Help your Autistic Child Recover From a Meltdown

When your autistic child has a meltdown or ‘melt’, he literally loses control of himself and his behavior. It is not a tantrum, as he cannot control his actions; it is a total loss of control of emotions and behavior and must run its course. As a parent, you must ensure the safety of your child and others during this time. You may have to leave him alone or you may have to restrain him for his own safety, depending on where he has his meltdown.

If you are at home, it is easier to handle because you’ll have more control of the safety of the environment in your own home. In public, you have little control of the environment and the people in it, which may force you to remove him from the area. Learning the triggers to your child’s meltdowns can help you to teach him to control himself and eventually, maybe even prevent them. Until then, you need to assist him in the recovery every time he has a meltdown.

The methods by which your child recovers may depend on the reason the melt started. It can be stimulation overload, loud noises, bright lights, other children, frustration or the child may want something he is not allowed to have. If you can pinpoint the trigger, this might help you to find the best solution to the recovery. Removing the child from the triggering event may also shorten its duration, however after the melt, your child will need a calm down time.

A melt uses a lot of energy and your child may be totally exhausted. You may be stressed as well, because you have gone through the melt with him. To aid in the recovery, here are some things you can do to help calm both of you:

  • If your child likes to be held, this would be the time for a long, loving hug!
  • A relaxing massage of the arms, legs, and back could be helpful.
  • If he has a favorite song, you can sing to them.
  • Speak to them in a soft voice and calm manner.
  • Tell them a favorite story.
  • If they wanted something reasonable, consider giving it to them to shorten or prevent a melt.
  • Some autistic children do not like to be touched, and may enjoy being left alone. If your child likes solitude, it may be helpful to leave him alone in the safety of his room for awhile and let him calm himself.
  • You can use some of the methods above in combination, like hugging and softly singing to him or playing music and singing with him.

These calming techniques can be helpful for you, as well. Every autistic child is different, and just as they react differently to stimuli, they also will recover differently. Once you’ve learned what causes his meltdowns and what hastens his recovery you can then try different calm-down methods and find the best ways to assist your child to a safe recovery.

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4 Comments on “Help your Autistic Child Recover From a Meltdown”

  1. carrie says:

    My son has a stuffed elephant, Dumbo, that I often use to help him learn to read body language… he calls it ‘making Dumbo talk’. I don’t use a voice, but rather puppet the toy’s body in order to communicate. My son enjoys this immensely, so I’ve started using Dumbo when I see a meltdown coming or when one is in progress. It’s not just a distraction because I’m able to help redirect his attention and re-channel his energy on top of helping him re-frame the situation. Indirectly, he’s still reading body language. I’m also keeping myself from becoming a verbal and physical punching bag. I turn into a mental hug instead.

    If you pay attention to what things bring your child delight and comfort at the same time, you can use those things to provide insulation from a full blow meltdown. But always have a plan ‘B’. haha.

    Another thing that helps, when your child is old enough, is developing a plan for meltdowns. You can help your kid identify what they feel pre-meltdown and have them come up with what makes them feel better. You can have a code word for when your child needs you assistance in enacting that plan, because communication is the first thing that goes out the window during a meltdown. It gives them something concrete and predictable during a time when the world feels like pure chaos for them. Writing the plan down helps reinforce that everyone will know what to do and provide a degree of important predictability when dealing with the unexpected.

    And lastly, always remember that aggression + aggression = explosion. (equation articulated by Confessions of an Asperger’s Mom)

    • Carrie, Thanks so much for your valuable input. You have a lot of insight and wisdom. We really appreciate your sharing your ideas with us and please come back and share your thoughts when you can. Planning in advance for a meltdown is so wise; how many of us think to plan ahead? I think this tip alone will help so many parents and caregivers.

    • I would agree that meltdowns can be different in quality from a tantrum. However, the distinguishing features CAN be hard to “read”. Parents are advised to be careful when intervening after a meltdown, not to unintentionally create a pattern of calming techniques, (even restraint), and other “external” sources of control given by the parent after the meltdown, as available only in these circumstances. In my experience, children can become overly dependent on these external sources of self-regulation, calming, and even nurturing attention, and may begin to use “meltdown” behaviour to attract these parental behaviours. In other words, the child begins to recruit the parent as a source of comfort, nurturing, self-regulation, etc. instead of developing some of these behaviours, him/herself. Meltdown behaviours can come to serve as the child’s communication that they need help self-regulating, calming, and coping.

      These same techniques of calming, restraining, re-directing, diverting attention to something else, and other forms of parent supportive intervention, which are all very appropriate, should be used where possible in ADVANCE of full-scale meltdowns to help children self-regulate.

      Another tip: ensure that when meltdowns occur in the face of a request for work – such as cleaning the play space and putting toys away, or doing homework, or something else – after the meltdown and post-meltdown calming is done, the child still completes the request satisfactorily. Otherwise, the parent perhaps unintentionally reinforces ESCAPE-AVOIDANCE and literally can increase the probability of more frequent meltdowns in future.

      • Terry, you’re tips are really great; thank you so much for posting a response. I believe they can benefit a lot of our readers, as well. As mentioned in the article, it’s extremely important to involve in and take counsel on how to deal with these situations by bringing in either the school psychologist or someone else who is professionally trained in helping children deal with these issues and then following their lead. Thank you again for your contribution and suggestions.


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