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Noël Janis-Norton
Extreme Temperament in Children with Autism:
How Parents and Teachers Can Help
by Noël Janis-Norton, Director of ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting and Teaching’

In almost every classroom, there are one or more children who have difficulties with learning or behaviour or social skills. In many cases, it is the same children who find it difficult to learn and to behave appropriately and to keep friends. These children don’t only have problems at school. They also have problems at home, at the playground, at Scouts, on playdates, at Granny’s, at church or temple, at after-school activities, on the sports pitch and at parties.

When the difficulties with learning, behaviour and social skills are relatively mild, the child may be labelled ‘naughty’, ‘lazy’, ‘strong-willed’, ‘immature’, ‘spoiled’, etc. But when the difficulties are more serious, nowadays the child is likely to receive a diagnosis, usually of a neurologically-based disorder, sometimes called a neuro-behavioural disorder. The ‘neuro’ part of the diagnosis means that the cause of the problem lies in the brain.

Getting a diagnosis can be a step in the right direction because the child is no longer being blamed, and neither are the parents. But unfortunately a diagnosis can make it seem as if there’s not much that can be done about the child’s problems. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Good News

The good news is that when we examine the problems with learning, behaviour and social skills more carefully, it turns out that a lot of the difficulties which seem to be due to the neurological condition are partly, or even largely, due to habit. And we can help children and teens to change their habits. It may not be easy, but it’s well worth the effort because it can unlock a child’s potential, and it can vastly improve the quality of their lives – and of their families’ lives.

In my many years of working with the families of children and teens who are experiencing these sorts of difficulties, time and again I have observed something very fascinating. After parents have been putting into practice the ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting & Teaching’ strategies for some months, the diagnosis is often revised. The relevant professionals conclude that the difficulties are much milder than was previously thought. Sometimes the professionals even state that there must have been an error in the original diagnosis because the child is now showing almost no signs of the problems that were once so worrying.

You may have spent many hours, days, weeks and months, maybe even years, trying to help your neurologically atypical child, with very little progress to show for all your effort. If that’s the case, you may be feeling very sceptical about whether the ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting & Teaching’ methods can help. Of course, since I’m not familiar with your child’s strengths and weaknesses or with your particular situation, I am not able to guarantee significant progress. But I can say that in the more than half a century that I have been working with families, I’ve never seen these methods fail when parents practise them consistently.

It seems that every year there are more and more neurologically-based disorders that children and teens are diagnosed with. But children with very different disorders often share the same type of temperament. In this article I first explore the temperament characteristics that are often seen in children with these diagnoses. Then I offer parents and teachers some strategies for managing their children’s behaviour and emotions in order to guide children with this type of temperament to do their best and to feel good about themselves.

Temperament

Temperament can be defined as a person’s innate tendency to respond (with emotions or behaviour) to the environment in certain ways. Temperament is neurologically-based.

Temperament falls on a continuum like the familiar bell curve: there are a few very easy-going children at one end of the continuum, most children fall somewhere in the middle, and there are a small number of children with a very challenging temperament at the opposite end. At that extreme end of the temperament continuum we see a cluster of characteristics that often go together: these children and teens are unusually sensitive, intense, impulsive, inflexible and socially or emotionally immature.

Children and adolescents with neurologically-based learning difficulties often have this extreme temperament, and this makes it difficult for them to succeed in ordinary situations. They can be helped to learn better and to behave better and to get on better with their peers. But it will probably require an approach that is very different from what works with other children. They need an approach that takes into account the unique strengths and weaknesses of their temperament. This is also true also of children who have an extreme temperament but no diagnosed neurological issues.

Sensitive

Many children with an extreme temperament are more than usually sensitive to the information that comes into their brains via their senses, especially hearing, taste and touch, sometimes also smell and sight. They experience everyday stimuli in a much stronger way than most of us do.

Often they are ultra-sensitive to noise; they are likely to be distracted or even disturbed by sounds that most of us would hardly register, for example the sound of passing cars or footsteps outside of the classroom or the hum of an air conditioner.

Children with an extreme temperament are often fussy eaters. They may have an almost phobic reaction to foods with certain textures or smells; they often become inordinately upset when two foods are touching on their plate; they may have a very limited range of foods that they are willing to eat without a fuss.

A large proportion of these very sensitive children experience touch differently from the way most people do. Sometimes they seem to hardly feel touch, which leads them to be too forceful, and they may get a reputation for being aggressive when that is not their intention at all. Sometimes their brain over-reacts and interprets a light touch as if it were a heavy touch. For example, they may be convinced that a classmate has deliberately pushed them when the other child was just passing by in the corridor and happened to brush up against them accidentally. As you can imagine, these unusual responses to touch can easily get them into trouble with their peers as well as with the adults in their lives.

They are also unusually sensitive to other people’s reactions, and they often misinterpret the reactions. This can lead them to become followers, desperately wanting to fit in and have friends, but not knowing how. They end up getting a lot of negative attention just for behaving in a way that seems natural to them.

Intense

Many children with neurological issues are very intense by nature. This means that they have strong emotional responses to minor, everyday frustrations, disappointments and irritations. They also become over-excited very easily. Their moods can change very quickly, sometimes for no obvious reason.

Impulsive

These children act or speak before their brain has had the time to think about what the consequences might be. Too often this gets them told off by parents and teachers and teased by their classmates. The impulsivity that causes these children to react so quickly is one of the reasons why they often have poor social skills and have difficulty making or keeping friends.

Inflexible

The brain of a child with an extreme temperament often has a hard time shifting from one activity to another, from one set of expectations to another, from one thought to another. This child may be labelled ‘stubborn’ or ‘selfish’, and the assumption is often that he or she is deliberately refusing to move on to the next activity on the adult’s agenda or deliberately refusing to care about what someone else may want. Rarely is this the case.

When a child or teen is very sensitive and also intense and inflexible, this can lead to anxiety or aggression or both.

Immature

Children with an extreme temperament often behave like much younger children in some ways: they are often very loud, they are easily distracted, they are very active and fidgety, and their communication is not clear.

They often don’t realise the effect that their behaviour has on others. This can be infuriating. Parents and teachers understandably compare these children to their peers, who at the same age have already developed the emotional or social maturity to be able to take the reactions of others into account in most of their interactions.

They seem not to learn from experience; they often make the same mistake, or misbehave in the same way, over and over again, even after they have been reprimanded or punished for it numerous times. This annoys parents and teachers, who don’t understand why a child who is clearly intelligent keeps misbehaving. Many adults interpret this immature behaviour as defiance, whereas it is, at least in part, due to the temperament that often accompanies their neurological difficulties.

Children with an extreme temperament often find it very hard to tolerate criticism or to learn from it. This is partly due to their immaturity and to their intense, impulsive reactions. But it is also because they are likely to be the recipients of far too much criticism and telling off during the course of a typical day.


Sadly, many children with an extreme temperament are teased, excluded or bullied because they are different, because they are vulnerable and because they are easy to wind up.

It’s important to remember that the child with the characteristics of an extreme temperament is not behaving this way in order to annoy us or to make our lives more complicated. It is just the way his brain is programmed to react. Thankfully, there is a lot we can do to help this child to improve his behaviour, learning, social skills – and, very importantly, his self-esteem.

However, raising or teaching a child or teen with this profile will require us to do things differently, and there will probably be times when changing our own habits won’t be easy. And changing entrenched behaviour patterns will also require sustained effort from our child as well, and that won’t always be easy for him.

Behaviour Management Strategies

As well as helping with the specific neurological difficulties that these children and teens have, we need to help them manage their emotions and their behaviour. These children need to have a very positive, firm and consistent environment at home and at school. We will need to use all of the ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting & Teaching’ skills that I explain in my books and audiobooks: Descriptive Praise, Preparing for Success, establishing rules and routines, Reflective Listening, consistency, etc.

It’s not easy to keep a positive attitude, and it’s not easy to be firm and consistent, but this is just what the child or adolescent with an extreme temperament needs from us. In my books, lectures and consultations I explain to parents how they can achieve this mindset - most of the time! Luckily, no one needs to be perfect. But we do need to focus on improving our habits, especially the habit of staying positive, firm and consistent.

How to bring out the best in a child with an extreme temperament

Rules and routines

Establish rules and routines, and prepare yourself emotionally to stick to them much more consistently than you would need to for a child with an easier temperament. Children with an extreme temperament find it hard to function when expectations are not very, very clear.

Realistic expectations

Base your expectations for your child’s reactions (emotions and behaviour) on her current stage of maturity (or immaturity), not on her chronological age. Start by accepting and understanding where she is now, and your efforts to help her improve will be much more successful because you will be able to stay calm and positive, rather than annoyed.

Be realistic in your expectations. Children with neurological difficulties cannot perform optimally every day. Like all of us, they will have good days and bad days. Unlike us, on their bad days they are likely to behave and perform much worse than we would expect them to.

Descriptive Praise

Give immediate Descriptive Praise whenever you notice even tiny instances of your child being more flexible, thinking before he reacts, considering the wishes of others, remembering and following the daily routines with less of a fuss, doing what he’s told, etc. Children (and even teens!) want to please their parents; you’ll probably be very pleasantly surprised to see how quickly the habit of Descriptive Praise improves cooperation, confidence, motivation, self-reliance and consideration. (See my books and audiobooks for numerous examples of Descriptive Praise, covering many typical family flashpoints.)

Rewards and consequences

Choose rewards and consequences that are small and immediate. I explain how to do this in my books.

Keep instructions simple and specific

If you need to give more than one instruction at a time, have your child repeat it or write it down. Otherwise he is likely to remember just one of the things you asked of him, or possibly none of them.

Checklists

Use checklists for the more complex tasks such as the morning routine, homework time, tidying up, getting ready for bed.

Calm

Focus on making your child’s environment as calm as possible. Their learning area needs to be quiet and clear of distractions. Children with an extreme temperament find it harder than you would expect to concentrate and to remember how they should behave when things are happening around them. This applies to school-day mornings, mealtimes, bedtimes, etc. Screens in particular are very distracting, and can even trigger anxiety and anger.

Don’t accept excuses

Do not accept your child’s extreme temperament or his diagnosis as an excuse for misbehaviour. (I have heard children say, ‘I can’t do that because I’m autistic’ or ‘Mum says I don’t have to because it makes me angry’.) It is true that behaving well is more difficult for them, so that means they will need parents and teachers to do three things:

  • help motivate them to behave appropriately
  • teach them how to behave in different situations
  • guide them, over time, into sensible habits

Diet and nutrition

Unfortunately, the foods that children crave tend to be high in sugar, salt and fat. Make sure that your children eat only food that is good for them. Steer clear of low-nutrition treats, except on special occasions. Instead, please seek out higher-quality foods that can be considered treats that the whole family can enjoy together. Providing optimum nutrition for your child or teen is always desirable. It is even more vital for children and teens who are experiencing difficulties. They need all the help they can get. In addition, you may want to investigate the possibility of allergies or food intolerances, which are much more common in children with an extreme temperament.

Plan ahead to make sure that your child doesn’t get very tired, hungry or thirsty. When that happens, her self-control is likely to deteriorate even more than with most children.

Plan ahead

Prepare your child as much as you can before any change in routine, even a small change. Children with the characteristics of an extreme temperament do not usually respond well to surprises.

Safe place

Create a place where it is safe for him to play on his own.

Small steps

Break every task you are teaching her into very small steps, and don’t try to teach too much at one time. Lots of practice and repetition at each stage is usually necessary.

Stay positive

It is important to stay positive. One way to do this is by giving lots of Descriptive Praise. If you find yourself becoming frustrated, this is bound to communicate itself to your child. It’s best at that point to stop trying to teach her or make her behave, and start again when you are feeling calmer and more positive.


By using the ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting & Teaching’ strategies, the problematic behaviours associated with an extreme temperament can be managed and improved. The speed of a child’s learning will vary according to the severity of their condition and also according to the teaching methods used and the consistency of the teaching.

Parents and teachers can use the ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting & Teaching’ methods to teach social skills, from saying hello and making eye-contact to more complex skills, such as using appropriate language and tone of voice. We can teach children to better understand how other people think and feel. We can also help them to become aware of their own feelings and to express themselves more constructively.

Children with an extreme temperament are often accused of being spoiled, and their parents are blamed for it. It seems to an outsider that the only possible reason that a child could have for making such a big fuss about something very minor must be that she has been allowed to get away with such ‘brattish’ behaviour in the past. Over-indulgence can certainly be part of the problem, but the child’s extreme temperament is very real. Distraught parents may give in to their child’s misbehaviour or to his unreasonable demands in an attempt to prevent a tantrum, and this can easily lead to the habit of over-indulgence.

Two of my books for parents, ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Homework’ and ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Boys’ explain a number of ways that children with an extreme temperament can be helped to improve their communication. My two books for teachers, ‘In Step With Your Class’ and ‘Learning to Listen, Listening to Learn’, show how this can be done in the classroom.

Sell-care for parents

You need some time for yourself as well! Regularly leave your child with other members of the family or with a neighbour or a sitter. After the children are in bed, do something enjoyable, like spending time with your partner if you have one, or pursuing a hobby or connecting with friends. It’s tempting to dive into crossing items off your to-do list, but you need some time every day to relax and to do things that you enjoy, away from your children. This will help you to replenish the emotional energy, the optimism and the determination that is needed when you are raising a child with an extreme temperament.

How we can help

You may like these ideas but be unsure how to put them into practice. Would you like some advice about how to make all this happen? Get in touch with us at admin@calmerparenting.co.uk

If you would like personalised advice from Noël that is specific to your family’s needs, we offer a parenting programme that includes private consultations (via Skype) and home visits.

For schools we offer in-service teacher-training and parenting talks.

This content is the intellectual property of ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting’. We are happy for you to forward or print this document as long as it is always reproduced in its entirety.

© Noël Janis-Norton 2020
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