Are you autistic, or are you a caregiver of an autistic child? Do you feel that you (or the child) are experiencing too many meltdowns? While meltdowns are an inevitable part of life, it is possible to reduce the number and severity of meltdowns experienced.
Recognizing the Signs
Understanding your triggers is crucial to minimizing meltdowns. Staying on top of your emotions will help you take good care of yourself.
Notice when something makes you feel shaken or upset. Keep track of your emotional state during the day, and notice when stress is building up. This will help you recognize if you are at risk for a meltdown today. Are you more frustrated or agitated than usual?
Do you feel overwhelmed?
Do you feel bad about yourself?
If you have difficulty understanding your emotional state, look forphysical and psychosomatic signs as well. Symptoms of stress vary from person to person. Yours may include the following:
Tense muscles (may lead to aches and pains)
Tightness or pain in stomach
Changes in appetite
Look for behavioral cues. Your body will automatically begin using coping mechanisms to try to reduce stress. Here are several things you may catch yourself doing:
Self-isolating (e.g. sitting in the most closed-off area of the cafeteria, when you normally like to sit where your friends can find you)
Withdrawing from sensory input (leaving crowded areas, declining hugs)
Retreating deeper into own world (e.g. not noticing somebody who was standing behind you)
Subconsciously begin using things from therapy (e.g. deeper breaths if you were trained to do this during stress, or forcing smiles/eye contact because your therapist would stop doing painful things if you did those)
Observe your facial expression. Sometimes it will reveal an emotion that you had no idea you were experiencing.
The best way to stop a meltdown is to cut it off before it begins. It’s important to take quick action to keep the buildup of stress from worsening.
Follow your instincts. If you feel like sitting outside is better than sitting in a crowded cafeteria, go outside. If you feel the need to stim or put in earplugs, do so, and don’t worry about what other people think. Your emotional health matters more than their opinions.
See if you can leave a stressful situation. Try going outdoors for some fresh air, or taking a bathroom break and washing your face. Be polite, but firm (if need be) about your need to leave. Here are some ways to communicate that you need to take a break or leave:
“I’m feeling a little off. I’m going to go get some fresh air.”
“I’m going to the bathroom; I’ll be right back.”
“I need to go, so I won’t be late.” (You don’t need to specify that this “appointment” is with a DVD and a bowl of ice cream.)
“It’s getting late, and I’m getting tired. I’m going to head home.”
“This has been a wonderful party, but I have some
homework/chores/confidential government work to do tonight. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
If you can’t or don’t want to leave, see which coping mechanisms you can employ to stay calm. Pamper yourself as much as possible. Remember that you can always leave if it gets worse.
Bring your favorite stim toy with you, and use it.
Get deep pressure. Hold a beanbag, wear a heavy jacket/vest, ask for a bear hug, or squeeze yourself.
Eat something sweet, or drink something warm. This will help calm you down.
Do relaxation exercises, like deep breathing or imagery.
When in doubt, leave. Stress buildup worsens meltdowns, so a misguided attempt to “tough it out” can cause things to grow even worse. Escape as quickly as possible, take as much time as you need, and return once you feel better (if at all).
Reducing stress in your daily life will make it harder for stress to reach the boiling point.
Always carry stim toys and relaxing things: lollipops, a handheld beanbag, lotion, bracelets, or whatever it is that calms you down. This way, you’ll be prepared when stress starts to build up.
Stim and exercise regularly. Stimming and exercise reduce stress, burn calories, and provide numerous other benefits. They will relieve excess energy from your system and boost your mood and ability to focus. Here are small alterations you can make to increase your activity:
Take a 10-minute walk every evening. Bring a loved one and talk about your day.
Play backyard sports with family members.
Get off the bus one stop early and appreciate the fresh air.
Substitute an exercise ball for a desk chair. Bounce as much as you please.
Take your kids or siblings out to a park.
Eat well, and get enough sleep. Sleeplessness and poor diet can increase your levels of stress, thus making it harder for you to stop a meltdown.
Find little ways to make your life easier. It is okay to make adjustments, and it is okay to be disabled in public. Try going to the autistic community (start with #actuallyautistic or #askanautistic) for tips from like-minded people.
Ask for disability accommodations. These can help.
For auditory defensiveness, wear earplugs during your walk to school or work. You will still be able to hear sounds, but they won’t hurt you.
Get a robotic vacuum cleaner, rather than trying to remember to clean by yourself.
Skip social events that don’t interest you. Socializing is hard, and you aren’t required to do it if the context isn’t compelling enough.
Make schedules, diagrams, and lists as memory aids.
Know your triggers. If you can identify the things that bring on meltdowns, you can learn to avoid them, or prepare coping strategies beforehand.
Remove stressful jobs and people from your life. If schoolwork is stressing you, try taking a lighter load of classes. If your friend makes fun of you, stop seeing her so often. This is not an admission of defeat—it is an act of self care. Quitting is not always a bad thing.
Surround yourself with people and things that you love. This will improve your mood and the quality of your life.
Try to find a job, volunteer opportunity, or extracurricular activity related to your special interests. If you are given an open-ended project, try to relate it to your passions. Let your knowledge shine.
Find a productive hobby. Creating something (whether it’s an article or a hat) will make you feel good.
Get together at least once a week with your closest friends. (If you don’t have close friends, the aforementioned activity can help you find some.)
Find a therapist who makes you feel better, not worse. Your happiness and competence are top priority.
Give yourself plenty of relaxation time. Autistic people are at high risk for developing anxiety, so it’s important to give yourself plenty of rest. Try special interests, crochet, reading, music, journal writing, bubble baths, or whatever helps you feel centered and at ease.
Teaching Children to Manage Meltdowns
During a meltdown, a child will feel a terrifying lack of control. You can help them regain a level of control by teaching them to use coping mechanisms and ask for help when needed.
Speak compassionately and gently during a meltdown. The child may be experiencing severe feelings of panic, frustration, confusion, or general distress. It is not their fault, and they cannot stop it. Responding kindly to them establishes trust, so they know that you will help them when they’re hurting.
Teach the child to advocate for their needs. Most autistic children can identify when they feel upset, and have a feeling of what they need. Explain to the child that it is important that they come to you when they are upset, so you can help them feel better. Social stories and modeling can help them learn what to do. Try teaching them one of the following phrases: “Break, please.”
“I need to go to my corner.”
“I need quiet time, please.”
“May I go to my room?”
Nonverbal children can communicate the same ideas through typing, picture cards, AAC, or gestures. Ask their therapist for help.
When they advocate for their needs, immediately pay attention. Do what they asked you to do. This proves to them that advocating for themselves is a good strategy, and that it works better than bottling up stress until it reaches a meltdown point.
If they do not or cannot speak for themselves, pay attention to facial expressions and body language. If stress seems to be building up, ask about the need you want them to communicate. For example, “Do you need a break?” Listen or watch for their response.
If they nod, you can model for them: “Yes, I need a break, please!” Do this while you lead them away. They will associate the phrase with the action, and start saying the phrase when they need to leave.
If they say no, but still seem upset five minutes later, you can intervene: “You look really overwhelmed. Let’s take a break.” Then lead them to a calm place.
Don’t hold their needs hostage. Never force them to wait until they can speak the phrase.
Make their break times calming and relaxed. The child may be feelingextreme distress, and it’s important that you treat them kindly. If they have positive memories of break times, they will be more likely to start asking for them when they need it.
Use a quiet, gentle tone of voice (especially if you suspect sensory overload).
If they have a calming down corner, fill it with things they like:blankets, books, toys, etc.
Never pin them down against their will; this is traumatizing to the child.
Allow the break to be as long as needed. Sometimes, five minutes will be enough for them to calm down. Other times, they may need an hour of quiet activities only. Play it by ear, and never force a child to leave before they’re ready—this will likely trigger the meltdown they’ve been holding back.
Help the child identify triggers, and find appropriate coping strategies. This can help them stop a meltdown before it occurs. Try making a list of triggers and strategies together. Consider both what they could do, and what you could do in order to reduce stress. This can include… Sensory tools
A list of people they can ask for help
A comfort item
A “secret sign” to signal to caregivers that the child needs a break
If aggression occurs, first try to figure out why it happened. (Ask the child why they did that, if possible.) An aggressive outburst might have been caused by a physical sense of danger: somebody blocking their way when they needed to leave, another child bullying them, or an adult reacting abusively. Understand the situation before attempting to impose consequences.
Ask other people what exactly happened. If somebody behaved physically towards the child (e.g. attempting to pin them down against their will), then the child’s reaction was actually a panicked attempt at self-defense, and you must address the other person’s behavior.
Sometimes caregivers, particularly in the ABA school, use euphemisms for damaging behavior: “keeping him in his chair” might mean “pinning him down while he cried for help.”
If violence results as an escalation, talk to both parties, not just the autistic child. For example, if a boy takes a girl’s toy and she hits him, it is important to address both his and her behavior.
If the child misbehaved, then be firm about it. Screaming, crying,flopping, and stimming are all natural during meltdowns. However, being mean or needlessly aggressive is never acceptable. Here are some ways to deal with it:
“It is not okay for you to hit your sister. We are not a violent family. If you’re mad at her, you need to use your words or take a break.” “I understand that you were upset, but it wasn’t nice of you to call the waiter names. It wasn’t his fault that you were unhappy. How do you think he felt when you called him ugly?”
Teach positive alternatives. Simply telling a child that something is wrong won’t help them—they need to know how to deal with their feelings. Work together with them to come up with alternate solutions.
“If you need to punch things when you’re upset, do you think it would work for you to punch some pillows or cushions instead? It’s okay to punch the couch when you’re angry.”
“I know that it’s not fun for you to scream and cry in the restaurant. Next time you start to feel upset, you can tug on my sleeve and let me know that you need a break, and I’ll take you outside so you can feel better.”
“Kicking the back of Mommy’s chair makes her very uncomfortable. What ifyou rocked in the rocking chair instead?”
Praise the child when they handle it well. Complimenting them willreinforce the good results.
“I saw you asking your therapist for a break today. That was very mature of you to recognize that you needed to pause.”
“Good job punching the pillows! That’s much better than punching your brother.”
“Thank you for telling me that you needed to leave.”
Talk to the child after a meltdown. Listen patiently to hear the fullstory. What caused the meltdown? What could they do in future situations like this? What could you do to help them? This will help you work out specific strategies together, and help the child know that they can come to you in the future.
If you or your child often experience meltdowns in a certain situation,then there is a serious problem with that situation. See if you can avoid re-experiencing the situation, or, if it is inevitable, make the experience less upsetting.
Never hold down a child against their will or lock them alone in a room. This is extremely dangerous, and will often make the child panic. Making a child feel powerless will not improve their self-control.
How to Fall Asleep if You’re Autistic
How to Make a Calming Down Corner
How to Deal with Autistic Children’s Meltdowns
How to Calm Down by Using Your Senses
How to Take Care of Yourself
How to Reduce Sensory Overload
How to Calm an Autistic Child
How to Talk to an Autistic Person
Sources and Citations
Cynthia Kim: Anatomy of a Meltdown describes how meltdowns feel
Judy Endow: Autistic Meltdown or Temper Tantrum? from Ollibean
Real Social Skills: Autism Tips for Aides and Parents
10 Strategies for Calming an Autistic Child
Preventing the Use of Restraint and Seclusion with Young Children: The Role of Effective, Positive Practices discusses the importance of compassionate relationships, and includes tips for serious cases of aggression
Cite error: tags exist, but no tag was found