Children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder may get overstimulated or overwhelmed by situations that are beyond their control. Since parents, teachers, or caregivers, may not always know the underlying cause of their distress, it is important to have a set of strategies at hand in order to help children relax, calm down, and refocus.
But before diving deeper into some of the most effective strategies to reorient the child during meltdowns, it is important to understand what a ‘meltdown’ actually is. According to the National Autistic Society, meltdowns occur when an individual becomes overwhelmed by their present situation while temporarily losing control of their behavior. This loss of control may be expressed physically (biting, kicking), vocally (crying and screaming), or both.
Meltdowns are considered similar to the body’s fight response. When a child with autism suffers from a meltdown, they often experience higher levels of discomfort and anxiety, often construed as an aggressive panic attack, a ‘tantrum,’ or frustration. Tantrums can happen in any given situation, especially if a child is hungry, irritable, and tired. However, a meltdown of a child on the spectrum is caused by the inability of the child to handle a situation due to extreme overload.
As per Myles and Southwick (1999), tantrums, meltdowns, and rage usually occur in three stages of variable lengths. These are –
The rumbling stage is regarded as the first stage of a meltdown, during which children may exhibit particular behavior changes not distinctly related to a full-blown meltdown. These include tensed muscles, nail-biting, or even repetitive movements, such as shaking a leg or rocking back and forth. Although these apparently minor behaviors are often ignored or remain unnoticed, they can play a crucial role in pointing to an imminent meltdown. These may also be called ‘precursor behaviors’ Additionally, in a more serious situation, the child may also engage in verbal or physical threats.
If indicative behaviors are not diffused during the initial phase, the child may progress to the rage stage. At this point, he or she is not inhibited and may act aggressively, emotionally, or impulsively. These behaviors can either be internalized (withdrawal) or externalized (yelling, hitting, biting, self-harm, destroying objects or property, and kicking). During the rage stage, it is important to prioritize the child’s safety, while paying close attention to the protection of the people and objects around them.
After the meltdown has run its course, the child may not completely recall what actually happened during the rage stage. While some children may get exhausted to the point that they need to sleep, others may become withdrawn, morose, or deny the occurrence of inappropriate conduct. During the recovery stage, children may not always be ready to learn or willing to accept correction. As a result, it is important that parents and caregivers intervene and help at a time and manner in which the child can accept them. If not, the intervention may lead to resuming the meltdown cycle in an even more hostile and accelerated pattern.
It is highly unlikely that your child actively wants to engage in tantrums and meltdowns; the rage cycle might be the only way they express distress and cope with problems amid a plethora of overwhelming emotions. Hence, it is essential to encourage children with autism to gradually deal with their feelings in a healthier way and work on approaches that increase their social understanding and problem-solving skills.
And on that note, here are the top five strategies you can use to prevent tantrums, while effectively calming your child during meltdowns –
- Establish a Home Base – A home base can be defined as a quiet, isolated area (at home or school) with minimal visual activity or distractions where the child can go to escape from a stressful setting or event. The designated home base can also have access to activities that are carefully selected to be calming and soothing. Irrespective of the location, it is important that the child views the home base as a positive environment that he or she can turn to, before or during a meltdown.
- Build External Coping Skills – Tantrums and meltdowns can be caused by a lack of skills such as communication, problem-solving, and impulse control. Accordingly, it is essential to help your child develop coping skills such as negotiation, in addition to frequently practicing breathing exercises, having a calming routine, and scheduling ‘quiet’ times.
- Sensory Toolkit – Sensory tools can be of great help, especially in keeping your child occupied when they feel overwhelmed in a public setting. Your child’s sensory toolkit can include fidgety toys, chewy or crunchy snack items, hand wipes, scented hand lotion, sunglasses, and weighted blankets. However, remember not to force these things on your child when they are experiencing a meltdown.
- Empathize – Empathizing, instead of punishing or yelling, can do wonders. It is really important that your child knows that you’re listening and you understand their situation. Reassure your child that expressing their emotions is absolutely okay, and although the process can get overwhelming sometimes, their feelings are completely valid.
- Reinforce Positive Behavior – Acknowledging your child’s emotions and praising them for good behavior is of utmost importance. For instance, you can verbally express how happy you are that your child kept the toys back in place after playtime or even give them a hug. These actions will help curb meltdowns and tantrums as your child gradually understands that you recognize his or her efforts and appreciate them.
Since every child with autism is different and has a distinct processing profile, it is challenging to design a one-size-fits-all solution to managing meltdowns. Ideally, parents find that reducing the amount of stress and anxiety in the child’s immediate environment can significantly help reduce the intensity and frequency of meltdowns. Typically termed as a ‘sensory diet,’ these everyday steps can be advantageous in managing as well as preventing autism meltdowns!
While these tips and strategies are helpful, your child may have unique needs that can be adequately addressed by contacting a reliable and professional autism care center, such as Early Autism Services (EAS).
So, go ahead and schedule a free consultation call with us right here.