Tips for dealing with meltdowns

One of the most enduring aspects of having a child with autism, especially a child who is non-verbal, is meltdowns. For those parents of neurotypical children, a meltdown is not a tantrum. A tantrum is an attempt to secure dominance, in the most embarrassing situations. You can almost reason with the brat, er um, little angel, to some extent. It can be easily appeased and swift justice and retribution can be exacted the moment you get home.

What is a “meltdown”?

A meltdown is when a child has a tidal wave of sensory information that they cannot process in a situation they cannot avoid or move away from. The stimulation can be noise, smells, light, crowded spaces, even sunlight and heat. For my son, noise and crowded spaces seem to be his triggers and we’ve begun to notice that he was becoming more sensitive to noise the older he gets. It has begun to make going shopping difficult, as every high street store is either crowded or plays music.

There are many studies explaining this phenomena, but there is no way to permanently eradicate the situations were overloads happen. We are living in a very noisy, busy, overstimulated world, which is not the most conducive for children with autism. The best that can be done is to help the child, and yourself, to cope better with these situations.

In very young children, this is going to be a steep learning curve type of deal. This makes it the most stressful time for you and your child. There is the perceived judgement of others, the feeling of being powerless, the anger and embarrassment felt for the child for causing the scene. And the first time it happens there can be an overpowering sense of shock and fear as your child flails out of control in front of you. When my sister-in-law first witnessed my son’s meltdown when she took him shopping alone it obviously left her shocked and fearful. For my wife and I it was just a normal Saturday.

Once again, this article isn’t meant to be read as legislation. Other parents have their own tips for managing meltdowns and every child with autism is different. I am only explaining what has worked for us and how it has significantly reduced the occurrence of my son’s meltdowns. It is for guidance only and I heartily any tips of your own in the comments section.

Accept this is going to happen. If they never happen for you, that’s fine. But if they do, just accept this is a behaviour that your child cannot control. They are not trying to embarrass you, in fact, it is unlikely they are aware of anyone else around them. Acceptance is very important, as it will also allow you to be less focused on others, and how you feel, so you can better support the child.

Stay calm. Yes, I include this in all my tips, because it’s the most important super power you have. If you are calm, that will influence how your child feels. They will feel safer and secure, so that it will be easier for you both to cope with the situation. It may appear at times that your child is aloof and paying no attention to you, but they still rely on your attachment to them. You will be the most important role model for coping strategies they have. That sounds like a huge burden, but that’s the job.

Know the signs. My son has four main stages to full blown meltdown. We now diligently watch for them and we’ve been able to curb most meltdowns at stage two.

  • Stage 1 is hands on ears. We initially thought this was because he was trying to block out just noise, however we now know it is for any situation where he feels insecure or uncertain.
  • Stage 2 is a low whining sound. Once again, we thought this was to blot out sounds he doesn’t like, but in fact is a form of stimming (self-stimulation. Ed). It helps to calm him, and we realised that this is not just about sounds when he made this sound when we took him to a city farm. He is very uncomfortable around animals and now that we recognise these sounds we have a better indication of what he’s main triggers are.
  • Stage 3 is crying. He will gently sob to himself and seek to be held and cuddled. This is a very helpful stage for us, because comforting is the easiest way of defusing a meltdown. This is also the perfect stage for our Meltdown Kit. Some parents I’ve spoken to don’t have this stage and it often feels like the child goes from zero to full meltdown with no warning. That’s how we used to feel, but then we noticed these stages and realised we could have been more attentive earlier. Had we been on the look out for triggers and the stages it would have been a lot easier for all of us.
  • Stage 4 is full meltdown. At this stage there is very little we can do other than try to remove him from the situation. My son is 4 years old but already wearing clothes for 6-7 year olds and over half my height (I’m 6’2! Ed). He is big and very strong and has pushed over full grown adults when he has gotten to this stage. So, removing him from a situation is not always easy if he is kicking and screaming. The Meltdown Kit is useful here too, as it helps to slowly calm him down.

Have a Meltdown Kit

I am sure parents of children with autism already have this, as it would be impossible to cope without one. My son’s favourite things are in the Kit - Oreos, raisins, crisps and movies. It’s not much, but it’s enough to refocus him. Oreos are what we use for what appears to us as his most explosive meltdowns. Oreos fix everything for him and, although he will still be weepy and emotional, it is a fair bet that he will soon be feeling better once he’s eaten a few. Movies are also a good distraction. Every digital device I have has at least 3 of his favourite movies, and, although there have been a few occasions where an iPhone or an iPad have gone whizzing through the air, it is very good for helping him calm down over long periods of time where we may be stuck in a waiting room or on a train.

Again, this is what works for us. The idea is that you find out what works for you. As with all my tips, they are to be adapted not adhered to, so find out what works for you and develop your own tips. There are some good websites that sell sensory kits. I find these websites unnecessarily expensive, but a good place to get ideas. Check with your child’s school or nursery too. My son plays with completely different toys at school than he does at home, but insight from the school gives us ideas of any sensory needs we haven’t picked up on.

School liaison

Liaison with the school is also really important when learning about triggers that cause meltdowns. Most schools will work with you to minimise these and it is a good indication if the school is the type of caring environment that you want your child to be in.

A school might use meltdowns to senselessly exclude your child from school. If your child’s meltdown triggers an exclusion and the school cites behaviour policies, remind them politely this contravenes the Equality Act 2010. If they still don’t budge, cite this case. It essentially means the school can be taken to task if they exclude a child based on behaviour which is linked to their learning needs. The case now means that schools must provide evidence that the learners needs were met prior to the incident they are being excluded for and that it must prove appropriate levels of SEN Support has been put in place to reduce said behaviour.

Also, If you ever feel emotional or drained because the meltdowns come thick and fast, I’d advise you to seek out parent groups and share your experiences. You are not alone, even when you feel that you are the only person in the world that is trying to deal with it. These forums are extremely supportive and there will be local forums that can tell you about good services in your area.

This article was written by Oran Blackwood, a qualified educator who describes himself as “a champion of young people with special needs and mental ill health”.

Sign-up for our Newsletter:

Your Name *

Your Email *

Yes! Sign me up for the newsletter!

Was this article helpful? Did we miss something? Let us know!