How can I deal with an autistic meltdown?

Autistic meltdowns are a response to the mind or body feeling overwhelmed. They may appear to happen without warning.

All children have meltdowns, but if you have an autistic child these may be stronger and more frequent. Your child may also need more recovery time. Some of the usual calming strategies may not be effective. Learning about what causes your child’s meltdowns and how to calm them can help you to support your child.

Meltdowns are different to tantrums, which are a response to a child not being able to do what they want.

Autistic meltdown crying child

What an autistic meltdown looks like

Meltdowns usually look like a loss of control. This can include:

  • Kicking.
  • Hitting.
  • Biting.
  • Shouting.
  • Crying.
  • Screaming.

Sometimes a child will internalise what they’re feeling instead. They may withdraw, becoming quiet and non-responsive.

What triggers autistic meltdowns?

An autistic meltdown is usually caused by a sense of overload. Your child will have no control over their reaction. They may not be able to tell you when they feel overwhelmed.

Learning what triggers a meltdown can help you feel more prepared. Every child is different, but some common triggers include:

  • Sensory overload or understimulation. This is when a child is sensitive to sound, touch, taste, smell, visuals or movements.
  • Changes in routine or dealing with an unexpected change. People with autism often prefer to have a routine in place. They can be sensitive to even small changes.
  • Anxiety or anxious feelings.
  • Being unable to describe what they need or want. Communication is often non-typical for those with autism. It can feel frustrating for them when they’re misunderstood.

Keeping a behaviour diary can help spot possible patterns. Note down when meltdowns happen. Write down what you were doing, where, and your child’s reaction.

How to support your child

Taking steps to support your child may reduce or prevent meltdowns. It can help to:

  • Have a visual system to show them what’s coming up that day. Timetables or visual timers can be useful.
  • Use emotion thermometers or labelling to help communicate.
  • Be consistent. Put routines in place. Make sure your child knows when things are happening. Try to keep the routines every day.
  • Think about how you will support your child if unexpected events happen.
  • Help you child understand what to expect in certain situations. Social Stories can support with this.
  • Use sensory support aids to help calm your child.
  • Support them with anxious thoughts and feelings. Try stress balls, blowing bubbles, playdough, music, books, computer games, or activities.

In the moment

In the immediate moment, while a meltdown is happening: 

    • Try to stay calm. 
    • Empathise – they can’t control this behaviour.
    • Use few words. They’re already overloaded.
    • If you’re in public, try not to worry about the reactions of others. 
    • Give them time. Let it run its course and then allow for recovery time.
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