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Autism meltdowns: The full guide

By Kanjo
10 min
Last updated
June 18, 2022
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What is an Autism meltdown?

In its simplest terms, it’s a very intense response to an overwhelming situation that leads to loss of control of behaviour.

So can you tell a meltdown is coming?

Some children go into what is known as a “rumble state” where they begin to show early signs of distress. This may lead to them walking around, rocking back and forth, repeating questions or sitting extremely still.

This is often the best window of opportunity to help them before a meltdown occurs. Distraction and diversion methods are always good here- a lot of parents offer fidget toys or listen to calm music.

How is the meltdown expressed when it happens?

Every child’s meltdown manifests differently but here are some common ways.

  • Verbal: screaming, crying and shouting
  • Physical: kicking, biting, lashing out
  • A combination of verbal and physical
  • A refusal for any interaction at all

What should I do in the moment?

Before we get into it, remember not to judge anyone! It’s a tough situation for anyone to be in.

  1. Make space for your child to feel comfortable and safe. Askpeople to move along and not stare, find a place with less noise and bright lights.
  2. Be safe. Make sure your child and other people are safe as they may unintentionally hurt someone or hurt themselves.
  3. Find ways to keep yourself calm. As an anchor to your child, you need to show them that you are present and there for them.
  4. There is no point trying to reason with children. Meltdowns are not logical. Wait until the episode is over.
  5. Give them time- it takes a while to overcome sensory and emotional overload.

What can I do next time?

Whilst you cannot be certain to prevent a meltdown, there are things you can do to help your child deal with them.

  1. Identify the triggers of the meltdown- what is actually overwhelming for them? We encourage parents to keep a diary to see if there are also particular times and places that lead to meltdowns.
  2. Find ways to minimise or eliminate that trigger if possible.
  3. Create a calming routine- common routines could include music, specific visuals or weighted blankets.
  4. Learn how to keep yourself calm. These meltdowns aren’t fun for anyone but they can be especially hard for parents. Make sure you have a strategy to keep yourself strong during meltdowns.
  5. Meltdowns are often the result of change. Children with autism need routine and changes to routine can lead to overwhelm. If you do happen to find yourself in a changing situation there are a few things you can do. Give them the chance to remove anxiety in a contained way such as ripping up paper or punching a pillow followed by their calming routine. You should also make sure to reassure them that the rest of the day should be the same.
  6. Find ways to create structure in the day from using timetables and timers for countdowns to using their favourite toys in the transition parts of the day.
  7. We’ve all been anxious and know it’s pretty scary but for autistic people, the world can be a very challenging place. To soothe and prevent anxiety, focus on relaxation techniques that you know work for them.

Sensory toolkits for Autism Meltdowns:

  1. Sunglasses. Bright lights can be over stimulating so make sure you have sunglasses for when the sun or artificial light gets too much.
  2. Snacks and water. Both tantrums and meltdowns are more likely to take place if your child is hungry! Make sure there are snacks they are comfortable with and plenty of water.
  3. Fidget toys like a fidget spinner or stress ball. Having objects that encourage repetition are an easy way to get children to calm down.
  4. Anything that has a smell they like. Having something that has a reassuring smell can often prevent the sensory overload from too many new smells. This could be anything from a spray to a perfume or something in their room with a particular smell.
  5. Invest in a pair of noise cancelling headphones, it’s one of our favourite ways to help calm children when noise gets too loud.

How to handle an autism meltdown in public:

This is such a tough situation for parents to be in and we totally get how you must feel pain for your child whilst some dwindling patience. You aren’t alone in this though and this isn’t your child trying to hurt you- they are just overwhelmed.

  1. Do not leave them alone during a meltdown. This suggests they are undeserving of love when meltdowns happen.
  2. Punishment in private or in public is not the way forward- they have not chosen to have the meltdown in the first place.
  3. Tap into your sensory toolkit ( take a look at our toolkit here)
  4. Remove the audience- find somewhere quiet to go and ask people not to look or get involved.
  5. Try and keep them calm as they enter a public space, before anything has happened. Whether it was a walk beforehand or something else, make sure they feel secure.

Further Reading