Autism is not an excuse for bad behavior. That’s what my mom told me after visiting us on Christmas a few years back. My mother thought my autistic son’s Christmas Day meltdown was due to a lack of discipline.
You see, he was overloaded by all of the holiday festivities and six hours into the hap-hap-happiest day of the year he broke down hardcore style.
We’re talking red-faced nonstop unconsolable crying. My parents were trying to reason with him in the midst of a complete autism meltdown which resulted in more anger and a bite mark on my mother’s hand which she showcased as if it were a medal.
Do you see what he did? You must get these tantrums under control...
If you’re a parent of a child with autism, then you may have a similar frustrating story. You know that there’s a difference between a tantrum and a meltdown.
And you have to know what it is so you can act accordingly.
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A tantrum occurs when your child is denied something they want. Generally speaking, he is in control of his behavior in a tantrum scenario.
Take my son Nathan, for example. When I deny him water privileges because he has thrown Orbeez all over the floor and I instruct him to pick them up, he will throw a tantrum, but he will not self-harm. He may scream and cry and flail about, but he is careful not to harm himself. He will even stop periodically to look over at me to see if his plan is working. (It isn’t.)
A meltdown is altogether different.
Tantrums can lead to meltdowns, so it’s important to address them correctly, but before we get to that, let’s cover a few essential things about autism meltdowns.
Autism meltdowns happen as a result of sensory overstimulation and a feeling of being overwhelmed. That’s why they’re also known as sensory meltdowns.
Sometimes there’s an obvious cause for these meltdowns like a change in routine, hunger, thirst, lack of sleep, and sensory overload. Or, in my case, Christmas.
During a meltdown, the child is not in control of his behavior.
He’s not being bad.
He does not need a spanking.
He’s not “acting this way” because he’s spoiled.
His brain is overloaded at this point, and he’s no longer in control.
Due to the sensory overload, his brain has switched to “fight or flight” mode.
Fight or flight looks a lot different in your child with autism than it does in you or me.
Fight or Flight in Autism Looks Like…
Kicking, Biting, Screaming, Spitting, Throwing Things
Covering Eyes, Ears, & Tucking his legs
Curling up in the fetal position
Checking or zoning out
Not speaking or moving
Sounds like a meltdown, right?
The thing to remember when your child is having a meltdown is that he is not in control of his behavior and that it will pass.
You have stay as calm and patient as possible.
Trying to reason or bargain with your child is a waste of time.
Now, what can a parent or caregiver do?
The strategies for managing or preventing tantrums and meltdowns are not the same.
Safety– Safety always comes first. Make sure you’re in a safe place & that your child cannot harm himself or others
Ignore the Behavior– Not to be confused with ignoring your child, ignore the tantrum. Also, stay calm. Sometimes the child is feeding off of your reaction & that is the very reason he is doing what he’s doing.
Make Waiting Time Less Frustrating by singing or using fidget toys.
Reinforce Positive Behavior-Don’t forget the 4:1 Praise-Criticism Ratio Rule (4 Praises or Confirmations, or Approvals for Good Behavior or Deeds for Every 1 Criticism)
Take Sensory Breaks! Between activities consider taking sensory or movement breaks. You could use a trampoline, theraputty, or another activity to get your child moving. This post on the 5 Ways Sensory Play Benefits Kids with Autism may be helpful.
Switch It Up! Or redirect the behavior to something else ASAP.
Use Visuals-Let the child know what’s coming next so he won’t be surprised when the (desired) activity ends.
Be as calm as possible and help your child focus on his breathing. You should do the same!
Blowing bubbles helps my son calm down, and it may help yours too.
Focusing on blowing the bubbles helps to regulate his breathing.
As you know, every child with autism is different.
Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all strategy for calming a child who’s having a sensory meltdown. Here are few strategies that other parents use to help their kids that may help you.
Many parents collect these items and have them at the ready in case of a meltdown moment. You know it’s hard to think clearly in times of panic, so it’s a good idea to be prepared. Consider gathering items to keep in your car as well.
Sunglasses that deflect bright light.
Noise Cancelling Headphones These can be a lifesaver for kids who are sensitive to auditory stimuli. Sometimes the noises coming from the dishwasher or the coffeepot are even too much to handle.These Bose QuietComfort Wireless Headphones are worth every penny when you have a child that’s sensitive to sound.
Fidget Toys You probably have a few fidget spinners around your house. Many kids with autism or sensory processing disorder are soothed by them, and sometimes you can even curb unwanted habits like nail biting and hair pulling by spinning them!
We like these slow rising squishies better. My ten year old daughter introduced our household to this trend & it stuck with my son. They come in fun shapes and vibrant colors. Squishies are like a stress ball that you can flatten out and watch rise. Pretty cool & distracting!
Weighted blankets may help with sleep and many kids are soothed by the extra pressure they provide. You may also want to consider a weighted vest.
Diet You may want to look into a sensory diet for your child as food can be a trigger for sensory meltdowns. Carbohydrates and sugar seem to increase anxiety for kids with autism. Some families have had success with a gluten-free plan. Always check with your pediatrician before making any changes to your child’s diet!
Hey, I know how hard it is to remain calm during a meltdown. I know how bad it feels not to be able to help your child.
I’ve been there.
In my house.
At Dollar General.
In the car.
You’re going to be tested over and over again, and I’m telling you that you are going to make it.
It just takes time.
Please share your favorite calm down strategies. I love to hear from you!
Oh, and one more thing…