Cute little Afro-American girl covering her ears, in the backgroung mother scolding her.

One of the things that is most frustrating for parents of kids on the spectrum is to deal with meltdowns. They are one of the hardest parts of being an Autism parent. But they are even harder for a child than they are for a parent.  When addressing meltdowns, it is always better to try to help avoid them in the first place. When they do occur, a parent must be respectful to a child and do their best to understand what is happening.

What is a Meltdown

It is important that parents make a distinction between a true “Autism meltdown” and tantrum.  A meltdown is not bad behavior. It is not a child acting out. It doesn’t mean they are being naughty or  that they are spoiled. It is a true neurological inability to cope with stimulus in the environment. Often a meltdown is used interchangeably with a tantrum. For the purpose of this blog article, a meltdown is caused by a sensory overload not problematic behavior.

For more help in understanding the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown, Autistic self advocate James Paul Wagner explains the difference in his own words.

Why Meltdowns Occur

Everyone has 7 senses: Sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing, vestibular and proprioception. Most people are familiar with the first five but are unaware of vestibular and proprioception. Vestibular sense has to do with balance and the ability for a person to be aware of where their body is in space. Proprioception sense has to do with movement.  Most people experience the seven senses similarly but many people with Autism experience them differently. 

Watch this video for more detailed information on the seven senses and how some Autistic individuals process them differently.

An Autistic person’s central nervous system functions differently than that of someone who is neurologically typical.  This has to do with deficits in the areas of executive functioning ( the planning behind behavior) and self regulation.  At a neurological level, oftentimes,  a person with Autism will lose behavioral control when the brain attempts to process more sensory information than it can handle. 

This can result in a person shutting down, engaging in self soothing behavior in the form of stereotypy (stimming), crying, becoming aggressive or self injurious. Many Autistic individuals express true physical discomfort including pain when this happens and the absolute inability to respond, stop a behavior or calm down even if they want to.

In this video, Jeff Synder, a self advocate shares what meltdowns feel like for him.

How to Avoid Meltdowns

Since meltdowns are so unpleasant for everyone involved, especially the person having one, the best thing to do to support an individual is to try to prevent them from taking place in the first place.  Know what triggers your child. Most often, there is a particular sense that can cause a meltdown for your child. For some people it is loud noises. For others, it may be bright lights. It could even be a specific pitch that can cause a meltdown. If you know what causes a meltdown, do your best to prevent it for your child.  

Since a meltdown is not a choice, informing your child about the presence of something ahead of time they struggle to cope with will not help. It is not that they don’t want to be able to tolerate something – it’s that they can’t. For example, if your child has a meltdown because of sirens caused by a fire engine and a fire truck is coming to visit your school, telling your child they are going to hear the sirens before they occur won’t make it any easier for their brain to process the sound once it occurs.. You should do your best to remove them from the situation or use a preventative measure like wearing headphones. Preventing a meltdown is always better than responding to a meltdown.

What to do when Meltdowns Occur

You cannot always prevent a child from encountering things that cause them to have a meltdown. In the example above, you can reasonably prevent a child from needing to cope with fire engine sounds if a firetruck is visiting the school by having a teacher not take him outside to see the fire truck or by using noise canceling headphones. However, if sirens bother your child and a neighbor’s house is on fire, you cannot predict or prevent your child experiencing sirens in that situation. 

When this happens and your child has a meltdown, the best thing you can possibly do for them is keep them safe by making sure there is nothing around them that can cause them to get hurt and to give them space. Do not try to calm them down. Remember, the reason they are having a meltdown is because the brain cannot cope with the amount of stimulus it is being presented with. If your child is crying, as a parent, it is natural to want to run up to them and pick them up and hold them and tell them it is going to be okay. But, what you are really doing is giving them even more information to cope with and making the situation work. 

Many people express embarrassment after a meltdown occurs. Remember, this is not something they are choosing to do. It is okay to talk about it with them if they want to and it is okay to soothe after they are able to control their behavior and respond again.  It is important to note that sometimes, although rarely, a child will seek a parent during a meltdown for a hug. This is usually a result of a child seeking tactile input in an effort to calm down their sensory system. If a child initiates interaction, it is okay to help them while they are having a meltdown.  

In the most simple terms, the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown is a tantrum is a choice and a meltdown is not. When working with a student, raising a child that has meltdowns, or working as a coworker with an adult that has meltdowns, remember to be as compassionate and empathetic as possible.