This is a sponsored post in partnership with Stress Health, an initiative of the Center for Youth Wellness, but all opinions are my own.
One thing most parents raising a child on the autism spectrum have in common is dealing with an autism meltdown. If your child struggles with change or transitions, a meltdown is their way of dealing with the stress, fear, anxiety, and frustration caused by unwanted change.
If you’ve struggled to cope with this particular issue, read on — help is here!
What’s Happening During A Meltdown?
As I just read in the Talking About Curing Autism (TACA) guide for families with autism, we must remember that an autism meltdown or tantrum is a type of communication. Kids on the autism spectrum tend to be rigid, and anything that disturbs their routine can be emotionally challenging for them to handle.
But more than that, a child on the spectrum may be rocked or thrown off by information in their brain. Our kids don’t have great executive functioning powers, which are the brain functions that help us get and stay organized. Regulation is a problem for autistic children. According to WebMD, such regulation is “taking stock of your surroundings and changing behavior in response to it.”
If your brain is taking in too much information but cannot organize and make sense of it, it will feel overwhelmed and overloaded. That can happen when new information – like a change in routine or a new pain in your body – comes in.
What Does A Meltdown Feel Like?
During a meltdown, your child is experiencing an overload of something he can’t deal with internally. This is common if your child has sensory processing issues. While to most people that might sound like “no big deal,” I have just enough sensory issues to have dealt with this feeling in a very different capacity, so I will try to explain it.
Sensory overload feels like one or more of your senses is taking in so much information that it cannot be processed. It feels very close to the loss of control you feel during a panic attack, along with an inability to distinguish the “edges” of yourself. It’s like losing yourself WHILE losing control, and it’s downright terrifying.
It’s really important to remember this: During an autism meltdown, your child is scared. The wrong reaction is to make him feel bad or scold him. To be honest, he probably wouldn’t even be able to hear you since he is struggling to process and cope with too much information in his brain.
What To Do During An Autism Meltdown
Now that you know this, how can you help your child during an autism meltdown? The following steps should be taken in order — when possible — unless he is in imminent danger. Then fix that first.
Step 1: Determine if it’s a meltdown.
First of all, you have to determine if this is just bad behavior. I can say with near 100% accuracy that when my daughter was little, her meltdowns were mostly sensory-based. At the time, she would pound her head on the floor or wall. No one does that unless they need to escape something right now.
She hasn’t done that since about age four, and I have known her for 13 years. That means my critical eye can spot the difference between a true meltdown that she can’t help and her attempt to leverage her behavior to get her way. YES, children on the spectrum can and do learn the fine art of manipulation!
Often, a self-injurious behavior means it’s the real deal. You’ll come to know the difference. You won’t probably see calculated behavior meltdowns until they are much older and a bit wiser.
Step 2: Calm yourself.
The first (or 2nd or 10th, etc.) time you see your child bang her head into the wall, you are going to completely freak out.
The problem is that panic often begets panic – and you don’t need to add to her stress! It’s going to be a challenge for you, but it’s critical for you to take the steps to get as calm as possible – at least to the point of being rational – before you can help soothe your child. Take control of your emotions any way you can and focus on the person who really needs help – your child.
Step 3: Discover the trigger.
Most meltdowns have a trigger. If you’re lucky, it can be as obvious as a high-pitched noise, a passing train, or fluorescent lighting. However, it will often not be that obvious. It may be something she overheard from someone who passed by or a video that gets “stuck” when service drops or a window that has something unfamiliar in it. Do your best to remove the trigger or remove her from proximity to the trigger once you can safely move her.
Step 4: Provide safety and space.
While your biggest goal may be to get your child to stop his autism meltdown, understand that may not be his best goal. The best option here is to keep your child and everyone around him safe. Make sure your other children and any nearby people step back a reasonable distance. It’s also best to try to disperse people who may want to stare or comment. Do not assume your child isn’t processing that form of bullying.
Analyze the situation with an eye to how to get your child to stop banging his head or harming himself while still letting him vent. He may physically feel like he needs to continue. You can, however, try doing things like slipping a blanket between him and the floor or getting him to stop pounding his head on the wall and move to the floor. Please be very careful in moving him as you don’t want to make his reaction worse or last longer!
Some kids respond positively to touch or a tight hug, but other react negatively. You know what he can tolerate best. Think and plan carefully as you interact with your child! This is why you need to remain calm.
Step 4: Distract him.
When things start to level off, it’s time to distract him. This is another thing you should plan in advance. For example, if you are out, you can give him an app on your phone. If you’re inside, have a drawer of toys that you can quickly get that he will enjoy. For example, he may enjoy a chew toy. However, this is not the time to force a solution. If he doesn’t want a toy, don’t give it to him.
Use utmost caution in distracting your child with food as you can be setting it up as default motivator. It’s never wise to get your child used to a food as a reward or motivator, especially a sweet treat or unhealthy snack. Additionally, she doesn’t need any extra sugar, dye, caffeine, or other harmful foods right now. And if she is crying hard, food can make her choke.
Step 5: When it’s over, it’s over.
You may be surprised by how quickly your child recovers. That’s ok! Or, your child may take more time. In that case, it’s up to you not to dwell on it. Get your child into the next activity but make sure he knows you are not angry or upset at him.
If you did lose your cool during the event, apologize to him, recognizing your faults, and tell him that you love him. If you have special ways that show him or make him smile, do that. It’s best to reduce any additional stress and get him back on his feet again.
Preventing Future Autism Meltdowns
Once the meltdown is over and your child is back to his or herself, you can relax. However, it’s wise to prepare for the future, too. During a meltdown, your child cannot communicate his need, fears or stress. Provide him with the tools that can help him express his feelings and needs the next time he is overwhelmed. These can include:
- ACA apps
- Typing apps
- RPM and Facilitated Communication
- Sign language
- Speech Therapy
Learn more about how to help your child to communicate.
When Your Child’s Autism Meltdown Triggers You
Most of us who have a child on the autism spectrum have been there: Your child’s autism meltdown has left you disturbed, upset, and uneasy. Perhaps you held it together to help him, and now that he’s fine, you’re a mess. Or you made it through the day, but you are up all night. Maybe, though, you’ve never really felt up to the task of raising this child because your own childhood held no clues on how to get through a crisis.
Raising a child on the autism spectrum can be very stressful. It was not until 1964 that autism was thought of as a biological condition, and autism rates are a rising phenomenon. There may be fewer guidebooks available to help to raise your autistic child than a child with a more documented disability, such as Down syndrome. You may struggle to find parents in similar situations and other forms of support, like support groups, faith organizations, and local resources. While these sorts of supports are growing, I remember there was very little help at all in my area when my daughter was diagnosed a decade ago.
If this is your situation, I suggest you seek out online help and in-person therapy to help you cope with the challenges of raising your child.
If Your Trauma Goes Deeper
However, even if you have a plethora of resources, if you are struggling with your own issues from your childhood, you may need to go deeper. You may be experiencing difficulties stemming from Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACES.
This sort of trauma is caused during childhood if you suffered from the repeated stress of abuse, neglect or had parents struggling with mental illness, divorce, incarceration or substance abuse issues. These types of situations have real, tangible effects on the development of a child’s brain and also put you at higher risk for illnesses like heart disease and lung cancer in later life.
Watch this TED Talk on ACEs by pediatrician Dr. Nadine Burke Harris to learn more:
It’s crucial for both you and your child that you get the help you need. Visit Stress Health to read articles that can help you with parenting. There’s a lot of information on steps you can take to process your childhood trauma so that you can be the best parent you can be.
Hey, we’ve all been there. Parenting a child on the autism spectrum is no cakewalk, but there is nothing like their first hug, kiss, or when they communicate that they love you.
It’s worth everything because, honestly, sometimes we parents ARE their everything. NO ONE is ever going to love your kids as much as you do.
Give them the best you have to give by getting the help you need today.