It is common for a person with autism to experience meltdowns. As a parent, it is distressing, as well as mentally tiring, and can be physically challenging. Most parents of children with autism do everything they can to avoid new or unexpected circumstances that may instigate overload that could lead to a meltdown. If this sounds familiar, know that you are not alone. 

It helps parents once they understand what a meltdown is, as then you are able to gain the ability to foresee the signs of a meltdown, as well as identify the causes, and reduce the frequency. 

What is a meltdown? 

A meltdown is an intense response to overwhelming circumstances—a complete loss of behavioral control. People with autism often have difficulty expressing when they are feeling overly anxious or overwhelmed, which leads to an involuntary coping mechanism—a meltdown. 

Meltdowns Compared to Temper Tantrums

Knowing the difference between a typical temper tantrum in a young child and a meltdown in a person with autism helps to further understand what a meltdown is.

Children have temper tantrums with intention and purpose, such as control over people or situations, or as a call for attention. A child having a temper tantrum does have control over themselves, even if the tantrum results in attacking people, loud screaming, or breaking things.

A person having a meltdown typically screams, attacks people, hurts themselves and breaks things, which may look like a temper tantrum, but there is no underlying intention or plan involved. 

In an autistic meltdown, the person is not aware of self-control, as they are in the throes of distress, and typically the meltdown situation will have to calm itself down, meaning, it cannot simply be “turned off.” 

People with autism can experience a meltdown whether they are a child, a teen, or an adult. 

With positive changes, the frequency of meltdowns can decrease over time. 

What causes a meltdown?

There isn’t a simple one-word answer for what causes a meltdown. Meltdowns are just as individual as the unique personalities that children are born with. 

The cause of meltdowns varies from child to child, and much depends upon the situation itself, but here are some common trigger points: 

Sensory Overload 

Children with autism may have hypersensitivities in one or more of their senses, and some senses can be under-sensitive, which can provoke sensory overload with too much stimulation, followed by panic and a meltdown. 

Information Overload

Autistic children may become confused when too much complexity comes at them at once, such as too many instructions or demands, or language that is not understood. This can lead to stress, anxiety, and physical pain in some children. 

Emotional Overload 

When a child has problems expressing themselves, it ordinarily is too complicated for them to understand their own feelings. Children with autism may find it difficult to ask for help when they become anxious, and when they don’t have the intrinsic mechanisms to calm down, their emotions become too much to handle and a meltdown ensues. 

Meltdown Warning Signs and Prevention

As careful as you might be with avoiding activities or situations that can lead to meltdowns, it just is not feasible to duck away from meltdowns entirely. You can, however, try to intervene and stop a meltdown in its tracks before it goes full-force by picking up on your child’s warning signs. 

Common meltdown warning signs in children with autism are:

Physical signs of anxiety or confusion, such as fretting, restlessness, or stimming. 

Stimming may be how your child manages their own anxiety or sensory input levels, so remember this is not behavior that typically must be modified. Even though stimming is a way that children with autism self-regulate, it can lead to a meltdown when the anxiety continues to build. 

Related: Co-occurring Conditions and Behavior

Asking to leave or to take a break. 

If your child asks or signs to leave the area or take a break, the situation or environment may be overstimulating. 

As your child’s guide, working with your child’s communication skills will help them to understand when and how to express to you when they are in need of a break, even though they may not be able to understand or express their own level of anxiety.

Attempts to escape or bolt. 

Children typically find it entertaining to bolt away from their parents, but in a child with autism, it may be a sign of over-stimulation.  

Be prepared to give your child the break that they are expressing or asking for. This may involve you taking them to a quiet place or distracting them with a routine that the child is familiar with, such as visuals or music that they love. 

What You Can Do in a Meltdown

Remember this key element, you cannot avoid meltdowns entirely. As a parent, your first goal is to remain calm. 

Safety is a must. Have a strategy in place to protect your child and yourself from harm. 

Move to a quiet place, away from the stimulation that may have evoked the overload until the meltdown is over. When you are in a public area, this requires pre-planning, such as knowing where a quiet place is that you can take your child to. Also, pack a survival kit of familiar and soothing items that are your child’s favorite coping mechanisms. 

Related: What Nobody Ever Tells Us About Meltdowns

You may not be able to stop or slow down a full-blown meltdown with distractions or a quiet space. A meltdown may simply be an eruption that must fizzle out on its own. Your job is to remain calm and keep both you and your loved one safe. 

Prevention is your best defensive tool. Keep practicing and do not expect perfection. Your child will learn from you, learn how to communicate his or her basic needs and anxieties, non-verbal or not. Even though meltdowns may still occur, know that they may reduce over time.  

We Are Here to Help

You aren’t alone in this journey. At RDI®, we have created an Online Autism Parent Training Video Series to help parents get real help on topics that matter the most. Get answers to your biggest questions and concerns about autism and learn how to best support your child’s growth and progress with our outstanding series of webinars. Find out more and access the video series here.

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