Tips for Spotting a Meltdown and How to Handle It

Autism meltdowns are often confused with temper tantrums but while they may appear similar, they are fundamentally different and require a unique approach. Discover the key features of an autistic meltdown and the best strategies to prevent, prepare, and recover from them.

Tips for Spotting a Meltdown and How To Handle It

Autism meltdowns are involuntary responses to overwhelming/overstimulating situations, feelings, or environments. When an autistic individual becomes overwhelmed or overstimulated by a situation, they may experience extreme distress and temporarily lose control of their behavior. This can trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response, making it difficult for the individual to regulate their sensory processing and behavioral responses. This could be expressed verbally (shouting, screaming, crying), physically (kicking, lashing out, biting), or in several other ways.

What triggers autism meltdowns? The exact triggers will be unique to each person, but triggers generally fall into the following categories: sensory overwhelm, changes in routine, anxiety, and communication difficulties. 

Today, we’re taking a look at the key features of an autistic meltdown and the best strategies to prevent, prepare, and recover from them.

Autism meltdown vs. temper tantrum

If your child is having an autism meltdown, it may look like a normal “temper tantrum”. It’s important to know, however, that while they may appear similar, a meltdown is not a temper tantrum and should not be treated as such. 

While tantrums are most common among neurotypical children, autistic individuals can experience meltdowns throughout their lives. Next, tantrums are generally goal-oriented and occur in response to an unfulfilled desire. In contrast, meltdowns are related to a trigger, and are never a voluntary response. Finally, meltdowns are not “bad” or “naughty” and should not be punished. Remember that the child or individual experiencing a meltdown is in a state of extreme overwhelm and distress. They will require immediate support both before, during, and after.

This means that autism meltdowns are more intense, more emotional, longer-lasting, and more difficult to manage than the average tantrum. 

Qualities of an autism meltdown

There are a number of autism meltdown symptoms that can help you recognize when you’re dealing with a meltdown and take the necessary steps to either prevent it or support your child through it. 

Autistic meltdowns are characterized by the following features:

Meltdowns are preceded by signs of distress

Autistic meltdowns begin with warning signals called “rumblings”. Rumblings are external signs of distress, including physiological and behavioral changes, that can either be obvious or subtle. 

Meltdowns involve intense stimming

Rumblings may include or progress to “stims” (self-stimulatory behaviors) such as rocking, pacing, finger flicking, and slapping. Stims are self-calming techniques used to help regulate anxiety or sensory input. Intense stimming or other obvious signs of agitation indicate that a meltdown is imminent. 

Meltdowns are involuntary

Temper tantrums are usually a form of either conscious or unconscious manipulation, where a child has learned that they can get what they want if they cry or scream. By contrast, autistic meltdowns are not manipulative but rather, a genuine cry of distress.

How to stop an autism meltdown

So, how to handle autism meltdowns? There are three stages to a meltdown; the build-up, the meltdown, and the recovery. The build-up phase, which consists of rumblings, stimming, and other behavioral changes and symptoms of distress, is the best time to intervene. During this phase, your goal is to recognize the potential for a meltdown and provide a safe cool-down space to prevent further progression. Strategies will include distraction, diversion, calming, and the removal of triggers. If this is not possible, try introducing pre-established coping mechanisms and sensory tools.

Once the meltdown phase has begun, it can be difficult to stop, and the best thing to do is to ensure neither the individual having the meltdown nor anyone in their immediate surroundings is harmed.

Supporting your loved one during a meltdown

Once you’ve reached this phase, you’ll need to know how to calm an autistic child during a meltdown, rather than try to put a stop to it. During this phase, your child’s behavior may become explosive and uncontrolled. As such, it’s important that they are moved to a safe, quiet environment, that the triggers are stopped as quickly as possible, and that they are provided with both support and space to work through it in their own time and way. This is not the time to reason, redirect, or teach new lessons or coping skills.

Generally speaking, the focus should be on sensory and emotional support. This includes:

  • Staying calm and creating a safe environment.
  • Keeping your own frustration or distress in check.
  • Reducing verbal communication by using visual representations and “yes” or “no” questions.
  • Decreasing sensory stimulation by reducing sensory input in the environment (dimming the lights, turning off the radio/TV etc.).

Meltdowns can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, depending on the severity of the trigger and the way it is managed. Once you enter the recovery stage, your child is likely to feel vulnerable and emotionally exhausted. Your continued love and support are necessary as your child may be embarrassed or ashamed at their autism and anger outbursts. It is important to keep in mind that the meltdown was completely involuntary and to reassure them that everything will be okay. It is best not to discuss the incident immediately, as this could retrigger them, but to wait until they are fully rested, recovered, and calm.

Unlock your child’s potential with Lighthouse Autism Center

Explore more helpful autism resources available from the Lighthouse Autism Center. Here, you’ll also discover our innovative model and creative approach, Lighthouse fusion ABA therapy, which combines the best practices of behavior analysis and speech therapy to help your child progress in a safe, fun environment.

Together, we can unlock your child’s potential

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