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10 Ways to Handle an Autism Meltdown

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Let me introduce you to an amazing man, my husband! He is absolutely the most loving, awesome Daddy. He has patience that I wish for, and loves these squirrels with a fierce, daddy squirrel kind of love.

I asked him a while back to write a post for my blog. I thought he was going to write something warm and fuzzy, but instead he chose to write something that many parents of a child with autism have to deal with, something that is often swept under the rug, something that is hidden behind closed doors because no one wants to acknowledge the reality and gravity of these moments in time…how to handle an autism meltdown.

Autism meltdowns are a whole new magnitude of meltdown! So, here are ten real life ways to handle an autism meltdown.

Autism Meltdowns
I am not versed in autism speak. I haven’t done a lot of research besides the everyday experiment that is living with my high functioning child. So, without further ado, I present 10 ways to handle a Meltdown.

10. Call the Cops:
Not an ideal solution, but sometimes the only one. We have had to make this call a few times. The worst part of this is that the it inevitably leads to longer term issues. With D we find that the arrival of the police sometimes does the trick.

9. Ignore the Meltdown:
This isn’t my strongest suit. I tend to be more hands on when D falls apart. I have a hard time leaving him to his own devices when he is kicking things, hitting things, or threatening to break things. It takes a strong person to hold back when things are being destroyed.

8. Protect Yourself and Others:
Defending yourself becomes essential. How you do that is very important, as you can’t let your emotions run away.

7. Learn Restraint:
This one probably goes along with protecting yourself, but not. Its a figurative, not literal, restraint. Be able to walk away from things your kid is doing, while remaining engaged in the battle going on. There is always a battle going on, so pick which one you fight.

6. Learn Restraint…literally:
Ok, so the Meltdown is happening, what now? Restraint techniques are valuable to protect life and property, and keep the child safe from themselves. There is a fine line between restraint and hurting. You can’t be effective in this unless you know the proper way to do it. You WILL hurt yourself or your kid if you do it wrong. It provides the sensory feedback your child needs if done right. If not, it will escalate things and end up with someone hurt. (Crisis Prevention Institute is an excellent resource for training.)

5. Tag Team:
In our situation, my wife and I are able to work together. Keeps you fresh during the long meltdowns. We have, in the past faced multiple hours of meltdown. We take turns keeping him isolated, take turns keeping the other kids away, work together to remove his potential weapons away from him. We also support each other and try to calm D verbally. Be on the same page with your partner and have a plan.

4. Plan Ahead:
You know it is going to happen, it is inevitable. Meltdowns and tantrums are a part of life. Plan your response ahead of time, either for yourself or with your partner. Know where you will send your other kids (safe room), know when you will call for back up, know where your phone is, know where snacks or meds are that will help during the meltdown. The plans don’t always work, but not having one never works.

3. Be Proactive:
Know what’s going on with your kid. It is easier, I guess, with a verbal and high functioning child. We can hear the arguments, and might have an idea that something is coming. Be ready to redirect. Try to stop the tantrum before it turns into a Meltdown. Be ready to offer alternatives and make concessions in the short term, to meet the needs of your specific situation.

2. Talk to Your Child:
In many cases your child can understand what you are saying to them. Let them know during calmer times that there are consequences to their actions. Make them age appropriate and meaningful. Give them incentive to NOT have a tantrum, and give them the opportunity to pull back from the edge. This makes for less painful endings when it works. Sadly for us, it doesn’t always work.

1. Go With The Flow:
There is no one way to always handle a Meltdown. Like every child with autism is different, every response is different. Be flexible, be open minded, and be able to act reciprocally to what’s going on. Your kid may have lost control, but you can’t.

Be aware of what’s going on with your kids. Know the signs of a meltdown in your kid first and foremost, then respond accordingly. And once the emergency is over, decompress yourself and your child so you both understand what went on.

It is not simple.

It is not easy, but…

It is our life and we live it.

8 thoughts on “10 Ways to Handle an Autism Meltdown

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  2. Your article is a godsend. I am dealing with a grown man who has recently been diagnosed as being on the spectrum. I had seem these tantrums and anger, but never knew what caused them or why they suddenly went away and life was back to normal.

    Reading about others dealing with them ( albeit in children), really helped.
    Thanks you!

  3. Hi, I just read your post and wanted to offer my own perspective because, I’m afraid, I disagree with a lot of what you have said. I am autistic. I am now in my early twenties and late teens early twenties is often a period in an autistic person’s life where they are likely to experience a higher frequency of meltdowns (largely to do with the overwhelming reality of becoming an adult when you struggle to understand the little behaviours most people pick up in that transition).

    Now I fully understand this post was made with love, and that you deeply care for your child however there are some things I want to point out that might help in the future.

    A meltdown is not at all related to a tantrum. They can appear similar but actually there is a huge difference and that is that a child having a tantrum is in control, someone having a meltdown is not. A meltdown occurs when frustration, anxiety, and sensory stimulus build up in the brain to such an extent the brain cannot cope. It is never just one thing, it is a build up of things. The large amount of stress this causes basically means the brain needs to discharge all of the stress and anger and frustration to best be able to reboot and regain full control again. This is where the explosive meltdown most commonly occurs.

    Explosive meltdowns can look scary and violent but actually they are the quickest way to regain control. Explosive meltdowns often inckude violent physical motion, hitting, kicking, yelling, crying. If the person has a safe space to go, somewhere quiet, low light, low noise this can actually be a healthy thing. For me, once I fully understood why I was having meltdowns I was able to control it to the extent that I shut myself in my room and yell into my pillow, kick my bed, rock and hum for abour 30 minutes to an hour, until the physical exhaustion allows my body to calm, and my brain to calm enough to regain a more logical control. It’s kind of a more dramatic version of people with anxiety being advised to take up exercise as it helps to use up the extra adrenaline. People who tend to hurt themselves or others in this state often do so because they do not know any meltdown techniques to help them vent this feeling, and it is a terrifying feeling. Having a meltdown is feeling like you cannot control your body or actions, feeling like you are an awful person because of this and sometimes feeling it’s all your fault, and being sdared because it feels like it will never end and you will be stuck in this state forever. One of the most important things I learnt was to remind myself when I felt a meltdown coming on that it was okay, I was allowed to do this, it would end, I would be okay. My meltdowns have since been quicker. Ensuring a person with harming behaviours has a safe space with no objects they can harm themselves with is important, but if they are hitting out slowly guiding hands to a surface they can hit helps, if they chew or bite, a flannel or a chewable stim toy should be offered to prevent injury. Crash mats/beds for violent rocking or head hitting are good too. A person can learn to redirect these behaviours, but not whilst during meltdown. When the person has recovered it can help to work through what it feels like when they meltdown and come up with alternatives, provide a kind of kit they can use, maybe balls they can throw at a wall, a bean bag to punch etc.

    The thing in your post that most made me want to comment however, is when you talkof how certain actions can stop/prevent meltdown, such as calling the police.

    This is not actually true. Now, what may appear to happen is that the meltdown stops, what actually happens is that rather than having an explosive meltdown, the person experiences a depressive meltdown, which whilst seeming easier to others, is actually dar more harmful to the brain.

    A depressive meltdown is what happens when a person does not feel safe enough to have an explosive meltdown, to vent all those toxic emotions. I used to have a lot of depressive meltdowns before I was diagnosed because I saw that explosive meltdowns made peole angry or sad and I thought this was my fault, so I would try very hard to surpress it. What happens in a depressive meltdown is that rather than venting the stress and anxiety, your body and brain shut down. It is often physically impossible to opperate with that amount of stress in the brain/body. Motor functions shut down, why we can appear very clumsy at times. Ability to manage stimulus goes right down, a simple room light can feel like an interogation lamp shoved in your face, a ticking clock like an explosion. Touch can feel like it’s burning. This is why people recommend during meltdown that you do not touch or talk to the person, beyond simple short sentences informing them of things such as – your safe space is here. You can stay until this is over. We love you.
    The brain cannot physically process information so asking us to complete even a simple task goes out the window. And if during meltdown we feel at all criticised or are asked to respond it can make the stress increase because we physically can’t and feel like we are letting you down.

    Now a depressive meltdown can appear more functional. Often a person will go very quiet, sometimes even child like. It can be hard to tell if someone is having a depressive meltdown because the point of a depressive meltdown is to try to encourage as little attention as possibke whilst your body works through the stress at a much slower rate, and by slow, I mean really slow. Whereas an explosive meltdown for me could be an hour, a depressive meltdown will be 3 days. Sometimes there are physical clues. Slower blinking, exceptionally poor eye contact, slow or very little speech. Retreat from family. Retreating into a favourite tv programme or puzzle. Apearing kind of like a teenager in a stop. Hoods up. Soft clothes on. This is because as the body and brain were unable to vent the stress, it’s gone into survival mode, where it keeps you as functional as possible whilst processing.

    It makes you feel like an exposed nerve for days. It’s utterly exhausting. And when it happens often it can make you physically ill. When I was younger I constantly had colds I couldn’t get rid of, stomach aches, head aches etc.

    Although from the outside a depressive meltdown can appear safer and more preferable, it’s actually far more harmful to the body, and an individual who feels guilty when they have explosive meltdowns, because they recognise people ariund them prefer it when they shut down, can often have worse explosive meltdowns because they feel like they are being a very bad person for having them.

    Therefore, redirecting a meltdown is good, yes, but trying to stop it is not. When you do something like call thepolice, what that says to an autistic person is, I am doing something so bad that the police are going to come and arrest me. So they will desperately try to repress. But this is unhealthy because now your child associates a meltdown with committing a crime. And to an autistic person it is that simple. I spent a long time hating myself, becauseI thought it was my fault when I got things wrong, or misunderstood things, because people would get angry at me. To the extent I used to harm myself.

    What a person with autism needs to know when a meltdown appears apparent is that it’s okay, they can get throuht this, you’re not angry, and then practical information about where the nearest safe space is, and where any tools/toys/objects that can help are. This creates a positive association with a meltdown, decreasing the added stress of guilt, and can actually make the meltdown shorter.

    Now, not every meltdown is going to happen in ideal circumstances. Sometimes in public, the only thing the do is physically restrain the person until you can get them to a safe space asap. This will feel horrible and embarrassing for the individual, but sometimes it is the only way. If an individual is violent during meltdowns sometimes all you can do is lock them in an isolated space. If this occurs often though, it is very important that the individual works with an expert or that a parent/carrer works with them about meltdown techniques, similar to anger management and CBT, helping them to redirect their behaviours to not be violent towards anyone, but towards an object until they are perhaps able to then redirect to completing a repetative pattern- say pacing, yelling a repeated tune, hitting out a repeated rhythm. Patterns are very calming on the brain, it’s one of the reasons we likeroutines so much.

    You sound like very loving parents and I do not wish this comment to siund like a criticism at all but I felt I needed to give you my perspective as it might help your son find a healthier way to manage his meltdowns. Autism can be very difficult to understand if you are not autistic, and until I had a lot of stuff explained to me I was doing a lot of things wrong in my own life.

    I wish you well in your life and I would recommend the National Autistic Society or the Lorna Centre websites for useful materials on such matters. Stim toys can also be great. I hope my words have helped you and not hurt you at all, I did not mean them in that way.

    1. Autistic 26 year old here and all I can say is that I completely agree with this comment. I wish I had the words to say that myself. Well said.

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