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A Parent’s Perspective on Handling Meltdowns

Meltdowns happen. Meltdowns happen first thing in the morning, right before bed, and all the times in between. They happen at your in-law’s house, at the grocery store, and during religious services. Meltdowns seem to be the number one reason that parents seek a diagnosis of autism for their child. That was true for me when my son was 2 years old. We felt like we were walking on eggshells all the time. Whether meltdowns happen in the privacy of your own home or in a public space, anger and frustration can boil over. All you want to do is make the whole situation go away.

Making the meltdowns go away takes time. Your child will need to learn new skills, and so will you. Strategies will need to be put in place and adhered to consistently by everyone who interacts with your child. Accommodations will need to be made. Resources for teaching new skills can be found at the end of this article. But because teaching someone to use tools and strategies instead of meltdowns takes time, here are some tips to help you manage those meltdowns while your child is working hard to develop the skills that will prevent them:

Adjust Your Understanding of Why Meltdowns Happen

Our initial reaction to a child having a meltdown is that the child is trying to manipulate us to get their way. With autism though, what looks like manipulation on the surface is really an effort to manage a difficult, confusing, overwhelming, or frustrating situation or experience in the only way they know how. By not taking it personally, I find it is easier to harness the calmness needed to support a child rather than get angry with them.

Essentially, meltdowns happen because there is no other tool in the toolbox. Every child is born with a toolbox of emotional and functional tools they will need to tackle life. Some tools they will know how to use naturally, and others will require instruction. But our kids diagnosed with autism may be missing some tools or have different tools in their toolboxes or just need intensely focused and repetitive instruction to be able to use some of their tools. They have meltdowns because the tools they need to handle a difficult, overwhelming or frustrating situation are either not there or they haven’t learned to use them yet. The meltdown is their way of communicating needs or emotions in that situation.

Take a Deep Breath and Think Before You Act/React

If you lose your cool when your child is having a meltdown, then you are both having a meltdown and that doesn’t help anyone. Try to take a deep breath. Pause and consider how you are going to respond just before you do. Prepare to be flexible. When I can do these things, my reaction to my son’s behavior is supportive to him. After all, he is having the meltdown because it is the only way he knows to communicate to me that he is overwhelmed, frustrated, or unhappy.

“Drop the Language”

Less is more during a meltdown.  As best you can, limit how much you say.  Keep language simple and concrete. Give one verbal direction at a time and PAUSE to allow your child to process. Better yet, if your child understands some helpful visual cues, use them. If your child can read, then write to them instead of talking.

React Strategically

Acknowledge their feelings and state that you see the specific emotion they are experiencing. You are demonstrating sympathy and showing understanding.

  • “I see that you are ready to be done grocery shopping.”
  • “I see that you are frustrated with your Legos.”

Respond with concrete directions of what to do. You may refer to some visual supports, structure, and calming strategies here if they are learning to use them. Do not make threats using inference (If you do not pick up your toys, I will take them away). You can also remind them of any positive reinforcement that supports them when using appropriate behaviors.

  • “I will buy just 3 more items, then we will check out and leave. Will you help me count those last 3 things?”  (3 may be less than you need, but now is the time to be flexible)
  • “Show me your Help cue and then I will help you with your Legos.”

Plan Ahead

If you are planning to go somewhere with your child and you know they struggle with communicating their feelings, with transitions, and with sensory experiences, bring with you the tools they need for communication (PECS, Augmentative Communication Device for example), for transitioning (a visual schedule, social narrative), and for sensory experiences (headphones, fidgets, sensory soothing objects). Have a bag ready to go for any impromptu outings.

 

Meltdowns don’t miraculously go away. Targeted interventions and strategies will be needed to lessen the frequency and intensity of meltdowns. If you are not sure where to begin with these, please reach out to your local ASNC Autism Resource Specialists for guidance and resources. The ASNC Clinical Department may also be able to provide consultation through Rapid Response Clinical Consultation/telehealth or LifeLong Interventions/Applied Behavior Analysis.

 

These ASNC resources may also help you work with your child to decrease the frequency and intensity of meltdowns:

ASNC Webinars –

ASNC Blog Articles –

 

Nancy Popkin can be reached at npopkin@autismsociety-nc.org or 704-894-9678.

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