Table of contents
We’ve all seen it before. A trip to the grocery store or to the park becomes a humiliating public display for some helpless parent of a child with autism screaming, crying, throwing objects and even lying on the floor. They lie there kicking and flailing while the parent pleads with them to stop crying and get up. The child continues and before long, the parent’s humiliation graduates from helpless to enraged. They scoop the child up and carry them out while verbally chastising them or they completely lose control and end up spanking them or pulling them by the arm and making their exit.
If you have a child with autism, you empathize with this parent. You’ve probably had your fair share of meltdowns, where you’ve seen children with autism screaming in public. You probably wish you could have offered words of comfort and tell them that you understand. But, starting a conversation in the midst of a tantrum is not ideal.
What is a Meltdown?
Most people who may have witnessed a child like the one in the description above would instantly make judgments about the child and/or the parent. “Wow, that kid’s a brat!” or “that mom is a pushover- if that were my child I would fix him real quick with a spanking!”
What they might not know is that some children who tantrum, may not be displaying bad behavior- they may have sensory overload due to autism. Sensory overload almost always plays out as a meltdown. What is the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown?
To put it simply- a tantrum is a deliberate outburst by any child, with or without autism, that is used to gain something. They could be seeking to gain attention, a tangible object, or even trying to avoid something that they don’t like. When it is deliberate, it is fairly obvious because they tend to look at you for confirmation, they clearly state what they want and when you give them what they want the upheaval stops instantly.
Children with autism who have meltdowns become spectators in their own bodies. They have no control over what is happening to them. For those children with autism screaming, sensory issues are often the main culprit. They cry, they may have slurred speech, they look pained or confused and they might even hit or scratch themselves in frustration. They are inconsolable and nothing that you do as a parent in that moment is going to stop the meltdown.
Can a Meltdown be Prevented?
Yes, parents, caregivers and educators can learn ways to reduce the frequency and intensity of meltdowns. By identifying the early signs and then avoiding the triggers, meltdowns can sometimes be prevented. By following the calming strategies below the level of intensity can often be reduced.
Causes and Signs
Sensory related issues are typically the cause for meltdowns in children with autism. In general, experiencing too much input or stimulation from the environment will cause a child with autism to be triggered and feel overwhelmed. Once they are triggered signs of a meltdown onset can be detected. The child will become visibly agitated. The agitation then builds up and becomes a full blown meltdown. There are six distinct stages of a meltdown: Calm >Triggered >Agitated >Meltdown >Regrouping & >Start Over.
If you understand your child’s warning signs, you can try to avoid what triggers their meltdowns. Some common signs:
- Hand Flapping
- Gritting Teeth
Knowing your child’s signs provides you an opportunity to leave or change the environment to get the child back to a calm state.
Despite the countless books and well meaning experts out there- YOU know your child best and this makes YOU the expert at knowing what will work best when you see the signs of a meltdown.
Here are some strategies to try when your child has a meltdown:
Create a safe place at home or at school for your child to go and calm down when they are feeling overwhelmed. Provide a favorite blanket to hide under, headphones to mute excess noise and favorite items to hold or squeeze.
Just like adults who feel better after a visit to the gym, some children with autism feel a great sensory release by pushing heavy objects, carrying heavy loads (groceries, backpacks etc). This helps them with anxiety and aggression by channeling the stress into a physical activity.
Deep pressure (hugs, squeezes, compression clothing or blankets) affects the proprioceptive sensory system and helps a child with autism to get a better feel for where their body ends and the environment begins.
This is any activity that requires focus or helps to soothe the body. Sensory activities include things like play dough, glitter bottles, music, or sensory playgrounds that provide physical movement (spinning, swinging, sliding, rolling etc).
Teach your child to focus on taking slow deep breaths in and slow exhales out until they are calm. If you are struggling with behavior management, meltdowns, or your child with autism screaming in public – we can help. If you live in New Jersey, Circle Care Services can provide support for the difficulties that come with sensory deficits. We offer ABA therapy to families across New Jersey. We’re available to answer any of your questions, just give us a call to book a free consultation with a certified behavior therapist.