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  • Writer's pictureElle James

How to Calm Autistic Meltdowns: 7 Tips that Work


How to Calm Autistic Meltdowns

When my son was young, he began experiencing meltdowns, though at the time, I didn't know what they were. Initially, I mistook them for typical tantrums, but they seemed to come out of nowhere and were very intense. Despite my efforts to appease him, the meltdowns persisted, leaving me feeling confused and heartbroken.


After some time and seeking help, we realized he was having meltdowns due to sensory overload, changes in routine, or difficulty expressing his needs. Understanding that these were meltdowns, not tantrums, was a turning point in managing them effectively.


If you're going through something similar with an autistic child, just know that you're not alone! Keep reading for some valuable tips and tools that can help you manage your child’s meltdowns and even work on preventing them from happening. Together we will learn how to support our little ones through these challenging moments!



In this post:


What are Autistic Meltdowns?


Before we delve in, it’s important to discuss what meltdowns are and how they differ from tantrums. Meltdowns and tantrums are often confused, but it's essential to understand the differences between the two, especially when supporting an autistic child. While both behaviors involve emotional outbursts, they have distinct origins and characteristics.


Meltdowns are typically involuntary reactions triggered by overwhelming sensory input, anxiety, or communication difficulties. Autistic children may experience meltdowns when they feel a loss of control or are unable to express their needs or emotions effectively.


Meltdowns are responses to internal or external factors that exceed the child's coping abilities, they are not intentional behaviors aimed at manipulation or obtaining a desired outcome.


During a meltdown, the child may become overwhelmed, display intense emotional distress, engage in repetitive behaviors, or seek sensory regulation through self-stimulatory actions.


On the other hand, tantrums are intentional behaviors exhibited by children to achieve a specific goal or obtain something they want. Tantrums are common in typically developing children and are often used as a means of expressing frustration, seeking attention, or testing boundaries.


Unlike meltdowns, tantrums are goal directed and may involve behaviors such as screaming, crying, yelling, or physical aggression. The child may stop the tantrum once their desired outcome is achieved or when they realize their strategy is ineffective.


Understanding the differences between meltdowns and tantrums is crucial because the approaches used to address them can vary significantly. While tantrums may require setting limits and implementing behavioral strategies, meltdowns in autistic children call for a supportive and calming approach.


By recognizing the underlying causes and providing appropriate support during meltdowns, caregivers can help autistic children navigate these overwhelming experiences with empathy and understanding.



Important Things to Consider about Autistic Meltdowns


There are two essential points to remember. First, understand that your child isn't deliberately giving you a hard time; they are experiencing a hard time.


Unlike typical temper tantrums in young children, autistic meltdowns are not attention seeking behavior, but rather a response to feeling overwhelmed and struggling to control their emotions.


These meltdowns can involve crying, screaming, stimming, pacing, hitting, punching, or engaging in self-injurious behavior as a result of sensory overload or emotional turmoil.


Secondly, it's crucial to recognize that meltdowns are more distressing for the child than for the parent or caregiver.


While it may seem that intervening during a meltdown is challenging for the caregiver, autistic meltdowns stem from intense feelings of overwhelm, and many autistic individuals feel embarrassed and guilty once the emotions subside.


Being compassionate and patient during these moments can help the child feel supported and understood, fostering a sense of safety and trust in their environment.


How to Calm Autistic Meltdowns

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7 Tips to Calm Autistic Meltdowns


Managing autistic meltdowns can be a challenging experience, but there are effective strategies that can help both the child and the caregiver navigate through these overwhelming moments.


While no two autistic individuals are the same, and each respond to different calming strategies and techniques, this collection of ideas offers some great pointers on how to calm an autistic child.



1. Stay Calm and Maintain Composure


It's crucial for caregivers to remain calm and composed during a meltdown. Children often look to their caregivers for emotional cues, so staying calm can help create a sense of stability and security.


Take deep breaths, regulate your own emotions, and avoid reacting with frustration or anger. Remember that the child's meltdown is not a personal attack, but a result of their struggle to cope with overwhelming circumstances.



2. Don’t Fight the Meltdown


Caregivers should avoid trying to fight or stop an autistic meltdown forcefully because it is an involuntary response to overwhelming stimuli.


Requesting the child to stop or exerting pressure on them may only escalate the situation and intensify the meltdown.


Instead, it is essential for caregivers to accept that the meltdown is happening, remain calm, and provide a supportive presence to the child during this challenging time.


3. Ensure Safety


Prioritize the child's safety and the safety of those around them. Clear any potential hazards from the immediate environment and create a safe space where the child can express their emotions without causing harm.


If the child engages in self-injurious behaviors, gently intervene by redirecting their attention to a safer alternative, such as squeezing a stress ball or holding a soft toy.



4. Minimize Sensory Input


Sensory overload is a common trigger for meltdowns in autistic children. Reduce sensory stimulation by lowering lights, minimizing noise, and removing any sources of overwhelming sensory input.


Provide the child with options for sensory regulation, such as a weighted blanket, fidget toys, or a quiet space where they can retreat to calm down.



5. Validate and Empathize


Validate the child's feelings and emotions by using empathetic language. Let them know that it's okay to feel overwhelmed and that you understand their struggle.


Avoid minimizing or dismissing their emotions. Use simple and reassuring statements such as, "I can see you're having a hard time right now, but I'm here to help and support you."



6. Offer Choices and Distractions


Providing the child with choices can give them a sense of control and help redirect their attention during a meltdown.


Offer simple choices that are within their comfort zone, such as whether they would like to sit or stand, or if they prefer a certain object or activity to help them self-regulate.


Distractions like a favorite toy, a calming sensory item, or engaging in a preferred activity can also help redirect their focus and provide a sense of comfort.



7. Use Visual Supports


Visual supports, such as visual schedules, picture cards, or social stories, can be helpful in supporting communication and reducing anxiety during meltdowns.


These visual cues can assist in conveying information, expressing emotions, or providing step-by-step instructions to help the child understand the situation and feel more secure.


Remember, each child is unique, and it may take time and trial and error to find the most effective strategies for managing meltdowns.


By approaching meltdowns with empathy, patience, and a willingness to understand the child's perspective, caregivers can create a supportive environment that helps them navigate these challenging moments more effectively.


How to Calm Autistic Meltdowns




9 Strategies for Preventing Meltdowns


Managing meltdowns in children with autism requires a personalized approach as each child has unique needs and triggers. Finding effective strategies to cope with their meltdowns may involve some trial and error.


However, there are proactive tools and strategies that can help regulate their emotions effectively. While it may not be possible to prevent every meltdown, implementing the following approaches can significantly reduce their frequency and intensity.



1. Follow a Predictable Routine


Autistic children often find comfort and reassurance in knowing what to expect, making established daily routines essential for their emotional well-being.


By maintaining consistent schedules and proactively communicating any upcoming changes, caregivers can create a structured environment that fosters a sense of security.


This stability helps reduce anxiety and provides a buffer against the overwhelming feelings that might lead to meltdowns.


When children have a clear understanding of what comes next in their day, they feel more in control of their environment, leading to a smoother and more harmonious experience for both the child and the caregiver.



2. Give Warnings Before Transitions


Many autistic individuals struggle with sudden changes or shifts in routines, leading to heightened anxiety and potential meltdowns.


By providing advanced warnings before transitions, caregivers can help prepare the child mentally and emotionally for upcoming changes, minimizing the element of surprise.


When planning transitions, try to give clear and consistent verbal or visual warnings. For instance, you can use a visual timer to count down the minutes remaining for an activity before moving on to the next one.


Alternatively, use a visual schedule with pictures or icons representing each activity throughout the day, so the child can anticipate what comes next.


How to Calm Autistic Meltdowns




3. Use Visual Aids


For autistic children, verbal communication might be challenging, leading to frustration and anxiety when trying to express their needs or emotions.


Visual aids, such as visual schedules, picture cards, or social stories, offer an alternative way to convey information and expectations.


By presenting information visually, these aids help autistic children comprehend and prepare for upcoming events or changes in routine. Visual cues also offer a sense of predictability and structure, reducing uncertainty and anxiety in unfamiliar situations.


Additionally, they act as reminders and serve as a calming tool, empowering the child to navigate their environment with greater confidence and independence, thereby mitigating the triggers that could lead to meltdowns.



4. Identify and Address Triggers


Autistic children often experience meltdowns in response to specific stimuli or situations that overwhelm their sensory, emotional, or communication capacities. By carefully observing and documenting patterns of behavior, caregivers can pinpoint the triggers that lead to meltdowns.


Once identified, steps can be taken to address or avoid these triggers, creating a more supportive environment for the child. This may involve minimizing sensory input, providing sensory breaks, or offering alternative communication methods to help the child express their needs and emotions effectively.


Additionally, educating caregivers, teachers, and peers about the child's triggers can foster understanding and empathy, leading to a more accommodating and inclusive atmosphere.


By proactively addressing triggers, caregivers can empower autistic children to navigate their surroundings with greater ease, reducing the occurrence of meltdowns and promoting emotional well-being.



5. Provide Sensory Breaks and Support


Sensory overload is a common trigger for meltdowns. Proactively schedule sensory breaks throughout the day, allowing the child to engage in calming activities or retreat to a quiet space to regulate their sensory input.


This can include providing opportunities for deep pressure input, incorporating sensory activities into their routine, such as swinging or jumping on a trampoline, or offering sensory toys or tools.


In today's market, a wide array of products is available to aid in destressing and calming children. To find the most suitable options, I recommend experimenting with items that align with your child's stimming preferences.


Some examples include a fidget spinner for those who enjoy spinning objects, a sensory chew necklace for children who chew on nails or objects, or a fidget pop tube for those who need to keep their hands occupied.


By exploring these choices, you can identify the tools that best cater to your child's individual sensory needs, promoting a soothing environment that supports their emotional well-being.


How to Calm Autistic Meltdowns


Related: Ultimate Toy Guide: 30 Best Sensory Toys for Autistic Children



6. Support Communication


Communication challenges are common among autistic individuals, and when they struggle to express their needs, emotions, or discomfort, it can lead to overwhelming frustration. By providing a supportive environment that encourages open communication, caregivers can help autistic children feel understood and validated.


Implementing alternative communication methods, such as visual supports, picture cards, or AAC devices, gives the child a means to communicate effectively, reducing feelings of helplessness and anxiety.


By actively listening to the child and responding with empathy and patience, caregivers can foster a sense of trust and security, enabling the child to articulate their feelings and seek assistance when needed.


When children feel empowered to communicate their needs, they are less likely to experience meltdowns triggered by unmet or unexpressed desires, ultimately promoting emotional regulation and preventing meltdowns.



7. Encourage Self-Care


Taking care of one's physical and emotional well-being is essential for everyone, including autistic children. By promoting healthy sleep patterns, balanced nutrition, regular exercise, and engaging in preferred activities, caregivers can help these children build resilience and coping skills.


A well-rested and content child is more likely to manage stressors effectively and navigate through challenging situations with greater ease.


Encouraging self-care also involves recognizing signs of sensory overload or emotional distress and empowering the child to take breaks when needed.


By teaching them to advocate for their own needs and providing opportunities for self-regulation, caregivers empower autistic children to build emotional awareness and self-control, reducing the likelihood of meltdowns and promoting overall emotional well-being.



8. Foster Emotional Regulation


Autistic children may experience heightened emotions and struggle to understand or manage their feelings effectively. By teaching them coping strategies and providing tools to regulate emotions, caregivers can empower these children to navigate challenging situations with greater resilience.


This may involve engaging in mindfulness exercises, deep breathing techniques, or sensory-based activities to help the child self-soothe during moments of distress.


Encouraging positive self-talk and validating their emotions can also enhance emotional awareness and expression.


When children have the tools and support to regulate their emotions, they are better equipped to handle stressors and frustrations without resorting to meltdowns.


Ultimately, fostering emotional regulation fosters a sense of self-control, confidence, and emotional well-being, significantly reducing the occurrence of meltdowns and promoting a more harmonious environment for the child and their caregivers.





9. Seek Professional Support


If meltdowns are frequent, severe, or significantly impacting the child's daily life, it may be beneficial to seek professional support. Autism specialists, therapists, and behavioral therapists are equipped with the knowledge and experience to assess the child's unique needs, triggers, and communication patterns.


Through individualized interventions and strategies, they can help identify and address the underlying factors that contribute to meltdowns. Additionally, these professionals can educate parents and caregivers on effective techniques for managing challenging behaviors and fostering emotional regulation in the child.


By collaborating with experts, families can gain valuable insights and tools to create a supportive and nurturing environment that minimizes triggers and promotes the child's overall well-being.


With professional guidance, the child can develop essential coping skills, communication methods, and emotional awareness, reducing the occurrence of meltdowns and enhancing their ability to thrive in various settings.


Speech, Occupational and Behavioral Therapies for Autistic Children




Final Thoughts


Remember, every autistic child is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. Continuously observe and adapt strategies based on the child's individual needs and preferences.


By implementing preventive measures, caregivers can create an environment that fosters emotional well-being, reduces anxiety, and minimizes the occurrence of meltdowns.



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