This article about how to prevent autism meltdowns.
It is intended for both autism parents AND for those people who are on the spectrum. In fact it was a person with autism who prompted me to write this article after they reached out to me for help!
Steps to prevent an autism meltdown.
- Identify scenarios and situations which frequently cause meltdowns
- Watch for cues that a meltdown might start
- Avoid sensory overload
- Maintain routines
- Deescalate situations quickly
- Practice good communication when things are calm
- Have a plan for providing a safe place to calm down
- Have an exit strategy (not all meltdowns are preventable)
About Autism Meltdowns
We all know (or at least should know) that autism meltdowns are not tantrums.
They are not intentional, they aren’t done just so the autistic person can get their way, and they certainly aren’t fun for anyone involved, INCLUDING the person having the meltdown!
There are some commonalities however, and triggers which cause most meltdowns.
And while not all of them are avoidable, a good majority can be prevented, or at least managed to an acceptable level.
1. Identify Situations Which Frequently Cause Meltdowns
In order to prevent an autism meltdown, you need to have a good idea of when it might happen, and what could cause it.
I want to point out a couple of things here.
First of all, you can’t identify just one factor to avoid all meltdowns. Any given child (or adult for that matter) will have numerous circumstances which could lead to one.
I mean think about it. Aren’t there numerous situations that could make you upset, angry or somehow extremely emotional? I’m sure there are a variety of things that can make you frazzled.
And that’s kind of what a meltdown is.
The autistic person is frazzled. The difference is in the way they are affected by it, and the way their brain both interprets and reacts to it.
You become frazzled and maybe you begin stammering, or forget someone’s name. Have you ever called someone by every name except their own? I know my mom sure went through a full list of names before she finally yelled mine out when she was mad at me!
The autistic person may have encountered a situation which has them “frazzled” and their brain goes into overload which results in a meltdown.
There isn’t just one thing that can cause you to go into that state. The same is true for someone with autism.
What causes one autistic person to have a meltdown won’t necessarily have the same effect on another person.
I have an autistic person who works for me. His car was recently hit in the parking lot at work. A truck pulled out, didn’t realize he was clipping the front of the car, and ripped off the front fender. My employee was totally calm about the whole thing.
Had that been my son, there would have been fireworks! There is no doubt in my mind that he would have completely taken a serious ride on the meltdown train, and lord help anyone who was around!
I said all of that to make this point.
I don’t know what triggers cause meltdowns for each and every person, but I do know that each person does have triggers that are unique to them. And once those triggers are identified they can be worked on to prevent a meltdown.
Some of those triggers can be prevented by avoidance, some by coping mechanisms and others by learning new behaviors.
My son hates going to the dentist. I’m sure most of us can relate to that!
Dentist visits have an abundance of potential meltdown circumstances.
First there is the lead up to the dentist visit. He is dreading it and has time to dwell on it, which can put him in a bad mood…which of course makes meltdowns more likely. Things that may not have bothered him much are now amplified by his underlying dread.
Then there is the visit itself, which is a plethora of meltdown possibilities. You have the sensory issues with the smell of the dentist’s office, the sounds of anything used, not to mention the dentist is working in his mouth!
Then you can have pain, having to stay still, the awkward lights as they look in the mouth, etc…
By recognizing these reasons, identifying them ahead of time and addressing them when appropriate, we have been able to take what was once a near impossible trip to the dentist, and turned it into a not fun, but manageable (and unavoidable) part of life, usually without any meltdowns throughout the process.
We haven’t had to end a dentist appointment early in years now.
Despite that, I still sit through the visit right by his side. And the entire time I am in there, I am watching for any cues that a meltdown by be coming.
Which brings me to the next thing.
2. Watch For Cues That A Meltdown Might Start
An autism meltdown can often be prevented simply by seeing it coming ahead of time, and intervening.
For people reading this who might have autism, this means you need to learn to recognize your own feelings and behaviors when a meltdown is starting to come on.
It has been my experience that once a meltdown is in full swing, it is extremely difficult (and sometimes impossible) to end until it has run its course.
There is a tipping point however.
A time where the frenzy has almost begun, but hasn’t quite gotten there. If I am able to take actionable steps before that tipping point is reached, the meltdown can usually be prevented.
Here are some of the cues to look for in order to recognize that a meltdown is on the way.
- An increase in stemming: Many people on the spectrum stem as a way to self soothe. An increase in stemming can be a sign that they are becoming more agitated.
- Change in communication: Problems communicating is one of the signs of autism. Sometimes this is barely noticeable except for when they are having a meltdown. At that point they may yell or say things that don’t entirely make sense, like “You’re a big fat Santa head!”. When you see that the words they use are starting to change from what is normal, this might be a sign that they are headed towards a meltdown.
- Physical changes: If you see that the person is starting to become flush or their eyes are dilating, it may mean that their blood pressure is beginning to rise. You might also notice changes in their body language. I can often tell when my son is on the verge of a meltdown because he will look at me out of the sides of his eyes rather than looking at me straight on.
- Demands become more forceful and less reasonable: When a person with autism begins demanding that things be done their way, it means they are trying to control their world. As they feel themselves edging closer to a meltdown, they might become more desperate to take control of their world.
- Cues: One of the biggest and most obvious cues is also one that is often overlooked. The person tells you they don’t like the situation they are in. Maybe they say something like, “I want to go home now.”, or “How much longer are we going to be?”.
Rather than notice that the kiddo is beginning to get agitated, they simply answer the question with, “Just a few more minutes.”
What they fail to recognize is that the child is really saying they need to leave, their anxiety is rising and “Just a few more minutes” doesn’t decrease the anxiety. It is going to continue to build for those “few more minutes”.
Each person is unique and different, but the cues are there is you learn to look for them. Notice them early enough, and you will often be able to prevent a meltdown before it is underway.
3. Avoid Sensory Overload
Limiting or avoiding sensory overload can help prevent an autism meltdown.
All of us have experienced sensory overload at some point.
Have you ever turned down the radio in the car when you’re looking for a specific street? Have you ever closed your eyes in deep thought?
Sensory overload basically means one or more of a person’s senses are drowning out the minds ability to think.
For someone who doesn’t have autism, this may rarely happen. And when it does, it is nothing more than a minor inconvenience.
To an autistic person however, it can completely dominate their thoughts, and potentially lead to a meltdown.
To you it may seem like simple background noise in a crowded shopping center, while to them it is a whirlwind of disconjointed sounds, smells and bright lights that physically hurt to behold and can throw the mind into a severe panic of fight or flight in order to preserve their sanity.
Your brain is wired to tune out everything going on in the background that does not concern you. The autistic brain on the other hand, absorbs everything and tries to make sense of it.
Imagine walking into a room and trying to listen to every conversation at once.
You know you can’t do it. Now imagine if your brain tried to do so anyways, regardless of whether or not you wanted to do so.
THAT my friends, is just one example of autism.
I want to point out here that it does not mean you should always avoid it all together.
People with autism have the ability to learn over time to cope with SOME sensory input. How much they can handle will vary from person to person.
My son for example, went years without ever going to a movie. Now he goes to the movies several times a year.
HE is the one who decides whether or not he can handle it though. There are still times when he doesn’t want to go to a movie simply because he doesn’t want to battle through all of the sensory input, and that is OK.
4. Maintain Routines
Most people understand that routines can be important to someone on the spectrum, but few people understand why.
Simply put, it is so they can control the world around them.
When I say this, I don’t mean they are trying to control things in a dictatorial sort of way where they are the boss of everything, though it can certainly come across that way quite often.
What I mean is, controlling their environment so that they understand it and feel safe. They need certainty.
If your spouse said they have a surprise for you tonight when you get home, wouldn’t you be excited? Do you like surprises?
I’m going to tell you right now that no, you do NOT like surprises. You only like the surprises you want. The ones you don’t want, you call catastrophes!
They are constantly having to process the world around them. Changes in routine can cause high anxiety, which of course can lead to a meltdown.
That being said, we know how important it is to be exposed to new things. This is just as true for an autistic person as it is for someone who doesn’t have autism.
So I’m going to throw in an amendment to this meltdown prevention step:
- Be aware that changes in routine can cause high anxiety for someone with autism,
- Monitor for signs of a potential meltdown.
- Have a plan in place in case a meltdown starts.
5. Deescalate Situations Quickly
Many autism meltdowns can be prevented if caught before they get too far.
I literally can’t count how many times our family has prevented a meltdown by simply calming things down before John gets too deep into one.
This doesn’t necessarily mean we let him have his way. We simply try to get to the root cause quickly, and then help him through whatever he’s struggling with while encouraging him to use good words.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Two simple words that can completely alter the course of many, many meltdowns.
Affirm what your child is saying. You’re not agreeing, you’re not disagreeing, you are simply affirming. After you have affirmed it, you can then redirect.
John comes home after a hard day at school where nothing went right.
His first declaration when he comes in the door is that he’s not going to school tomorrow. He’s upset, but we haven’t hit meltdown yet and I want to prevent him from getting there.
Affirm – “I get it that you don’t want to go to school tomorrow buddy.”
Redirect – “Tell me what happened.”
It takes BOTH of these actions to be effective. If I were to simply say, “Why aren’t you going to school tomorrow?”, John is still at a level 10 in anxiety. On top of that, in the back of his mind I might be another obstacle he has to face today. He’s geared up for a fight.
Once I’ve affirmed what he has said, I’ve not only brought his anxiety down to a 9, I’ve also shown him that I’m not the bad guy. I’m not disagreeing with him, and I’m making him feel safe so that we can have a real conversation.
Don’t get me wrong, he’s still heated at this stage and on the verge of a meltdown. My goal is to simply keep it from reaching that level.
They want you to engage with them so they have something real to face.
It’s much easier to take all their anger out on you than it is to process their bad day (or whatever it is that is causing the meltdown).
6. Practice Good Communication When Things Are Calm
After every meltdown has ended, take the time to teach your child how they could have handled the situation better.
And for those of you with autism who may be reading this, take the time yourself once you have calmed down after a meltdown, to reflect on what you could have done differently.
When an autistic person is in the throws of a meltdown, there is no reasoning with them.
This isn’t intentional. It is a chemical reaction in their brain. They have reached a point of not being capable of controlled, rational thought.
We are all capable of reaching this point, but the very essence of autism makes an autistic person much more susceptible to it.
Providing a safe environment, affirming and redirecting, keeping everything around the autistic percon calm are all ways to end a meltdown.
And I want to point out (yet again) that people with autism do NOT enjoy going through a meltdown. Once they are in it, it’s almost like it takes on a life of its own.
After the meltdown is over, is when you want to practice good communication.
- How could the autistic person have handled the situation differently?
- What words could they have used to better communicate their feelings?
- What actions will they take next time in order to prevent themselves from getting so worked up?
- Most importantly as an autism parent, how can you better help and support them next time?
Don’t expect these conversations to immediately lead to better results. This is something that takes repeated efforts to improve.
We have spent years working with John on these things, and I am proud to say that he rarely has meltdowns any longer.
At one point in our life, meltdowns were quite literally a daily occurrence.
We never stopped doing these things though. Even today, when the rare meltdown monster rears its ugly head, we ask him these questions and work on preventing meltdowns in the future.
And before I come across as trying to sound like a saint, I want to stress that it is John who is doing the work. We are simply providing the direction. It is HIS efforts however, that has brought change.
As I’ve said over and over, the person having the meltdown doesn’t like it any more than those around him or her.
7. Have An Exit Strategy
To be honest, all of this sounds easier than it is. I am truly speaking from experience here.
Not all autism meltdowns are preventable.
There are times when we push things a little too far. Maybe that’s a friend or family member saying those magical words, “just a few more minutes” after you’ve been told they’re uncomfortable.
Perhaps you yourself are autistic, and you’ve gotten into a situation you thought you could handle.
And of course there are those times when unexpected things happen. We’ve all been there.
I can honestly say there has been more than one time when we have abruptly left a store, leaving behind a cart full of groceries in the middle of an aisle, apologizing on our way out the door.
Dentist and Dr visits have been cut short, haircuts have ended after only being half way completed, movies have been exited before being even half way over. The list could go on.
And if you really want to prevent a meltdown, you’ll kick that exit strategy into gear BEFORE the meltdown actually starts.
Catch it when it’s right on that edge between the beginning of a meltdown, and full steam ahead meltdown train.
I can’t help reiterating one final time, meltdowns are just as hard for the autistic person going through them as they are for everyone around them.
Often times they are an unfortunate aspect of autism.
And whereas they are not always avoidable, they can be managed to an extent. They will also get better with time and maturity, if they are addressed the right way.
Stay strong, and remember to always live in faith, not in fear.