03 June 2008 ~ 2 Comments

Explosive Outbursts

Why do some individuals with autism have frequent explosive outbursts – dropping to the floor or scratching their arms or throwing items? What is a person trying to communicate when they start screaming, hitting, or biting without warning or apparent provocation? What causes some of our friends with autism to suddenly start rocking vigorously, biting and hitting their hands and legs, and shouting or crying uncontrollably?

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Probably because these outbursts resemble temper tantrums, we tend to assume that an explosion indicates anger. But, sudden surges of disruptive or hurtful behavior can be caused by a broad range of factors. Some explosions are caused by an individual’s inability to express feelings or opinions, and some are attempts to get the attention of others. Some individuals with autism, even those with excellent communication skills, respond to discomfort, intolerance, inflexibility, or anxiety with explosive outbursts.

DISCOMFORT. Some emotional outbursts are responses to physical issues such as headaches, digestive upsets, earaches, itching, sinus issues, and other aches and pains. Disruptive or hurtful behavior can be a response to discomfort related to hunger, tiredness, boredom, restlessness, or the need to go to the bathroom.

INFLEXIBILITY. Emotional outbursts can be indications of intolerance for change. Many individuals with autism are resistant to changes in schedule or unexpected interruptions of a regular routine. Their resistance can turn into an angry tug-of-war if no compromise if offered.

SENSORY ISSUES. Many individuals with autism cannot tolerate certain sensory input. Some resist close physical presence or noisy environments. Some are resistant to wearing shoes or other confining clothing, while others crave deep pressure and secure, tightly fitted clothing. Many people with autism have extreme sensitivities to sounds, touch, textures, tastes, light, smells, and other sensory input. Dr. Sharon Heller’s book, Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight (2002) overviews the challenges faced by individuals who are sensory defensive.

NEUROLOGICAL ISSUES. Some explosive behavior can be attributed to anxiety attacks or behavior disorders. Others seem to arise out of nowhere – somewhat like a neurological incident or a “behavior seizure.”

It may be difficult to discern the precise cause of explosive behavior, but it is helpful to keep in mind that these emotional outbursts are usually not simple temper tantrums. Individuals with autism can, of course, get unduly angry, but the cause of some explosions is often beyond their control.

We welcome your input and thoughts about explosive behavior. Share challenges and ideas based on your experiences or intuition. Just click on the comments button or send an e-mail to talk@FAQautism.com.

NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At FAQautism.com we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. Send email to talk@FAQautism.com And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism. http://FAQautism.com

2 Responses to “Explosive Outbursts”

  1. s dulaney 22 November 2008 at 9:09 pm Permalink

    my father has been having these explosive outbursts and my mother feels like he is going to harm her . that is how bad they are getting.
    any advise is appreciated.

  2. Cathy 30 November 2008 at 6:41 pm Permalink

    Dear friend – Threatened harm from one adult to another is definitely a huge problem. Is your father diagnosed on the spectrum of autism? For the sake of confidentiality for your family, please send me a private e-mail at talk@FAQautism.com
    + Cathy Knoll


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