To an outsider, a child with autism having a meltdown might appear like a child having a temper tantrum, but the circumstances are often more complex than what meets the eye. Those who have cared for a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will know a meltdown is handled differently and with intimate knowledge of the child’s personality.
What is an autism meltdown?
A meltdown is defined as an intense reaction to sensory overwhelm. When a child with autism is overwhelmed, he/she knows no other way to express it other than with a meltdown. This might involve emotional verbal outbursts such as screaming and crying or physical reactions like kicking, biting or hitting.
Meltdown vs temper tantrum
Although they may look similar, meltdowns are different from temper tantrums. A temper tantrum is usually a child’s method for getting what he/she wants. A meltdown, however, has no purpose and is beyond a child’s control.
To be more specific, a temper tantrum happens when a child is:
- Frustrated with not getting what he/she wants
- Not able to do what he/she wants
- Not able to properly communicate
A child might stop a tantrum after the following responses:
- Being comforted by a parent or caregiver
- Being given what he/she wants (although not an ideal strategy)
- Being ignored and giving up on his/her own
Youngsters who throw temper tantrums are aware and in control of their actions and can adjust the level of their tantrum based on the response they get from a parent or adult. Here we can use behavioral strategies to manage tantrums.
Meltdowns have entirely different causes. Because they are triggered by sensory overload, a child on the spectrum having a meltdown can have a few defining characteristics.
Autistic meltdown symptoms may:
- Start with pre-meltdown signs called “rumblings” which can be verbal or physical behaviors that signal an imminent meltdown
- Be preceded with stimming
- Be caused by overstimulation or an undesirable sensory input
- Not be limited to young children and can also happen to teens and adults
- Happen with or without an audience
- Last longer than tantrums
Once you can tell the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown, then you can apply the right strategies to deal with the situation.
Difference between meltdowns, tantrums, and aggression?
Aggression in kids with ASD refers to violent behavior that may include kicking, hitting, throwing objects, punching, and biting. Aggressive behavior can be directed to others or oneself. Both a meltdown and a tantrum can involve aggression.
Outside of sensory overload that leads to a meltdown, there are other reasons why a child with autism uses aggression. Some children become violent when an object of comfort is taken away from them, or when they are forced into something they do not want to do.
The key goal of handling aggression is to ensure the safety of the child and others around him/her. Some strategies would be removing the cause of aggression, providing calming toys and/or activities, and giving your child a safe space where he/she can calm down.
How to deal with a temper tantrum
Dealing with a temper tantrum is different from dealing with a meltdown. Children throw tantrums because they want something. This does not mean, however, that you should always give in to every demand behind a tantrum.
Keep your calm
It is easy to get upset when your child is throwing a tantrum, but try to keep yourself calm first before addressing your child’s behavior.
Don’t give in
The fastest way to stop a tantrum is to give the child what he/she wants. While you can do this on specific occasions when you cannot afford to deal with a tantrum, it is not a great strategy in the long run. Your child will learn that he/she needs to throw a tantrum to get what he/she wants.
Acknowledge your child’s emotions
Instead of telling your child to “stop crying,” you can let him/her know that you understand his/her feelings. You can validate feelings without giving in. For example, saying something like, “I know you’re upset that you can’t have that toy, but we can’t buy it right now. Maybe next time.” This lets your child know that you feel bad that he/she feels bad, but there is nothing you can do—for now.
How to deal with a meltdown?
As no two kids with ASD are the same, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy on how to handle meltdowns. Not all meltdown strategies are guaranteed to work on every child on the spectrum. However, there are some general techniques that can be customized to your child’s behavior and personality.
The best way to prevent your child from having a meltdown is to predict and avoid triggers. This can be avoiding crowds, establishing a set routine, and planning ahead.
However, when a meltdown is already happening, you can try the following approach:
- Leave the room or location to help your child calm down
- Use calming devices like a fidget toy, noise-canceling headphones, or a weighted vest
- Choose a good time when your child is receptive to learning and teach breathing exercises, meditation, and counting from one to ten
- Prevent injuries to your child or others during a meltdown by being in a safe place
- Keep yourself calm as your child can feel your frustration and worsen the meltdown
- Keep your face and voice neutral and be at arm’s length in case the child reaches out
- Children who are in a meltdown can’t be reasoned with so don’t rely on logic
How to prevent meltdowns?
For parents, dealing with ASD meltdowns can be exhausting. Preventing them can be a better strategy than trying to respond to them.
Sometimes you can use the information you know about the child to avoid common triggers:
- Know the child’s sensory sensitivities such loud noises, bright lights, or strong smells
- Know the daily routine such as reading a story before bedtime, eating a certain food for breakfast
- Know the child’s favorite things/places such a dinosaur toy, favorite blanket, a specific shop/store
Once you have these pieces of information, it will be easier to identify meltdown triggers and avoid them as much as possible.
For instance, if your child does not like a specific sensory input like bright lights, but you are in a public place where there are bright lights, try to redirect your child to avoid this area.
It might be necessary to improvise if you can not avoid a meltdown trigger. If you need to skip breakfast because you need to leave early for a trip, pack the child’s breakfast so he/she can still eat it on the way.
Averting a meltdown may not be possible at all times, but here are a few ways to try to prevent them:
- Inform and prepare your child for any changes in routine
- Acknowledge your child’s emotions and remain supportive
- Divert the child’s attention with objects and toys he/she likes (an autism meltdown kit)
- Teach your child to communicate when he/she is upset
- Offer alternatives to something that is not possible (and the child wants) to make him/her feel like he/she has some control of the situation
- Check and resolve any physical discomfort (hunger, illness, being cold)
- Observe your child closely to identify a meltdown “rumble” so you have time to try and prevent the meltdown
- Learn from previous meltdowns and modify your strategy as needed
How to use an autism meltdown kit
A meltdown kit or a calm down kit is a customized set of objects (toys, calming devices, sensory items) that help prevent or de-escalate a child’s meltdown.
To create your own meltdown kit, you need to ask yourself the following questions:
What kind of toys/activities does my child like to do?
Can this item help stop or lessen a meltdown?
Does this item have the texture/shape/color my child likes?
Based on the answers to your questions, here are some items that can be included in your child’s kit:
- Fidget toys
- Sensory objects (kinetic sand, play putty, slime, stress ball)
- Noise-canceling headphones
- Favorite music
- Weighted vest
- Weighted stuff toy
- Favorite toy
- Musical instrument (whistle, harmonica)
Note that giving this kit to your child is ideal for preventing a meltdown. It might not work if the child is already in the middle of a meltdown.
Meltdowns at school
School-age children on the spectrum are prone to meltdowns, as a school can be a place with many triggers.
While they might recover from a meltdown when he/she is with a parent or caregiver, it might not be the same when he/she is in school. Your child’s teacher will take on your role when a meltdown happens.
You must talk to their teacher and agree on strategies to use if and when your child has a meltdown. Share as much as you can so the teacher fully understands your child’s triggers and how he/she responds to specific approaches.
Some additional strategies for helping cope with school meltdowns are:
- Coordinate with school personnel to create a meltdown strategy for your child
- Pack a meltdown kit in his/her school bag
- Ask the teacher to assign a quiet place where your child can calm down and manage a meltdown
- Talk to your child before school and explain what he/she will be doing for that day (You can get this information from the teacher)
When a child with autism has experienced overstimulation throughout the day, he/she might experience a meltdown right before the day ends.
Some strategies for preventing meltdowns during bedtime include:
- Provide a calm bedroom to encourage sleep
- Avoid caffeine and sugar before bedtime
- Establish a bedtime routine
- Tell your child when it’s nearly time for bed
- Use sleep aids like weighted stuff toys, blankets, or special LED lamps
- Avoid activities that your child finds hard to stop (playing video games, watching TV)
These techniques may not always work, but they may set the stage for a successful and meltdown-free night for your child.
While most meltdowns can be managed without medication, some cases of aggression and violent meltdowns might require additional help. Consult your child’s doctor when considering medication.
Some antipsychotic medications like Risperdal (risperidone) and Abilify (aripiprazole) have been found to be effective in treating aggression and irritability in children with autism. Both of these medications are approved by the FDA. Risperdal can be given to children as young as five years old, and Abilify for children six years old and older. Other parents have found success in using CBD oil for autism.
Meltdowns, tantrums, and aggression may all be part of raising a child on the spectrum. While these can be difficult to manage at times, having the right strategies can significantly improve his/her ability to regulate emotions in the future. As a parent, you know your child best and should, therefore, keep looking for the most effective and safest ways to help your child during a meltdown or tantrum.