Autism Question #3: How do you avoid frustration in autistic kids?

How do you avoid frustration in autistic kids? What’s reasonable to expect autistic kids to do? Can they do the same things as other kids their age?

Frustration is a common emotion for autistic kids. Using social stories to explicitly teach the steps to complete tasks, scaffolding and providing supports to tasks that are just out of reach, and practicing dealing with the emotion of frustration and re-framing it are all ways to help avoid and deal with frustration.

Why do autistic kids get frustrated?

“It’s so annoying” “Why isn’t it working?” “I can’t do it!” “I got it wrong!!”

Our autistic kids get frustrated by three main things. They don’t like sudden changes to their routines or transitions. Our kids get frustrated when they can’t do activities like self-care, homework, puzzles or video games. They also really don’t deal well with competition and losing. We talked about lots of these frustrations in 63 Calming Activities for Autistic Kids. However, often we just want to change the environment to avoid these frustrating triggers, rather than be reactive in trying to calm down.

1. Out of their control

Transitions where they need to stop a preferred activity are tricky and often frustrating. Turning off the tv, stopping gaming, leaving home to go to school. Basically whenever a preferred and highly engaging activity has to stop it can lead to frustration and a lack of emotional regulation. There is anger at an enjoyable activity ceasing, but also over the lack of control around the transition. This often occurs with transitions from screens which makes me think that the screen is easily addictive for autistic kids. 

2. Outside of their ability

Putting on shoes, brushing teeth, getting dressed, doing homework, challenging maths puzzles, difficult parts of video games. All of these activities can be outside of our kids’ abilities at different times. When they can’t do it successfully, or can’t do it themselves, it is a trigger for outbursts of frustration.

3. Outside comparisons

Comparisons with other people can also be a source of frustration. This might include playing competitive games and losing (even fun card games), having another person ‘win the race’ or to be able to do something that they can’t. All of these scenarios trigger an outburst of “it’s not fair”. Unrealistic expectations or expecting kids to do something that they neurologically can’t (but their age-similar peers can) is also a source of frustration.

What can you expect autistic kids to be able to do?

Kids with ASD and ADHD have differences in their neurological development. This generally translates to them having delays in being able to do things. This could be delays of up to 30% in organisation, emotional regulation, planning and other executive functioning. It could also include delays in muscle control (gross and fine motor), delays in speech, and delays in coordination or balance. Some research into ADHD suggests that, for example, a 10 year old with ADHD has the executive functioning of someone 30% younger e.g. a 7 year old. This can lead to unrealistic expectations for what kids can actually do, given their neurological development.

For our kids, we’ve seen delays compared to age-related peers in things like:

  • being able to use a swing independently (this took about 3 years longer than most peers)
  • ride a bike without training wheels
  • being able to tie shoelaces
  • brushing teeth
  • using a knife to put spreads on toast
  • remembering things and being organised

And there are frustrations around common tasks set at school including

  • being able to do maths homework
  • independently writing persuasive essays
  • keeping on top of due dates and multiple assessments at a time

How can you avoid frustration?

Avoiding frustration is often a matter of changing the environment or the task to make it more accessible.

Avoiding frustration around out-of-control situations

Giving control back to kids to enable them to feel some autonomy over situations can overcome some frustration with transitions or new routines.

Using an external timer (something visual that counts down either the time or a picture that shows time passing) can help kids with ASD and ADHD to process time. Giving warnings of how much time there is until a transition, with reminders at 5 minutes, 3 minutes, 1 minute etc can help prepare for the transition. Giving the child a timer (such as on their smart watch) to set a timer themselves is also a way to give control back to them around the transition.

Using visual schedules is another way to support giving control back to kids. Other strategies include having an activity ready to go to enable smoother transitions, or to use incentives (snacks, stickers etc) for the transition.

Avoiding frustration in autistic kids around tasks outside of current ability

For tasks that have set steps, like tying shoes, buttering bread, going to the toilet or getting dressed, a social story can help break down those steps. Either a visual list of steps, or a social story to explain what to do and what’s expected, can help. These help break the tasks down, so the steps are clear and can be followed.

Many of these physical activities also have assistive alternatives – shoes can have velcro fasteners rather than laces, clothing can go over the head rather than have buttons, and there are different spoons and knives for easier feeding.

Other tasks don’t have a consistent set of steps, such as doing homework. Maths can often be a source of frustration – having a support in place doesn’t remove the thinking but can reduce frustration. A support might be a calculator, a multiplication grid, a number line, or manipulatives like counting blocks. These supports take away some of the memorisation and working memory load which can make tasks more accessible.

Using a scaffold can help with other open-ended tasks like writing. Breaking the task down into smaller steps can make it more management, reduce cognitive load, and allow shorter targeted sessions. Tutorials help reduce frustration in navigating video games in much the same way.

For example, in writing an informative essay you might need to

  1. pick a topic or question
  2. read some research and take dot point notes on it
  3. turn the dot points into full sentences
  4. arrange the sentences into paragraphs of similar ideas
  5. write an introduction and conclusion

It’s worth considering the person-environment fit . This idea from Occupational Therapy looks at tasks that are currently outside a person’s ability. You can change the person (by providing skills, training, up-skilling with practice), or you can change the environment (using scaffolds or visual schedules, using assistive tools such as talk-to-text or calculators, using velcro rather than lace up shoes).

Avoiding frustration with outside comparisons

Avoiding comparisons with other people isn’t always possible – especially when there’s always siblings, classmates and team sports.

Sometimes the best way is to learn how to deal with the emotion of frustration better.

1. Practice identifying emotions on a feelings wheel, and using calming strategies to acknowledge them, but not respond to them.

2. When calm, practice feeling frustration and then responding positively to it. This might be deliberately making mistakes like colouring outside the lines, getting maths problems wrong, or doing really difficult things. Practicing feeling frustration, and telling yourself that it’s a natural part of learning and is ok, can help with internal mental self-talk. This re-framing of thoughts and emotions is a long term process so ask for the support of your psychologist or occupational therapist.

3. Find non-competitive co-operative games e.g. board games where everyone has to work together and there’s no ‘loser’, sharing an imagination through story telling and imaginative play where there’s no winner, cosy gaming where there are no battles, competitions or losers.

Finding the best ways to reduce frustration for autistic kids

For some activities like learning to swing, ride a bike or catch a ball, it was a matter of being patient and waiting a few more years for our autistic kids to pick up the skill. Don’t put pressure on, don’t compare them to others (“why can’t you do this, everyone else in your class can”), and use calm times to casually practice the skill.

Other activities with simple, clear steps like brushing teeth, toileting and buttering toast have benefited from visual steps and/or social stories. For tying shoes, we stuck with velcro shoes for a long as possible to allow more time to learn how to use laces.

Homework like maths or english have benefited from BACS strategies. Breaking the task down into simple steps, and using supports (such as technology) to reduce the cognitive and physical load, help reduce frustration in autistic kids.

What have you found works for your kids when they’re frustrated?

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