be for no apparent reason whatsoever. With an autistic tantrum, though, there is always a trigger.
That trigger is almost always discomfort. In the neurotypical world, if a child is in so much discomfort that he is making a tantrum, the cause must be pretty obvious: perhaps he has a terrible diaper rash, or maybe his arm is caught in a drawer. Discomfort in the autistic world is very different. There are an infinite number of scenarios which could cause discomfort to an autistic child, and many of them are not inherently obvious to neurotypical onlookers. Discomfort can be overstimulation–lights are too bright, places are too crowded or loud, etc. Discomfort can also be an itchy tag (in autistic world, all tags are itchy) or an unfamiliar fabric in new clothing. Change in routine is another cause of discomfort. On the first trip to a new supermarket, a tantrum can be expected.
My point is that there are far more causes for tantrums in autistic children than neurotypical children. But to the untrained eye, all tantrums are made equal. When I was a child I did not have many tantrums, but when I did they were completely over-the-top. The two most notable tantrums occurred at family weddings, where I was the flower girl. I cannot think of anything that was more uncomfortable to me than being a flower girl. So many environmental triggers were present that I became overwhelmed just by the number of discomforts that I was experiencing. Between the itchy dress, the crowded party, the loud music, the new setting, the omnipresent cameras (a phobia of mine since I was in my mother’s belly), and the people touching me, I was distraught.
To this day people tell me how much of a brat I was at those weddings, and my father has even said that I almost ruined the weddings. I do not wish anything more than that I was diagnosed at an earlier age. Already at age five I was completely misunderstood by dozens of relatives. I was mistaken for a bratty little tyrant when in reality I was overwhelmed. Honestly, I’m not sure how anybody can stand parties such as wedding parties. I’m still overwhelmed at parties and dances such as those. However, I have learned to control myself in such situations. If the noise or crowd becomes too much I will retreat to the bathroom (if it’s nice) or sit outside the venue (if the bathroom is not nice).
I am almost frustrated by the fact that the solution to my problem is so simple. If I had been diagnosed at an early age perhaps my parents would have better understood the situation. Not all tantrums were created equally.