An autism meltdown is a state of confusion leaving both the person having the meltdown and the parent trying to control their child lost in a sea of negative, scary emotions. From an adult who has autism who also has a daughter and a nephew on the spectrum, here are some do’s and don’ts for a shorter, less dramatic meltdown.
10 Do’s and Don’ts During an Autism Meltdown
Don’t Nag your Kid
Don’t talk much. Don’t yell at your kid to calm down. Remember, it’s sensory overload. Adding to it, even verbal input, is adding to the stress and frustration. Keep verbal communications short and to the point, and only for things really important like, “stop trying to break the window.” Words should only be used to give boundaries and direction and nothing more, and when you give those boundaries, expect a couple minutes of delay from the child.
Remember, logic only works before and after the meltdown. If you see one forming, your kid getting worked up, that’s when you talk it out. Ask questions. Help re-direct and reassure. Once in meltdown mode, logic does not exist. Don’t even try it.
Don’t insult. Do not focus on the child but the behavior. Your kid is not a bad kid. He’s just having a bad moment. In the home healthcare world, they refer to things like meltdowns as a behavior. That’s the word they use. “Johnny had three behaviors today.” Focus on the action.
Words increase feelings of being overwhelmed. Your kid knows this behavior is unacceptable. Reassuring those negative thoughts, and those “You MUST’s” only adds to it and overwhelms them more. They already know what not to do. What they don’t know is what to do instead.
Do Keep an Eye on Them
Make sure they are safe. Some will try to jump out a window or something crazy. It’s not that they are suicidal. They just lost their idea of value and safety.
Make sure the people around them are safe too. Step in only when necessary for safety and direction.
It does sometimes help to move them to a more comfortable location where there’s not many people around (especially if you get this in public). That usually means picking up a kicking screaming kid, so don’t do it unless you are physically capable.
Do Give In BEFORE; Don’t Give In DURING
If you’re going to give in, do so before the meltdown. There’s nothing wrong with giving a kid his way to avoid your own migraine despite what the judgmental say. Often times, it is because of the judgmental you give in because spoiling your kid doesn’t make people want to call child protective services like an out-of-control kid. With autism, you choose your battles wisely.
What a lot of onlookers don’t understand is that your autistic kid is not like other kids. He wants his way for different reasons. He has completely different motivations. Most of them are highly logical, but he often can’t communicate them well.
During a meltdown, don’t give in. Don’t let your child think that the meltdown has influenced your decision to give in. That could create a phase of the child faking meltdowns to get his way, especially if that’s the only time you let him have his way.
Do offer it as a reward later. Like if your child wanted a popsicle and you said no, and they threw a fit that landed into a meltdown, you can offer a popsicle for later, for example, “I’ll tell you what? I’ll give you a popsicle at 3:00.” Maybe it’s a toy they can get for their birthday. Often, knowing they will get it later will help them calm down. Sometimes all they need is a plan.
Don’t Make Promises or Threats you Don’t Keep
Trust is important. Autism doesn’t respond well to empty promises. People with autism are very concrete listeners, and they are very precise ones at that. If you say, “You can have a popsicle at 3PM,” you better have a popsicle to give them at 3PM precisely or you risk another meltdown.
Be VERY mindful with what you say. Don’t threaten crazy things in the heat of your own panic that you never intended on doing.
Try to avoid threats all together. Stating that you are going to turn off the TV if they don’t stop screaming does not motivate them to stop screaming at all. If they had any control over their screaming, they would not be screaming in the first place. But if you do make a threat, follow through with it. This is also important because the autistic mind is very dependent on mentally preparing itself for the next thing. Once it’s prepared for it, it has a hard time moving on until it happens.
Do Stay Calm
I know you want to freak out with them. If you do, it makes them freak out more. Studies have shown that our hearts send of electromagnetic fields based on our emotions. They can feel your emotions despite psychology stating they lack empathy, and they are highly sensitive to it. The more lost you feel, the more lost they are going to feel. On the flip side, the more calm you feel, the more contagious that calm is.
If you have to freak out at all, don’t be aggressive. Drop to your knees and cry. It might shake them out of it for their concern over you. Don’t overdramatize it.
Reduce Eye Contact
People with autism don’t make eye contact frequently for a reason. It’s intimidating. Babies and most animals prefer reduced eye contact for a sense of safety.
Most people need eye contact to focus, and many times, a parent wants eye contact to feel like their kid is listening to them. That’s not so bad with autism when the kid is NOT in meltdown mode, and sometimes necessary because many times your voice will get lost in the other things going on (inside and outside of their minds) and they need the eye contact to focus on your voice.
Once in meltdown mode, eye contact is more threatening and adds to the sensory overload. Autistic people take everything personally, and they are harder on themselves with the internal criticism than anyone else. Reassuring those negative feelings about their self with “shameful” eye contact will only increase the feelings they don’t know how to sort.
BUT, toward the end of the meltdown, sometimes it’s helpful when conveying LOVE, and only love. Do not use eye contact to convey criticism near a meltdown because too much meltdown guilt will often lead to another meltdown.
Do Reduce Sensory Input
What we do to soothe crying babies works on older children and adults too. It’s just that as you get older, the soothing utility of doing those things diminishes a bit. However, autism tends to outgrow phases later than most often clinging on to the best of their past as long as they can, and because they are highly sensitive, it still is very effective.
Reduce noise and lights. Increase white noise like a fan. Check the temperature too. Make the environment as relaxed and comfortable as possible.
Do Break Out the Favorite Objects
If your kid has an obsession with anything, now’s the time to use that to your favor. The obsession can be strong enough to fight the overwhelm. They just can’t resist their obsessions, and it gives them a positive something to focus on.
Turn the TV to their favorite show. Maybe even cue it up to the part they repeat over and over again. Break out blocks if that’s their thing and start playing. Minecraft? Put that on and inspire some idea to do that they will really want to try.
This isn’t an instant solution. Give it 5-10 minutes. If they don’t cling to it in 10 minutes, find something else to try.
Like a cat, affection with autism is generally on their terms. The best time to hug is when you see a window of opportunity for it. They will want it the most after the meltdown climaxes and starts to simmer down.
Some studies have shown that applying a little pressure to the outside of the arms between the shoulder and elbow for a minute will soothe. Often, the child will act like they hate the hug, but they still calm down. This is one you’ll have to test in the field to see if your child responds well to it, but make sure you pay attention to actual results more so than the opinion of the child. Also pay attention to timing, where you are on the curves of a meltdown (working up, climax, simmering down, which often repeats).
Do Reassure the Love and Closure
After the meltdown, let your kid know you love them despite that meltdown. Let the kid know everything is ok with you, and you are not judging them. Kiss their forehead. Remember, everything is heightened with autism, including guilt. Post meltdown guilt is serious.
You might think, “Hey, I don’t want them to think that behavior is okay, so I must make sure I communicate that.” If you try to take advantage of the guilt in hopes to inspire your child to avoid a meltdown, all you’re going to accomplish with that is more meltdowns because they will try too hard.
Autism hates to be corrected. Autism hates to be wrong. Autism hates to disappoint people. They know meltdowns are bad. Emphasizing the bad part will only make them hyper-focus on trying to control something they don’t know how to control, and it will stress them out and contribute to the sensory overload that causes meltdowns.
Your best bet is to focus on the positive. Focus on the parts they did right. Focus too on the solution, not the problem. “Next time you feel this way, let’s try…”
Also let them rest. Meltdowns deplete energy, and a tired kid is more apt to meltdown again. A nap reboots the brain, but they have to know you still love them for that reboot to be effective. They have to have closure to move on.
The real trick to solving meltdowns is to prevent them with other, more long-term, techniques; however, during a meltdown, staying calm and positive will go a lot further than being negative and out of control. Autism feels more. They don’t know what to do with the feelings. Your feelings are very contagious to them. Stay positive. Find peace within the storm.