How to Handle Autism Meltdowns - Guide for Parents of Children with Autism

By raluca.olariu@…, 26 October, 2021
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Many parents and caregivers faced with autistic meltdowns find it difficult to navigate through these stressful episodes and support their children on the spectrum. During meltdowns, there is not much you can do to calm your kid, but there are some strategies that can help reduce the magnitude of the event and keep your child safe.

This article explores the main causes of autistic meltdowns, how you can differentiate them from temper tantrums, and what to do during an autism meltdown in order to help your child.

What triggers autistic meltdowns?

Meltdowns usually happen when an overstimulating trigger is perceived as overwhelming and impacts the child’s ability to control his actions.

The intense response of children with autism to an overwhelming situation can look like an inability to control verbal expressions (manifested by screaming or crying) or physical movements (kicking or biting). In some cases, both verbal and physical manifestations can occur simultaneously.

However, it may be difficult to differentiate between autism meltdowns and temper tantrums. Although the symptoms can be very similar, the causes differ. When learning how to calm a child with autism, it’s essential to first understand what is the trigger of that behavior. Children with autism can encounter a wide range of meltdown triggers.

READ MORE: Discipline Strategies for Children with Autism

Common causes of meltdowns

Autistic children can show that they are overwhelmed by certain situations through meltdowns. The common triggers for autistic meltdowns are:

  • Anxiety is one of the leading causes of meltdowns amongst children on the spectrum. When faced with stressful, uncomfortable situations, a child with autism might experience high levels of anxiety which can trigger meltdowns.
  • ADHD is usually experienced by children with autism. The symptoms associated with ADHD, like the inability to focus or tolerate boredom, can make children feel overwhelmed and lead to outbursts.
  • Learning disorders, which can be associated with children on the spectrum, can trigger frustrating experiences. Difficulties with learning on a daily basis may seem overwhelming at times and cause autistic meltdowns.
  • Sensory problems are a common symptom of individuals on the spectrum. Loud noises, certain fabric materials, or flashing lights can feel overwhelming, trigger a loss of control, and eventually lead to an autistic meltdown.

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 autistic children with their 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.

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 hyper-driven—any change of routine can trigger this already inflamed state and cause a meltdown.

Sarinah O’Donoghue, 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, an autistic 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 Autism’s 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.

A meltdown can be when you're having a bad time and it feels like you can't escape. Shutdowns are more of a like a quiet meltdown where you're just physically struggling too much and your body just shuts down. You may just freeze or you make collapse because everything's just become too much. I normally try and put on my music or go for a walk but those might not always help.

Quite often when I'm having a meltdown I need some space away from an overwhelming environment and I need someone just to talk to me and reassure me that everything is okay and what I'm doing is like right. When people ask a good question which is ‘what can I do to help you’, I don't always know the answer and that can be very frustrating on my end. I think it's important to know that that could happen but they might not have the answers that they or you want.”

How to calm down a child with autism during a meltdown?

The first step in addressing a meltdown is to identify the trigger—What’s overwhelming for your child? This is a handy step as it might help you prevent future meltdowns.

During a meltdown, these are some useful strategies you can use to calm your child and keep them out of danger:

  • Make sure your kid is safe. Children with autism may hit their heads or bite themselves during a meltdown, so pay attention to any harmful behaviors and try to avoid them. Also, ensure that your kid doesn’t have access to any items that he can use to hurt himself.
  • Acknowledge their struggle and don’t judge. All children should be taught that expressing emotions is an important part of healthy emotional regulation. Children with autism need to be encouraged and validated especially when they feel overwhelmed by their emotions. Therefore, being empathetic with your child during a meltdown can both help them feel safer and provide a healthy foundation for emotional regulation in the future.
  • Keep a diary. Observing patterns in when, where, and how a meltdown is triggered can be of great help to prevent others in the future. Take notes to better understand the circumstances that might trigger meltdowns so you can be better equipped to observe the signs of a meltdown beforehand and de-escalate the situation.
  • Use calming techniques and devices. Depending on the severity of the meltdown, calming techniques might prove ineffective. However, sometimes, calming devices like fidget toys, noise-canceling headphones, weighted blankets, or lap pads, can help alleviate the symptoms and reduce the duration of the meltdown. Make sure to always have a sensory toolkit at hand.
  • Work on emotional regulation (not during a meltdown). One essential way in which you can help your kid during a meltdown is to teach him how to cope with his overwhelming emotions.

Note: Do this when they are calm and in a neutral state. The most common coping strategies include deep breaths, walking in nature or in a safe space, listening to relaxing music, etc.

  • Don’t use punishments. Meltdowns, unlike temper tantrums, can’t be controlled. Punishing your kid for something that’s out of their control makes no sense and will not help end the meltdown. Instead, punishments might have the opposite effect, with more shame and fear added on top of an already stressful situation.
  • Keep calm and be patient. The last thing your child needs during a meltdown is to receive additional stress from your side. As much as possible, try to remain calm in order to avoid escalating the situation more. Understand that meltdowns, as unpleasant and distressing as they might be, are a common part of autism.

Autistic meltdowns can take you by surprise and their unpredictability can be a stress factor. However, you can learn to tackle these events so that they are less damaging and stressful for you and your child.

If more people knew what meltdowns are, and how to help somebody experiencing one, we could remove many of the barriers facing autistic people.”

Photo credit: Vitolda Klein on Unsplash.