Recognizing An Autistic Meltdown
An autistic meltdown can manifest in a variety of ways, including both physical and emotional outbursts. Aggression is common in children with autism. In one study, over half of the participants directed this aggression toward their caretakers. Self-harm is another concern, as a quarter of children with autism hurt themselves intentionally in some way.
An autistic meltdown can include:
- Social withdrawal.
- Hitting, kicking, or aggression toward others.
- Self-harming behaviors, such as biting, hitting, or head banging.
- Extreme crying.
Autism meltdowns can be the result of several different triggers, such as sensory overload, a change in schedule or routine, communication difficulties, or anxiety. It is helpful to know what can lead to a meltdown in order to minimize their frequency.
Focus On Your Child Not Staring Bystanders
Meltdowns for any child can get noisy, but they tend to go to a whole other level of loud when its a child with autism.
These outbursts can feel embarrassing to parents when were in public and everyone is staring at us.
We feel the judgment from some saying, Id never let my kid act like that.
Or worse, we feel like our deepest fears are validated: People think were failing at this whole parenting thing.
Next time you find yourself in this public display of chaos, ignore the judgmental looks, and quiet down that fearful inner voice saying youre not enough. Remember that the person who is struggling and needs your support the most is your child.
What Happens When An Autistic Person Has A Meltdown
The brain of a person with autism spectrum disorder has difficulties in processing sensory input in the same way that neurotypical brains do. The natural state of an autistic brain is hyperdrivenany change of routine can trigger this already inflamed state and cause a meltdown.
Sarinah ODonoghue, English literature teacher diagnosed with autism, talks about how she feels like during a meltdown:
For me, a meltdown feels like my body is trying to escape the chaos inside my mind. I fidget, cry and shout to distract myself from louder, internal noises. Meltdowns usually affect my body and mind. I can find them physically painful and psychologically distressing, all at the same time.
During a meltdown, a person might be unable to communicate, hyperventilate, kick, pace, rock, hit their heads, or flap their hands. Due to a heightened sensory processing state, sensitivity to light, sound, smell, taste, or touch is highly enhanced, causing the subject to feel overwhelmed. From this state, more anxiety and stress hormones are released, which can worsen the initial sensory overload.
To better understand how people with autism feel during a meltdown, here are some explanations from Ambitious about Autisms Youth Patrons:
I particularly go quite quiet and withdrawn it means I can’t take any more information I can’t deal with what’s around me.
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The Importance Of Handling Meltdowns With Compassion
Meltdowns dont just happen to autistic children–they happen to autistic adults, too.
Meltdowns in adults might look a little different and individuals typically can recognize what is happening and try to calm themselves down, but it still is outside of their control.
Lyric Holmans, the autistic self-advocate behind the internationally recognized neurodiversity lifestyle blog Neurodivergent Rebel, says:
A meltdown is beyond an autistic persons control. Their brain is overwhelmed & cant take anymore. They might start crying or fall to the floor because theyre just mentally done – completely overwhelmed.
The fight, flight, freeze response has been triggered, almost like a panic attack kind of a feeling. Its a horrible feeling.
The fact that people with autism continue to have meltdowns into adulthood shows that they are not just childish temper tantrums but a normal part of life for many autistic people.
Thats why its so important that we handle them with compassion, especially when they happen to our children.
Compassion shouldnt be limited to our children experiencing autistic meltdowns. All of our children deserve compassion, even when they are throwing a temper tantrum.
We dont have to give in and give a child throwing a tantrum what they want, but we can approach the situation with empathy, compassion, and understanding.
Asking To Leave Or To Take A Break
If your child asks or signs to leave the area or take a break, the situation or environment may be overstimulating.
As your childs guide, working with your childs communication skills will help them to understand when and how to express to you when they are in need of a break, even though they may not be able to understand or express their own level of anxiety.
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Teach Them Coping Strategies Once Theyre Calm
There isnt much we can do during a meltdown as far as trying to teach our children coping tools, but when theyre in a peaceful and rested frame of mind, we can definitely work on emotional regulation together.
My son responds really well to nature walks, practicing yoga daily , and deep breathing.
These coping strategies will help them calm down perhaps before a meltdown even when you arent around.
Empathy is at the heart of all of these steps to dealing with an autistic meltdown.
When we look at our childs behavior as a form of communication, it helps us view them as struggling instead of being defiant.
The word defiance can drop from our meltdown vocabulary entirely, replaced by empathy and compassion. And by showing our children compassion, we can more effectively support them through their meltdowns.
Autism Meltdown Strategies For Children
Youve heard the saying: When youve met a child with autism, youve met one child with autism.
Because every autistic child presents differently, with varied skills, levels of relatedness, communication, and sensory processing profiles, it is impossible to have a one-solution-fits-all approach to managing meltdowns.
The following are some tips and strategies that have helped other parents, but you will have to consider these in terms of your individual childs needs.
Wed all like to avoid meltdowns completely, but thats not possible. Instead, some parents find it helpful to put strategies in place to minimize the stress and anxiety of daily life that may contribute to a meltdown. This is typically referred to as a sensory diet and can be beneficial in preventing and managing autism meltdowns.
Some common ones that support regulation across the day:
- Visual schedules
- Check off lists
- Activity or task schedules
- Routine sensory diet activities, for example, using a weighted blanket during sleep, engaging in deep pressure activities at certain times in the daily routine, etc.
Some parents find it helpful to schedule quiet time for their child, in order to allow for the downtime proactively before the activity of the day gets to be too much. Building in a surprise or question mark to visual schedules helps to shape behavioral responses to unexpected changes in routines that are often stressful.
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Be Aware Of Sensory Meltdown Triggers
Assembly is a well-known trigger for inducing an autistic meltdown. As previously discussed, sensory issues often go hand in hand with autism. Assembly is usually held in the school hall, which can also be used as both the dining hall and a PE room. There may be the smells of cooking, the sound of chairs scraping on the floor, the sheer numbers of children and staff all in one place and all this may bring about a refusal to join the assembly. In this case, we need to ask ourselves if their attendance in assembly is vital. If not, maybe we should not insist on them joining assembly. We are not in the business of normalising children, we are respecting their diversity and helping them to cope in a given situation.
A sensory diet is another favoured approach for autistic children. This works best under the guidance of an occupational therapist if possible. If not, you can incorporate parts of a sensory diet to suit individual needs. This might include a circuit around the school playground, a five-minute bounce on the trampoline, or anything to release some pent-up energy.
“We are not in the business of normalising children, we are respecting their diversity and helping them to cope in a given situation.”
Meltdowns Advice & Support For:
Our advice and guidance on meltdowns will help you understand what a meltdown is, their causes and how you can help.
A meltdown is an intense response to an overwhelming situation. It happens when someone becomes completely overwhelmed by their situation and temporarily loses control of their behaviour.
This page gives you an overview. For more information about how to anticipate meltdowns and minimise their frequency, select from the menu above or the guide link below.
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Autism Meltdowns: What Are They
A meltdown in an autistic person is a reaction to sensory, emotional or other overwhelm.
When an individual feels overwhelmed and cant express themselves, a meltdown can happen. In children, this often manifests as crying or screaming or even physical responses such as kicking, biting or scratching.
These types of physical reactions are different from stimming, but stimming can happen right before a meltdown.
People with autism often have intense sensory sensitivities to light, sounds, and more.
So when a child with autism is triggered by bright or flickering lights, a noisy classroom or even certain tastes or textures, a meltdown can happen.
Meltdowns can also be triggered by changes in routine or other unexpected changes, or simply because, with the communication challenges that often come with autism, the child cant express what they need or want.
How To Use An Autism Meltdown Kit
A meltdown kit or a calm down kit is a customized set of objects that help prevent or de-escalate a childs meltdown.
To create your own meltdown kit, you need to ask yourself the following questions:
What kind of toys/activities does my child like to do?Can this item help stop or lessen a meltdown?Does this item have the texture/shape/color my child likes?
Based on the answers to your questions, here are some items that can be included in your childs kit:
- Fidget toys
- Sensory objects
- Musical instrument
Note that giving this kit to your child is ideal for preventing a meltdown. It might not work if the child is already in the middle of a meltdown.
Calming Strategies For Autism Meltdowns
Now, before I jump into these strategies, I have a word of warning.
Please dont do all of these immediately when your child starts a meltdown.
You need to know what works for your child, and what their sensory preferences are.
Not every strategy will work for every child, so test them out one at a time to see what works best for your child.
How To Differentiate A Temper Tantrum From An Autistic Meltdown
It can be easy to mistake a temper tantrum for a meltdown as they both have similar symptoms. However, you need to accurately differentiate between the two in order to fully support your kid with his struggles.
When trying to understand whether your child has a temper tantrum or a meltdown, pay attention to these signs:
- Temper tantrums usually happen in front of other people, while meltdowns may occur without an audience as well. If you ignore a child that has a temper tantrum, the behavior will most likely stop immediately. However, autistic meltdowns occur as a response to an overwhelming situation that causes loss of control regardless of an audience.
- Tantrums usually hold a goal behind them. The child wants something and starts showing off in order to get his desired outcome. Tantrums tend to be triggered by fatigue or illness, while meltdowns can happen in any type of external stimuli overload. Autistic meltdowns are not goal-oriented they are a response that manifests through loss of control.
- Unlike tantrums that come with anger and frustration, autistic meltdowns stem from a feeling of overwhelm. Temper tantrums are usually handled with incentives or distractions these strategies might not work for meltdowns.
- Tantrums usually happen during childhood and adolescence, while meltdowns can occur at any age.
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What Can I Do When My Child Is Having A Meltdown
Sometimes an autistic meltdown is presented as just yelling and screaming. But sometimes they might involve self-injury and self-harm as well as biting and kicking. If the child is physically large, meltdowns become frightening and even dangerous.As the child doesnt have any control over their meltdown, it is often not possible to stop and control a meltdown in the process. In many cases the meltdown continues until the accumulated energy from the sensory overstimulation is drained. But there are many things that are important to do to support a child with autistic meltdown.
Tips To Help Avoid An Autistic Meltdown
While temper tantrums can seemingly come out of nowhere, autistic meltdowns typically follow a predictable flow rumbling, rage, and recovery and there are certain things caregivers can do to help prevent them from occurring and lessen the intensity of meltdowns when they do happen. Here are 7 ideas to consider.
Use an ABC chart. If you want to know how to calm an autistic child, the first thing you should consider doing is tracking his or her behavior over the course of a few weeks using an Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence Chart, or ABC Chart. Its incredibly easy to create and use, and can be very powerful in determining the root cause of challenging behaviors. Each time your child has a meltdown, take a few minutes to write down the ABCs of that specific event and the behaviors that occurred:
Antecedent: The events that occurred before the meltdown happened.Behavior: Your childs response to the antecedent.Consequence: What happened after the behavior to either encourage/hinder a repeat of the situation.
The idea is to track the same behavior in this case, the meltdown multiple times to determine if there are any consistencies, and then formulate a plan to change the antecedent and/or consequence to ensure the meltdowns stop happening.
Redirect and distract. Once youre able to recognize the warning signs of an impending meltdown, redirect and distract your child to the best of your ability to help keep his or her emotions from escalating.
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Physical Signs Of Anxiety Or Confusion Such As Fretting Restlessness Or Stimming
Stimming may be how your child manages their own anxiety or sensory input levels, so remember this is not behavior that typically must be modified. Even though stimming is a way that children with autism self-regulate, it can lead to a meltdown when the anxiety continues to build.
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Invest In A Good Weighted Blanket
Weighted blankets can be very effective for children who have frequent meltdowns. These blankets apply mild pressure to the body, helping an anxious child calm down. In addition, the weights in the blankets help improve a childs body awareness which can reduce the severity of the meltdown. Alternatively, weighted vests give similar calming sensory feedback, and are a great option for summer and travel.
Behavioral And Emotional Meltdowns Can Be A Hallmark Autism Trait
The serious behavioral challenges posed by many children with autism are referred to as meltdowns and are not learned behaviors. In other words, they are not tantrums.
The signs and symptoms of autism become quite apparent between ages 12 months to 18 months. Yet, those unfamiliar with the disorder might think their child is just going at his/her own pace and dont attach much importance to delayed milestones at such a young age.
Nor, to the severe behavioral outbursts, thinking they are just an early manifestation of what are commonly called the terrible twos.
However, when these symptoms have not improved around the age of 3 years or so, parents commonly seek medical input, and may learn their child has a type of ASD.
Lets take a deeper look at the behavioral meltdowns experienced by many children diagnosed with ASD.
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Veneer Of Coping: Shutdown
A shutdown is a particular sequence of behaviour involving the senses, language skills, motor skills and memory which we observe in children diagnosed as high-functioning within the autism spectrum. In academic settings, when pressured by an adult to perform tasks that were difficult, these children may become unresponsive, sleepy, immobile, limp to the touch for several minutes and then fell asleep in a chair for as briefly as 10 minutes and up to two hours.
How Can You Tell An Autistic Meltdown From A Tantrum
1)Goal oriented vs overload. A tantrum in a young child typically stems from frustration from not getting what they want in that moment: wether it is a toy, being able to button up their own shirts, or not wanting to go to bed . While tantrums in young children can be more frequent when they are tired, hungry or not feeling well, they are always goal oriented. Either the frustration at not getting what they want, not being able to do what they want, or even not being able to communicate what they want properly. An autistic meltdown on the other hand is all about being overwhelmed. For someone with autism, when they reach the point of sensory, emotional, and information overload, or even just too much unpredictability, it can trigger a variety of external behaviours that are similar to a tantrum , or it can trigger a complete shutdown and withdrawal.
2)Tantrums need an audience. Tantrum behaviour will usually stop when the parent ignores the behaviour, when the child is removed from a public space where the behaviour is occurring, or when the child gets whatever it is they want . An autistic meltdown will occur with or without an audience. They can occur when the person with autism is entirely alone. They are the response of an external stimulus overload that leads to an emotional explosion .
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