Passive Tantrums and the Autistic Spectrum

A passive tantrum is when a child feigns inability or lack of understanding in order to avoid difficulty, frustration or effort.

A few weeks ago a third grade teacher told me about her first experience using my method in Raising Lions with a student named Jackson she suspected of engaging in passive tantrums.

Jackson was an eight-year-old who was very inconsistent in his ability to focus and complete most class work.  Most of the time he sauntered slowly through his assignments and needed constant prompting to stay on task or he would slowly drift into doodling on the sides of his papers, playing with something in his desk or talking quietly to the boy next to him.  When prompted by Ms. Gibson (his teacher) he would often tell her he didn’t know what to do next or he didn’t understand despite his apparent understanding only a few minutes before.  Because Jackson showed difficulty comprehending social interactions and communications, and had some difficulty making friends he was diagnosed as being on the Autistic Spectrum.

Ms. Gibson noticed that when Jackson was excited about an assignment he readily understood her communication, remembered the directions and moved through the class work at a good pace without assistance.

One morning, when Jackson had been sauntering through his class work at a particularly leisurely pace, Ms. Gibson decided to see how much he was actually capable of.  During the lesson right before lunch the students had been given about 25 minutes in which to write three sentences.  Jackson had only finished writing one.

When the bell rang for lunch and Ms. Gibson excused the class she called Jackson over to her desk, “I need you to finish your last two sentences before you go to lunch.”  A moment later Jackson went to his cubby got his lunch and brought it to his desk.  Ms. Gibson saw this and said, “Jackson, maybe you didn’t understand, but you can’t have your lunch until you finish those two sentences.”  A minute later she heard his bag rustling and saw that Jackson was taking out his sandwich.  She walked over to him, placed her hands on his sandwich, and said, “I can see you really want to eat your lunch.  However, you won’t be able to have your lunch until you’ve finished writing your two sentences so I’m going to put your lunch on my desk till you’re finished.”  She took his sandwich, put it back in the bag and sat it on her desk.

Jackson sat without saying anything for a few moments.  Then he picked up his pencil and began writing.  45 seconds later he had finished writing his two sentences (a task that on a good day might have taken him 5 minutes).  He showed his paper to Ms. Gibson and said, “Can I go to lunch now?”  And she gave him his lunch and he left the room.

From that day forward Ms. Gibson shifted her expectation of what Jackson was capable of.  She set natural consequences for not completing work she thought he might be capable of and created frustration around those behaviors she felt Jackson could change when motivated.  She began to assume understanding and ability where before she had assumed inability and insisted that he complete more work independently.  And in the month that followed the amount of class work that Jackson would complete in a day almost doubled.

I see children like Jackson in every classroom I visit.  Children who have learned to camouflage their actual abilities in order to avoid frustration and difficulty and assert power and control over adults (the passive tantrum).

In a culture where parents have been taught to empower their children in every way possible we need to be aware that children will find more creative ways to assert this power, even if it means feigning inability.  Add to this the fact that parents and teachers are taught to be constantly on the lookout for signs of a disorder so as to intervene as early as possible.  Consequently, parents and teachers are more likely to assume inability and react by accommodating, rather than frustrating, these behaviors and many children quickly learn that a passive tantrum is an effective way to avoid difficulty and assert control.

When the new statistics came out in March about the sharp rise in children who are being diagnosed as on the Autistic Spectrum I couldn’t help but wonder what percentage of these children were children like Jackson who had learned (and could therefore unlearn) the patterns of the passive tantrum.