How to Handle Autistic Meltdowns in Children
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received those glares in the grocery store, when my child with autism has had a meltdown. There have even been occasions where another shopper was annoyed enough to make a snide remark to me about the behavior. Clearly, they had no idea that my otherwise well-behaved child was having an autistic meltdown. To them, it simply looked like a tantrum, and I looked like a bad parent.
It’s been long enough now, that I am familiar with my boys’ triggers. Many of their meltdowns are preventable, and I have learned to take precautions when possible. But all the preventative measures in the world can’t eliminate all autistic meltdowns, so it’s good to have a list of calming strategies handy when one occurs.
What causes autistic meltdowns?
Pretty much anything can trigger an autistic meltdown. You handed your child the yellow cup instead of the green one. The block tower fell over again. His friend took the toy he wanted to play with. A sound was too loud. A tag got too scratchy. A rock got in her shoe. His hands got sweaty.
The littlest thing can send an autistic child into meltdown mode without warning. Or did we just miss the warning signs?
Many times, a meltdown is only caused after many different triggers have caused a buildup of tension. If your child is struggling with sensory overload, and their younger sibling bumps into them, it can bring their world crashing down. If a few other seemingly petty things already irritated your child, and they handled those well, the next one may be more than they can take.
Autistic meltdowns are usually caused by one of the following:
A buildup of stress
Because emotional regulation is so difficult for kids with autism, stress takes longer to dissipate. When subsequent stresses occur, it adds to the pot. Every little thing can raise their temperature, and eventually the child boils over.
Sensory overload can be easily overlooked. Children with autism can be much more sensitive to sensory input. The lights may be too bright, the sounds may be too loud, the temperature may be off, or there may be an offensive smell (even a good one). The opposite can be true too: your child may not be getting enough sensory input.
Children with autism often battle anxiety as well. It may be caused by social struggles, unusual fears, changes in routine (or lack of routine altogether), or anything that makes your child feel like they have no control.
Try to prevent autistic meltdowns
You may be wondering how you could possibly prevent meltdowns, when there are so many different triggers. Wouldn’t that be like looking for a needle in a haystack? Well, it may not be the easiest thing to conquer, but you can definitely prevent a lot of meltdowns if you know what is causing them. Here are some tips to find out what is triggering your child’s meltdowns.
Track your child’s tantrums
It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but start tracking your child’s meltdowns in a journal, or on a calendar. Jot down details like what happened before and after the meltdown, the time, the weather, people involved, location, foods eaten that day, obvious sensory factors, and what calmed them down.
You may find out that your child’s meltdowns occur at a specific time of day, or when you go to a certain place, or after eating different foods. Barometric pressure can also have a big impact on children with sensory sensitivities, so don’t rule out changes in weather. Certain smells may bother your child at a friend’s house. Whatever it is, tracking these details will help figure out the root cause of your child’s meltdowns.
Have a routine
I can’t stress this one enough. Routines give children a sense of safety. They help them to know what is coming next. This also gives them the feeling of having some control, because they can plan things based on their routine.
If Jimmy loves to play with LEGO blocks before bed, but he doesn’t have a set bedtime, it’s going to be more difficult for him to separate with his beloved blocks when you announce that it’s time to put them away. If you have an established routine, and he knows that bedtime is at 8:00, so he has 15 more minutes to build his LEGO world, it will make the transition less difficult.
Letting your child know what to expect on a regular basis can prevent a lot of unnecessary meltdowns.
Use visual aids
Using visual schedules, visual choice boards, flash cards, and social stories are truly invaluable. Most people with autism benefit greatly from visual aids.
If your child struggles with the grocery store, make a simple social story. Read it, and go over each of the pictures before you go to the grocery store.
Keep a visual schedule in a central location, so your child can look at it throughout the day, and know what is coming next.
Use visual choice boards so your child can easily let you know what they need. Communication issues can be the cause of autistic meltdowns, even in verbal children. Many times, it’s finding the words that is the difficult part., especially if they feel stressed.
Keeping your child safe during an autistic meltdown
In the heat of the moment, safety if the most important thing to consider. Make sure your child is in a safe place. If you are at home, move them to a crash pad or a similar area, where they are able to move around without causing injury.
If they are hitting, kicking, or banging their head, make sure they are away from hard objects, and give them a pillow or stuffed toy. If they are biting, offer a chew toy or food grade tubing.
Make sure you are not adding to the problem. I know some days are harder than others, but take a few deep breaths. Use a calm and gentle voice with your child. Don’t use negative talk, and don’t tell them to “stop” or “calm down.” If they could, they would. We need to provide peace during their times of turmoil.
Side note: if you’ve failed in this area, don’t beat yourself up – just figure out what caused you to lose it, and make sure it doesn’t happen next time. You’ve got this! I highly recommend Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids if you struggle in this area. It is a game changer!
If you are in public, try to find a quiet place nearby, and let your child calm down. Try to keep their head away from floors and walls, and keep your other children out of the line of fire. Only restrain your child if absolutely necessary, as this could cause further anxiety.
Having a portable calm down kit can really make a difference. If your child often gets distressed over outings, and you can’t find the root cause, or it is unpreventable, consider making a simple calm down kit to bring along. A weighted lap pad, calming essential oils, a few small sensory toys, and headphones would be a great start.
How to help a child with autism calm down
The best way to calm your child down during an autistic meltdown will depend on what caused it. If you are unsure, try headphones, distraction, or simple relax techniques. Usually, a quiet and calming environment or a quick distraction can drop the tantrum a few notches, or at least keep it from further escalating. Here are some other calming tactics.
Block out unwanted sensory input
Use noise-canceling headphones to block out sounds
Put on sunglasses or a ball cap to reduce the harshness of lights
Make silly faces
Sing a song
Watch a video
Ask your child to find objects of a certain color
Calming music or nature sounds
Provide needed sensory input
Bounce (Use an exercise ball or indoor trampoline.)
Weighted blanket (This lady makes adorable handmade, washable ones for great prices!)
Water timer (You can see several awesome styles here.)
Reassure your child that they are safe. Even if they don’t appear to be listening, or if they are screaming too loudly to hear you. They will catch bits and pieces when they come up for air. Speaking in a soft, gentle voice can help them begin to feel safe again, and can shorten a tantrum.
Reduce autistic meltdowns
Because of the nature of autism, you probably won’t be able to completely eliminate meltdowns from your vocabulary. Although you can significantly reduce their frequency and intensity, they will still occur at times. Having a plan in place, along with the proper tools, can make those meltdowns much more bearable.