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  • Writer's pictureAmy Dougley

Support in managing meltdowns for children with ASD

When autistic children experience meltdowns, it can often seem like it came out of nowhere. Many meltdowns will last for quite some time and they can be incredibly overwhelming, both for the caregiver and the child.


Whilst everyone can find themselves feeling overwhelmed by events occurring around them and can occasionally respond by lashing out at others, isolating themselves or reacting in an emotional way, those with autism will experience meltdowns due to an involuntary response to a nervous system overload (Autism Research Institute, 2023).


It is important to note that for those with autism, a meltdown is not a tantrum. A tantrum is where behaviour occurs for reasons such as not getting access to a toy or activity whereas meltdowns occur due to an overwhelming increase in stimuli. 


An individual experiencing a meltdown may express themselves verbally, through stimming or; repetitive movements, or by physically by acting out behaviours towards themselves or others. 


What can we do to help when our child is experiencing a meltdown? 


  1. Recognizing antecedents (anything that happens prior to the meltdowns); can help navigate around the anticipation of meltdowns. 

  2. Working with your child on labeling their emotions when they are experiencing tough feelings and teaching calming strategies can help! 

  3. Teaching your child ways to soothe themselves before a meltdown occurs helps your child recognize their emotions and learn a way to express their big emotions. 

  4. Remember, having a meltdown is okay. Your child is experiencing a lot of emotions and cannot communicate as they would when they are calm.


We have already defined what a meltdown is, now what are the reasons behind them? Other than overwhelming stimuli, meltdowns can occur when there are;


  1. Communication difficulties

  2. Unmet needs

  3. Routine Changes

  4. Anxiety


These are just a few triggers that may result in your child experiencing a meltdown, and this list is not meant to be exhaustive. As a caregiver, you will know there are many other reasons that can trigger this type of response. Recognizing the triggers is crucial as it can help you better prepare and support your child when they experience one. Once we know the triggers, it is much easier to expect what’s to come. There may be times where meltdowns may be unavoidable.


How can we best support our child through it? 

This begins with recognizing any precursor behaviours, behaviours that tend to occur right before the more severe behaviour. This can look very different and can come out in the form of anxiety, as discussed above, where your child may repeatedly ask about something, they may pace back and forth, or their vocals may change. 


Tracking it on your phone or calendar with what is happening before the meltdown will help recognize any patterns which can help support your child. Some children may scream, cry, yell, or some may also engage in physical behaviours such as self-injurious behaviours, property destruction, biting, kicking, and more (Autism Research Institute, 2023). If your child is known to engage in physical behaviours, it can be beneficial to remove items that may be harmful for them (and have softer items available) in anticipation of a meltdown


During the initial stage of a meltdown, there may be a chance of managing the escalation by teaching your child calming strategies. Calming strategies can be any item or activity that can help your child regulate themselves. This can be playing with a favourite toy, hugging a stuffed toy, using a weighted blanket, fidget toys, music, anything your child finds comfort in. Having these items present can help your child as it diverts their attention from what may have triggered them. Once they have returned to a calm body, communicating about the meltdown and labeling their feelings can help your child understand. Relating to their feelings and validating can help your child feel safe in a time when they may not (Tami & Schutte, 2018).


In the moment it is extremely tough to control your own emotions when a lot is going on around you. As much as you can, ensure your body is neutral and calm when managing a meltdown. Meltdowns can be tough; being there and supporting your child through it using some of the strategies above can help! It is also very important that those managing meltdowns take time for themselves too. Engaging in self-care, talking to other parents/guardians, reading articles and getting our own mental health support all help us be better equipped with the skills we need. It is also important not to take the outbursts personally as your child is going through an incredibly tough time in those moments. 


References

Autism Research Institute (2023, April 18). Meltdowns & calming techniques in autism. https://autism.org/meltdowns-calming-techniques-in-autism/ 

Tami, A., & Schutte, C. (2018, April 23). Tantrums, meltdowns & outbursts, oh my!. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6TlX6wEoVc 


This blog was written by one of our behavioural therapists, Neha Patel. For more information about our behavioral therapy services feel free to call us at 519.751.0728 or email pathwaystohopebrant@gmail.com





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