Dealing with Meltdowns

As parents of children on the autism spectrum meltdowns are nothing new, but many of us still struggle when they occur. In this blog I would like to share my experience and share some help in identifying a meltdown and some strategies to cope.

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 minimise their frequency.

Recognising a meltdown

An autistic meltdown can manifest in a variety of ways, including both physical and emotional outbursts. In some instances, children on the autism spectrum experience extreme meltdowns due to high levels of over-stimulation. In these instances, your child might even engage in aggressive behaviours, such as screaming, kicking, or biting. Anger can be an outcome of over-stimulation, though the child’s intent is usually not to harm others, it is just that their level of tolerance has hit capacity. This can be very stressful for you as a parent, especially if occurring in a public place. In these instances, the most helpful thing to do is to find immediate ways to de-escalate the situation.

What can a meltdown include:

  • Social withdrawal.
  • Running away or bolting.
  • Zoning or tuning out.
  • Screaming or yelling.
  • Hitting, kicking, or aggression toward others.
  • Self-harming behaviours, such as biting, hitting, or head banging.
  • Extreme crying.

Managing a Meltdown

I'd like to share with you several steps that can be used to manage your child's autism meltdowns.

Create a meltdown diary

It can be helpful to track a child’s meltdowns. Observe and note what was happening before, during, and after the meltdown. This can help you get a better handle on why they occur, what works to dilute them, and how to better avoid them in the future. Create a meltdown diary which can  help Identify the possible cause of meltdowns and any patterns that emerge.

Identify triggers

As you observe your child’s meltdowns then you have a record which helps you anticipate and circumvent future meltdown before they occur.

Every child has triggers that can set of behaviour or as some people call them “rumblings” before a full meltdown. Self-stimulating behaviours and signs of anxiety are often present beforehand. When these signs appear, distraction, diversion, or a removal of the potential trigger can often stop a meltdown before it starts.

Minimise potential triggers

There are several things that can lead up to an autism meltdown, and many times, these things can be managed. A child sensitive to loud noise can be soothed with noise-cancelling headphones in loud environments, for instance. It can also be beneficial to have a method for dealing with sudden and unavoidable changes as well. Build in relaxation time, and teach your child techniques to manage anxiety and stress, such as breathing deeply. Work to improve communication, so the child is able to express their needs more easily.

Always stay calm

It is important to be kind, understanding, and as calm as possible during an autism meltdown. Being angry or frustrated will not help end the meltdown but more likely escalate the problem. This is not easy but in time you can learn that staying calm is possibly the most important thing you can do other than keeping your child safe.

Give your child space

It can take some time for a child to calm down during an autistic meltdown. A safe space or quiet room can help. This can be difficult when out in public. It can be helpful to carry a card to give out or have some other visible sign to explain that the child has autism and needs some space and understanding.

Having an easy way to let others know what is going on helps some parents to focus on their child and manage these uncomfortable feelings.

Use a distraction

Once your child has calmed down a little, a distraction or diversion can work to change the focus and bring the sense of control back. This can be an object or conversation topic that is comforting to the child.

It is important to keep a child safe during a meltdown. This may mean holding tightly to the child, taking them to a quiet space or a controlled environment, or just leaving them alone.

I hope you find these ideas useful but as 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. I’d be interested in any advice you have which can help other autism mums and dads.