7 Things to Do When You Lose Patience With an Autistic Child
By Jeremy Brown
January 29, 2024
We’ve all been there. Our child is getting on our last nerve, and we finally lose all patience. Every parent goes through this. But children with autism react differently to a parent losing their cool than a neurotypical child does. So, what do you do when you are losing patience with an autistic child?
It can be hard to navigate the complex array of emotions an autistic child is facing when a parent has snapped at them. After losing patience, it’s important that parents work with their children to help them understand the situation. Let’s look at seven things to do when you lose patience with your child.
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1. Soothe your child.
From my personal experience, my son will enter an autism meltdown whenever I lose patience with him. He starts yelling and swearing, and it’s clear no one will be able to get through to him.
From a young age, my wife and I implemented coping strategies to help him calm and soothe himself. These are different for every child. The most effective for my child have been a few deep breaths and a five senses technique:
- five things he can see,
- four things he can hear,
- three things he can touch,
- two things he can smell,
- and one thing he can taste.
These techniques have helped us soothe him so we can discuss the scenario of his and my poor behavior and try to rectify the situation.
2. Apologize and take responsibility.
This is one of the most important steps you can take. Apologizing after you’ve lost your patience can help your child learn the importance of accountability. A good parent can admit when they are wrong, and even if the child’s actions pushed you to that point, your reaction when you lost your cool was still wrong.
Taking responsibility also helps your child understand their feelings once you’ve snapped at them. They may be feeling upset, angry, or frustrated or may be struggling to cope with how you reacted. Apologizing and taking responsibility opens up avenues of communication and fosters a healthy relationship between parent and child.
3. Remind your child you still love them.
“I love you” is such a simple phrase to say to your child, but it may be the most important thing in the world to tell them after you’ve lost patience with them. When you’ve reacted with anger to their actions, they may be hurt and think you don’t love them. Reassure them that you do.
An autistic child may struggle with emotions, and it’s necessary for them to know that mom or dad was just having a moment and that love is still there despite both of your behaviors.
4. Give your child a chance to express how they feel.
In these moments, your autistic child will likely be overwhelmed with emotion and need to express how they feel. As parents, we should let them vent their anger and frustration. Not doing so will only lead to more explosive blow-ups in the future, both from them and from you.
It may be hard for an autistic child to cope with these feelings, but when they are venting, allow them to communicate whatever they need to, however they need to (within reason), and do not engage them. Once they’ve blown off their own steam, it opens the door for a more “normal” level of communication.
5. Think of alternative behaviors and ways to calm down.
Autistic children may need to be redirected to calm down after you’ve lost your patience with them. I mentioned deep breaths and a five-senses coping strategy my wife and I use with our son. But these are not the only methods we’ve used to try to help him stay calm.
Sensory issues may be affecting your children during this time. Depending on the issues, provide noise-canceling headphones or allow them some type of physical activity to work through excess feelings. Addressing sensory issues will be better for your child’s mental health.
Our son loves music and books, so we’ve found a way to incorporate both of those into his soothing strategies. He can listen to music or an audiobook, or he can read a physical book. These allow both him and us to cope. Once everyone is calm, a parent and child can then talk about the situation while avoiding other issues.
6. If needed, seek professional help.
It can be difficult to admit a situation is beyond your means, but there is professional help available when the situation goes too far. There are therapists and counselors who specialize in autism and special needs work.
ABA therapy has been shown to help some autistic children, although others have had a negative experience, so make sure to do your research. Depending on your child’s behavior, some doctors may also recommend medication.
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From a personal perspective, my son’s reaction to anger led to him constantly being sent home from school. One time, my wife had to take him to a hospital because he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, calm down, and she had lost all patience.
At this point, we were fearful of him committing self-harm. We got him into counseling, met with local advocacy support groups, and his school recommended outplacement to another facility that could meet his emotional support needs.
He needed a break, and we were able to provide one for him. He’s now thriving in a new school environment, although there are still some emotional outbursts and behavior issues. But he’s much better at being able to communicate with us what is bothering him, allowing us to become less likely to lose our patience.
7. Forgive yourself.
We all experience anger and frustration with our kids, whether they are neurotypical or have been diagnosed with autism. That can lead to self-pity and frustration with ourselves. But we can’t dwell on that. Dealing with the fact we lost patience with our autistic child is the only way we can grow as parents.
Forgive yourself for losing patience, and forgive them for the behavior that made you react that way. In these cases, parents must have short attention spans. It will remove stress for both you and your child while also helping everyone stay calm.
Losing your patience is bound to happen. But once you forgive yourself, you can talk to your child and help them understand why their behaviors led to stress and what you can do to address their needs.
Losing patience with an autistic child
It’s okay if you lose your cool with your autistic children. It doesn’t make you a bad parent. And a child being on the autism spectrum doesn’t stop them from pushing your buttons and making you feel stressed. Parents just need to openly communicate with their children after they’ve lost their patience with them.
Do not be afraid to seek help if necessary. Turn to other parents and family members or find special needs support. Encourage positive reinforcement for positive behavior. Talk to your child’s school to see if there is a trigger there that is leading to the behaviors at home.
Also, don’t be afraid to take a break if necessary. Trying to engage when either the parents, child, or both are elevated can lead to more undue stress. Instead, wait until everyone involved is calm.
Plus, if you have more than one child, an elevated child can cause unnecessary stress for their siblings as well. You may have lost your patience, but after that initial blow-up, you will still need to be patient on a daily basis to help address the situation properly.
Q: How do you have patience with a child with autism?
A: Research shows parents will sometimes need to find a way not to engage with their child no matter their frustration levels. Providing distractions or a social story can help increase support and address the behaviors that are testing your patience.
Q: Can parenting an autistic child cause burnout?
A: Yes, any form of caregiving can lead to caregiver burnout. This is also true when caregiving for autistic kids. Doctors recommend taking a break for your own mental health so you can continue providing the best care for your child.
Q: What shouldn’t you do with an autistic child?
A: After losing your patience, don’t allow your child with autism to believe your reaction was their fault. Address how their behavior drove you to that point, but take responsibility for how you responded.
Q: How do you show love to an autistic child?
A: Showing love to your child with autism will depend on how your child best receives the love. Some children love to be hugged and cuddled. Other children may only accept words of affirmation as a sign of love. Spending quality time with your child with autism and performing acts of service for them can also show your love for them.
Q: Does my autistic child understand me?
A: Various studies have shown many children with autism understand what their parents say even if they can’t communicate that understanding through traditional means. Parents may have to pursue a nonverbal way of communication and be patient to see how their child understands them.
Clauser, P., Ding, Y., Chen, E. C., Cho, S.-J., Wang, C., & Hwang, J. (2021). Parenting styles, parenting stress, and behavioral outcomes in children with autism. School Psychology International, 42(1), 33-56. https://doi.org/10.1177/0143034320971675
V. Enea & D. M. Rusu (2020) Raising a Child with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Review of the Literature Investigating Parenting Stress, Journal of Mental Health Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 13:4, 283-321, DOI: 10.1080/19315864.2020.1822962
Paul McCafferty & Judith McCutcheon (2021) Parenting a Child with Autism: Considering the Stresses, Supports and Implications for Social Work Practice, Child Care in Practice, 27:4, 389-405, DOI: 10.1080/13575279.2020.1765145
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