I don’t know if I like “calming” in this instance, but it’s a lot better than “stopping” which is something you can rarely do once a meltdown occurs. Once it’s started, it’s started and you gotta ride it out. But there are some things that you can do help your child (and yourself) get through them once they start. First things first, what is a meltdown?
Autistic Meltdowns: What are they and how do they differ from tantrums?
Simply put, a meltdown is an intense response to an overwhelming situation and/or event. A loss of behavioral control ensues and can manifests itself verbally (through shouting, crying, screaming, etc.), physically (hitting, kicking, biting, etc.), or both verbally and physically. The loss of control is temporary, though it is not uncommon for a meltdown to last for hours.
A meltdown is NOT tantrum. Tantrums are outbursts designed to get what the child wants or needs. They serve a purpose. They usually stop when the child gets what they want or when they realize they won’t get what they want. Meltdowns generally do not stop when the child is given something their parents feel they wanted or even if it was something the child may have wanted initially. Sometimes your child is so overwhelmed during a meltdown they might not even know what they want or need.
Meltdowns, at least for us, end in one of two ways: fatigue; our kids simply tire themselves out, or we alter/change the sensory input. For example, if I know it’s crowd related, we will try to remove ourselves from that area.
Those with Autism are prone to tantrums as well. It ain’t always meltdowns. It’s important to know the difference because addressing each requires different methods. You can make a meltdown worse if you treat it like a tantrum.
Preventing the Meltdown.
This is my number one for anything behavioral and/or sensory related. You do what you can to prevent a meltdown from occurring in the first place. If you know your child cannot handle crowds and loud places well, try to visit during the least busiest hours, make sure they have headphones for the noise, etc. Sometimes crowds and noise are unavoidable, so do your best to prepare your child for what is to come. I did social stories, slowly took my boys out into public more and more, starting with the grocery store early in the morning so there’s not really a lot of people. I tried to build up their tolerance for being out with people other than us.
Anticipate the meltdown. I know it sometimes seems that meltdowns just appear out of nowhere, but there are generally signs that they are about to happen. It’s up to you to figure out what specific signs your child has right before one occurs.
Both my boys show signs of anxiety before a meltdown. One paces back and forth, the other gets incredibly hyper. My speaking son will ask a bunch of repetitive questions seeking reassurance, often becoming very stiff, and my nonspeaking son will use his body as a sign through rocking or swaying.
Identify possible triggers. This is where a “Behavior Diary/Log” is useful. I ALWAYS keep a small notebook handy that I use as a behavior log book. I chart where we are, what we are doing, what they ate, everything. This helps me to understand what happened prior so that I know what to do better next time. You might identify some patterns. My kids are prone to meltdowns midday. One kid is okay with crowds if he has headphones, his transport chair, and doesn’t sit still for longer than 10 minutes.
Minimize the triggers. Once you know your child’s signs of being overwhelmed and what triggers cause them, you have a really good chance at preventing one from happening. Are you in a loud space and your child cannot handle noise too well? You are on alert to look for signs of distress. Once you see them occur you can deploy several methods (distraction, removing yourself and your child from the area, e.g.) to stave off a meltdown.
What to do if a meltdown occurs.
I touched a little on what we do in this post. We were at my graduation in Virginia, a day’s drive from home, and my son had the meltdown to end all meltdowns. I generally do the same thing for each meltdown but I also make sure I adjust my tactics dependent upon our surroundings, whether or not I know the cause, and which child is having the meltdown. As you get better with meltdowns, you will also adjust when necessary.
So you’ve done everything you could to prevent the meltdown and one still occurred. It happens. A lot. for children who crave routine and predictability, they can often be rather unpredictable.
Here’s what you do when one occurs.
1. Don’t judge them or yourself. Remain calm. Your emotions have an effect on your child. Do not make the meltdown worse for them while getting angry or frustrated. I know there are times when you feel so much anger, but keep it bottled up for the time being. Let it out later, or as you might find out, as time goes on, you won’t even really be bothered by it.
2. Do not yell or tell them to “calm down.” That won’t work and they are most likely not listening to you anyways. They are in a crisis and not much you say is going to change that. I mention in this post that I speak with my son. I do. It’s usually the same short response. “I know you have having a tough time right now, I’m going to help you through it.” I tell both my boys similar things. And then I back up some. Sometimes I just sit next to them.
3. Remove the triggers. If you are able to remove them from the overstimulating area or remove the trigger, do so. This won’t end the meltdown abruptly but it will help. I took my son out of the crowded arena during my graduation. He was in full crisis then. It didn’t stop when he was removed but it helps to try to find a safe space for your child. Ask people to give you and your child some space and to not stare.
4. Are they okay? If they are up for it after some time, ask them if they are ok. They might take longer to answer, meltdowns take a lot out of them. I ask both my nonspeaking child and my speaking one if they are okay. My nonspeaking child is not 100% proficient in his iPad, but I still present it so that he can make some choices and have the opportunity to tell me what is wrong or what he wants.
5. Try not to physically manipulate them. Sometimes they do not want you to touch them. A lot of times you cannot touch them without getting hurt yourself. If they are being aggressive towards themselves and others, you will most likely have to stay back some, ensure others do not come near your child, and do your best to keep him in an area separate from others. Remain calm. I know this is hard to do when your child is hurting himself or lashing out, but it will be a lot worse if you aren’t calm when interacting with your child. My child scratches his face til it bleeds, bites his arm, or hits his head. I am now able to hold his hands for a few seconds on his lap, then I let go. I will repeat this until he no longer self harms. But I don’t hold him down. That makes it worse. I show him that it’s not okay to hurt himself, but I still let him maintain most of the control over his body. If your child is lashing out at himself or others and you are able to push his hands or feet away, do so. Try not to hold him down unless you have specific training in hold techniques, some therapy centers can teach you these crisis holds so you don’t hurt yourself or your child.
6. Give them some time. You have removed the triggers (hopefully), you assured them that you are there for them, you checked in on them, and you found them a safe space and told onlookers to keep it moving. And they are still not okay. Give them some space and some time to work through it. I sit with my kiddo and every few minutes, I’ll repeat that I know they are having a tough time and I’m there for them, ask them if they are okay, and that I will be right there for them when they need me. Meltdowns usually end because they are tired or because the triggers have been removed.
Meltdowns are sometimes unavoidable, but there are some things that you can do to minimize their occurrence. I have listed some ways in this post, but quite possibly the biggest way to reduce their intensity as well as their frequency is to work on your child’s communication. Communication difficulties often lead to frustration and anger which trigger meltdowns. It’s important that you help your child develop a communicative method that works best for them if they are nonspeaking, and for all children on the spectrum it’s especially important that help your child find ways to not only understand their emotions but how to express them so that they do not get so overwhelmed.