Children with autism can’t control their behavior. As a parent of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you’re no stranger to daily meltdowns. Often, you wonder how you can calm your child during a tough time. Meltdowns caused by anxiety can make it very hard for your kid to participate in everyday activities or even leave the house. Summer, especially, is hard for parents and children with special needs. The most you can do is help them stay safe and regain composure.
In this article, discover all the information you need to know about meltdowns and how to deal with them.
What Are Meltdowns?
A meltdown is an intense reaction to an overwhelming situation. Children with autism don’t know how to express their feelings in such scenarios, so they temporarily lose control of their behavior. The meltdown can be expressed verbally (through shouting, screaming, or crying), physically (shouting, lashing out, biting, hurting themselves), or in both ways. An autistic child may also express overwhelming feelings by refusing to interact, withdrawing from situations, or avoiding them altogether.
Perhaps the terrifying thing about a sensory meltdown is seeing your child lose control—and how unaware of his actions he is and what’s happening around him. The meltdown behavior is involuntary, and children are entirely separate from reality. It’s a heartbreaking situation, but you can prevent them from causing harm with enough awareness and proactive intervention.
The Difference Between Tantrums & Meltdowns
It’s good to understand the difference between a sensory meltdown and a tantrum. Both look similar on the outside but are far from being the same. That’s why so many parents dismiss a meltdown as nothing more than a bad child that’s misbehaving.
Tantrums are willful behavior. It’s usually a child’s way to get what they want. They want to express their frustration for not doing what they wish to. Kids throwing tantrums know what they’re doing and are in control of their actions. Tantrums can escalate depending on the parents’ response. Children stop when comforted by their caregiver, get what they want, or give up on their own when ignored.
A meltdown, on the other hand, has no purpose. The child suffering a breakdown has no control of their actions. They are not a way for your child to manipulate you to get what they want. Most meltdowns are triggered by sensory, emotional, or information overload. No meltdowns are alike. A child can withdraw, shut down, zone out, run away, or fall into repetitive movements. At the same time, they can bite, growl, and scream. It’s hard to predict when a meltdown will happen, but many kids show signs of distress—a thing called the “rumbling state.”
Unlike a tantrum, a child experiences meltdowns throughout his life. Tantrums go away with age, but meltdowns may stay. Of course, this is not to say that children with autism won’t have tantrums. Failing to spot the difference and dismissing it as a whim may hurt your special needs child’s life.
Causes of Meltdowns
Meltdowns have a couple of underlying reasons, and, unfortunately, they are triggered by many different problems. A parent must understand what triggers this behavior, and here are a couple of reasons why your child might experience sensory overwhelm:
- ADHD: 75% of children who present severe temper outbursts have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The lack of focus, the inability to complete work, and tolerate boredom can contribute to more meltdowns.
- Anxiety: An autistic person can be overwhelmed when uncomfortable, so anxiety is a significant contributor. Children who suffered trauma or neglect may react this way, even if they don’t have a full-blown anxiety disorder.
- Learning problems: If your child has repeated meltdowns in school, he may have an undiagnosed learning disorder. Rather than asking for help, simple homework may cause frustration that will lead to something more serious.
- Lack of specific skills: Most autistic children lack the skills or emotions they need to cope in certain situations. This can be a trigger for frequent meltdowns and cause frustration, anger, or anxiety.
- Sensory processing issues: It can often lead to meltdowns, especially in kids who can’t handle social situations and feel overwhelmed.
Like we’ve mentioned earlier, autistic children do not throw fits to gain your attention. They simply react to physical or emotional stress without planning on doing so. Children respond to sensory assaults, like a loud noise or an ordinary change in a daily routine. It’s not always easy to predict situations likely to upset your child. Maybe one day your child hates unavoidable background noise, while other times he likes staying at parties. Unfortunately, you can’t avoid challenging situations forever as they can get highly stressful and limiting. What you CAN do is help the autistic child calm his emotions.
See also How to Handle Autism Meltdowns.
How to Calm Your Child During Meltdown
Here you will find some helpful tips which can help your child deal with stressful situations. You have to remember that while one may work for one child, it may not work for another. Be patient and understanding, and you will find the correct method. Without further ado, here are some practical techniques for calming your child during hard times:
Be Empathetic & Stay Calm
You can’t reason with an autistic person that’s having a meltdown. Logic won’t help you in this situation, and neither is you yelling or getting angry at your child. Extreme patience is needed—and you must listen and acknowledge their struggle without judgment. You need to stay calm and guide your kid in a way that doesn’t hurt their bodies or harm other people. When you validate their emotions, they feel heard and not misunderstood. Talk soft and don’t make aggressive or sudden actions. Also, never act without explaining what you’re doing and give simple commands.
Create a Safe Space
Children may unintentionally hurt themselves or others. Identify any stimuli which tend to trigger meltdowns and avoid them. You can keep a diary where you record any stimuli. If it’s a public meltdown, find a place that’s free of bystanders. Create a quiet, cozy space where people won’t stare and turn off the lights or any loud noise source.
At home, you can create a designated safe corner where your child can go to calm down. It can have various calming items such as a weighted blanket, pillows, or sensory toys.
Put Together an Emergency Meltdown Kit
It’s always a good idea to create a meltdown kit you can keep in your bag or car when you’re going out. Whenever your child feels overwhelmed, you can offer him sensory toys to calm him down. Don’t force them, though.
Tailor it to your child’s preferences. A well-stocked kit can defuse a tense situation and calm your child.
Have a Calming Down Routine
After a meltdown, when your child is more receptive, teach them calming breathing exercises. It won’t work unless you practice beforehand, so turn it into a game. When the child gets hold of it, try it next time he has a meltdown. Try yoga, deep breathing, or guided meditation techniques—many children like using these tools to give them peace of mind. Plus, it forms strong bonds as you work together with your little miracle to regulate emotions.
Do Heavy Work Activities
For some children in meltdown mode, doing heavy work activities that work on children’s muscles helps them calm down. It can vary from specialized therapy balls to carrying heavy backpacks. Heavy work provides sensory input by putting stress on the body. When you’re angry, you want to punch something, so this works similarly. Remember: a child needs to be active. Alternatively, you can try sensory activities (most of them you can take with you, like sensory jars or kinetic sand) to calm your child.
Don’t punish your kid for having a meltdown, and don’t shame or embarrass them. The trauma of losing control of themselves is real. “Normal” people don’t do this, so your child can be ashamed by the tantrum. Don’t leave your kid feeling alone and encourage positive behavior. Show them it’s ok to have feelings. Respect their feelings and give them time to recover.
Empathy is key in dealing with meltdowns. In these moments, an autistic person is vulnerable, and he needs your love. It’s not an easy journey, but you can still take steps to make life smoother. Be patient—in no time, you’ll be a master at handling autism meltdowns.