Sunday, April 14, 2024

How To Handle Autistic Meltdowns

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Recognizing Challenging Behaviors And Meltdowns In Children With Autism

Autistic Meltdowns: What to do?

To reduce the occurrence of autistic meltdowns, note what events, places, activities, and the surrounding where meltdowns typically occur with your child. When you arm yourself with that knowledge, you can do your best to try to avoid them.

Get to know your childs rumble stage, which includes warning signs of distress that your child may be overwhelmed and anxious, eventually leading to challenging behaviors. Some of these warning signs may include:

  • Screaming loudly
  • Breaking things

While autistic meltdowns may look like a child having a temper tantrum, they are much different. Unlike a neurotypical child doing any of the above, children with autism dont have meltdowns with intention or purpose. Because their brains are wired differently, they are typically unaware of self-control, and their behaviors are unintentional.

What Can I Do When My Child Is Having A Tantrum

Typical tantrums are a way that children learn to manipulate their parents to give them what they want. Children very quickly learn that they may get what they need by crying and screaming. Since there is a reward system for the behavior, each time the child reaches to their goal the behavior is reinforced. In many cases tantrums are self-limiting and they will disappear as the child grows. However, the reward loop can be broken faster, if the child learns that having a tantrum is not an effective way to attract attention and reach to their goals.

After A Meltdown: What To Do

Immediately after a meltdown, your child might feel embarrassed or exhausted. If your child can have time, space and a calming and familiar activity to do, it can help them to recover.

For example, your child could read a book, touch a sensory object, spend some time with the family pet or play their favourite music.

Later, if your child has the language and developmental ability, it can help to talk with your child about what happened. Try to do this when youre both feeling calm. It could be at least 30 minutes before your child can talk about the meltdown.

Its also good to work out whether there were new triggers or a combination of triggers that caused your childs meltdown. If there were, you can develop a plan for avoiding a meltdown in a similar situation next time.

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Staying Calm During A Meltdown

Avoiding, managing, or planning for meltdowns can only go so far. It is simply not sustainable and can be extremely limiting for everyone in the family. A better solution is to help the child learn how to calm their own emotions.

The best way to be calm is to stay calm to start with. This is the first step to teaching your child how to manage their own feelings.

There are some techniques that, while not fail-proof, can make a big difference. Many are related to sensory integration therapy, a form of play therapy that aims to “train” the brain how to react to touch, sound, sight, and movement.

There are several things you can do to prepare for a child’s meltdown:

How Can Adults With Autism Deal With Meltdowns

A Peach for the Teach: How to Handle Meltdowns, Storms, Rages, or ...

These five strategies can help autistic adults better cope with meltdowns.

1. Identify triggers.

I have written before about considering emotional regulation as a timeline. Autistic adults are advised to develop strategies to notice where they are on that timeline in order to get a sense of how easily triggered they might be at a particular moment. They should pay attention to their mood, as well as notice how tired or stressed they already are.

Ask: Is there a potential for me to be more easily triggered? Is the type of situation I’m going into the same type of situation that has triggered a meltdown in the past? Can I avoid putting myself into that situation until a time when I feel more rested and less stressed?

2, Get the right support.

No one likes losing control. If our actions have affected someone else, were probably going to feel bad about it. However, its important for autistic adults to explain to those people close to them whats happening when a meltdown occurs to ensure theyre supportive and understanding.

Several of my clients have shared the criticism they receive from relatives, friends, and partners when they have meltdowns. Elaine, for example, told me, I recently went into total meltdown after being grabbed unexpectedly by a friend. I managed to get out of the situation and ended up outside, banging my head until it bled. My husband was so embarrassed and critical of me afterward.

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What To Do During A Very Loud Very Public Meltdown

When our child has a meltdown, parents often want to stop the tears because it hurts our hearts that our kids are struggling. Or were running low on patience and just want peace and quiet.

Many times, were coping with the fifth or sixth meltdown that morning over seemingly simple things like the tag in their shirt being too itchy, their sister talking too loudly, or a change in plans.

Autistic children arent crying, wailing, or flailing to get at us somehow.

Theyre crying because its what their bodies need to do in that moment to release tension and emotion from feeling overwhelmed with emotions or sensory stimulations.

Their brains are wired differently and so its how they interact with the world. Thats something we have to come to terms with as parents so we can support them in the best way.

So how can we effectively support our children through these often loud and thrashing meltdowns?

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4. Deal with the comedown.

Meltdowns are exhausting and troubling. Some people deal with them best by simply being alone. Adults with autism benefit by recognising in advance what makes it easiest for them to recover from a meltdown and having a strategy in place for the next time they have one.

5. Have coping strategies in place.

Sometimes, it’s not possible to avoid being in situations that are potentially going to trigger a meltdown. Perhaps someone has to deal with a barrage of emails, or be in a busy city centre, even though they’re already feeling burnt out. Instead of continuing to push themselves and hope for the best, it’s important to have strategies on hand for coping with sensory overload or emotional overwhelm.

Another client, Sarah, described how she used headphones whenever she was in crowded places. If I listen to music, I can shut off better from whats happening around me. It gives me something to focus on.

Personally, most of my meltdowns come on when I have too much information to deal with. Ive become very good at telling people that I simply cannot deal with whatever it is they want me to sort out at this current time. I also write lists and flow charts to help me prioritise what needs to be prioritised, so Im less likely to lose control.

Having a plan in place isnt going to stop the meltdowns, but it can help mitigate the fallout and help autistic adults, and others, normalise those meltdowns that are a part of their autistic experience.

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Using Visual Schedules Can Help Children With Autism To Have A Predictable Plan And Stay Calm

4. When your child is calm, practice self-regulation and calming down activities:

It is very helpful to take your time and practice some structured activities that can help children to calm down and control their emotions. However, in order to be able to help children to learn how to calm down, we need to first make sure they can recognize their feelings, they can understand how each emotion is felt and triggered and to know what are the emotions that are negative or too intense and can cause meltdowns or inappropriate behaviors.

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How To Prevent Meltdowns


For parents, dealing with ASD meltdowns can be exhausting. Preventing them can be a better strategy than trying to respond to them.

Sometimes you can use the information you know about the child to avoid common triggers:

  • Know the childs sensory sensitivities such loud noises, bright lights, or strong smells
  • Know the daily routine such as reading a story before bedtime, eating a certain food for breakfast
  • Know the childs favorite things/places such a dinosaur toy, favorite blanket, a specific shop/store

Once you have these pieces of information, it will be easier to identify meltdown triggers and avoid them as much as possible.

For instance, if your child does not like a specific sensory input like bright lights, but you are in a public place where there are bright lights, try to redirect your child to avoid this area.

It might be necessary to improvise if you can not avoid a meltdown trigger. If you need to skip breakfast because you need to leave early for a trip, pack the childs breakfast so he/she can still eat it on the way.

Averting a meltdown may not be possible at all times, but here are a few ways to try to prevent them:

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The Importance Of Handling Meltdowns With Compassion

Meltdowns dont just happen to autistic childrenthey 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.

Make Them Feel Safe And Loved

Sometimes our children are so lost in their emotions that they cant hear us. In these situations, all we need to do is simply sit with or be near them.

Many times, we try to talk them down from their panic, but its often a waste of breath when a child is in the throes of a meltdown.

What we can do is let them know that theyre safe and loved. We do this by staying as near to them as theyre comfortable with.

Ive lost track of the times that Ive witnessed a crying child be told that they can only come out of a secluded space once they stop melting down.

This can send the message to the child that they dont deserve to be around the people that love them when theyre having a hard time. Obviously, this isnt our intended message to our kids.

So, we can show them were there for them by staying close.

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What Causes Autistic Meltdowns

Pretty much anything can trigger an autistic meltdown. You handed your child the yellow cup instead of the green one. The block tower fell over again. His friend took the toy he wanted to play with. A sound was too loud. A tag got too scratchy. A rock got in her shoe. His hands got sweaty.

The littlest thing can send an autistic child into meltdown mode without warning. Or did we just miss the warning signs?

Many times, a meltdown is only caused after many different triggers have caused a buildup of tension. If your child is struggling with sensory overload, and their younger sibling bumps into them, it can bring their world crashing down. If a few other seemingly petty things already irritated your child, and they handled those well, the next one may be more than they can take.

Autistic meltdowns are usually caused by one of the following:

A buildup of stress can cause autistic meltdowns

Because emotional regulation is so difficult for kids with autism, stress takes longer to dissipate. When subsequent stresses occur, it adds to the pot. Every little thing can raise their temperature, and eventually the child boils over.

Sensory overload can cause autistic meltdowns

Anxiety can cause autistic meltdowns

Children with autism often battle anxiety as well. It may be caused by social struggles, unusual fears, changes in routine , or anything that makes your child feel like they have no control. The anxiety of feeling helpless can lead to autistic meltdowns.

What Can I Do To Help A Person Having An Autistic Meltdown

The Vital Steps to Take AFTER Your Child Has a Meltdown That You

As Judy Endow says in her wonderful blog post on the topic:

autistic meltdown is the bodys attempt to gain equilibrium by expending energy, safety concerns often loom large. In fact, safety becomes the focus of attention during the autistic meltdown. The goal for the support person at the height of a meltdown is to ensure safety, knowing the meltdown will continue until the energy is spent. There is no stopping a meltdown in progress.

1)Ensure safety. Individuals with autism may unintentionally hurt themselves or others during their meltdowns. Have a strategy in place to keep the individual and yourself safe from harm. Personally, I love the unapologetically non-violent Low Arousal Approach, which in my opinion is one of the best strategies available for coping with meltdowns.

2)Develop a calming routine. Having an effective calming routine in place for both children and adults is very helpful. Some people may still need help to calm themselves even after the energy from the meltdown is spent. This may include visuals, or musicwhatever works best. A great book that I found for this is When My Worries Get Too Big by Kari Dunn Buron.

by Judy Endow

Goal Driven Tantrum Versus Response to Overwhelm Meltdown

Tantrums in young children typically occur when the youngster cannot have something he wants or cannot do something he wishes to do. A tantrum is goal driven behavior designed to persuade the adult in charge to give in to the desires of the youngster.


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Disclaimer: The content on this website is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. Talk to your doctor or healthcare provider before undertaking any type of therapy or treatment.

Prevention Strategies And Treatments

Contemporary meltdown treatment and prevention strategies include various therapy and medical techniques. Many approaches incorporate behavioral and physical therapies to help with bodily autonomy and emotional control. Before any treatment or prevention plans are created, your patient/loved one will likely need to complete a Functional Behavior Assessment or a similar screening process to identify the functionality of meltdown symptoms.

Creating a behavior log to find patterns in context and surroundings leading up to meltdowns can help the evaluation. Behavior logs also assist parents and caretakers in understanding signs leading up to meltdowns. Learning these timelines allows greater insight into what sensory issues or comorbid conditions may cause meltdowns. Once the context is better understood, you can begin to practice calming techniques before meltdowns occur and teach your loved one or patient to identify their feelings before they happen.

Treating underlying comorbid conditions associated with autism is also essential. Sensory or emotional issues are often the result of uncommunicated pain or discomfort related to such conditions . If you have tried cognitive behavioral therapy and meltdown severity or prevalence hasnt decreased, consider speaking with a gastroenterologist, psychologist, or other medical specialists to address underlying issues.

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How To Help Prevent Meltdowns And Shutdowns

Preemptive planning can really help to mitigate against triggers that might lead to a meltdown.

For example, you can reduce anxiety related to uncertainty about certain situations by providing information about what to expect in advance – such as a visual timetable or agenda.

Another way to reduce the likelihood of a meltdown is to create environments that don’t overwhelm the senses. For example, allowing children and young people to wear ear defenders in noisy rooms or dimming the lights to create a less harsh ambience.

It can be very difficult and distressing to support someone during a meltdown, so knowing what to do in advance is key.

The best way to find out what causes someone to have a meltdown is to ask them or someone who knows them well.

The best remedy for a shutdown is giving the person the space to rest, recuperate and recover without placing additional demands on them. A shutdown can be like a reset for an autistic person.

Asking To Leave Or To Take A Break

How to handle hannah’s autistic meltdown

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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