Managing Meltdowns: Strategies for Helping a Child with ASD Cope with Big Emotions

older girl comforting child crying on a couch

Meltdowns occur frequently in autistic children and adolescents and can be a response to physical or emotional stress, resulting in loss of control of their behavior and challenges with “calming down.” Unlike a temper tantrum—wherein a child is in control of their actions and purposefully acts up to get what they want—an autistic meltdown is caused by sensory overload and is beyond the child’s control.

Meltdown Causes

The loss of control that comes with a meltdown can be expressed verbally (shouting, crying, screaming), physically (hitting, kicking), or in a combination of both. Triggers of a meltdown might be sensory-related, such as loud noises, strong smells, flashing lights, or uncomfortable textures. They could also be socially related, such as changes to a routine.

Common triggers for a meltdown may include:

  • Sensory processing difficulties
  • Change or unpredictability in routine/schedule
  • Transitions
  • Lack of structure
  • Basic needs are unmet (e.g. hungry, tired)
  • A non-preferred or challenging task
  • Fear of embarrassment, losing or making mistakes
  • Unmet desire for attention
  • Communication difficulties
  • Lack of autonomy or control

Minimizing Triggers
Know your child’s triggers and the signs of distress they typically exhibit before a meltdown. Identifying stressors and noticing a pattern can be helpful when creating a plan to manage and prevent meltdowns. By noticing changes in their body language, facial expressions, and tone/volume of voice, you may be able to intervene before a meltdown occurs.

Sensory Considerations
Incorporate a “sensory diet”—a personalized action plan that ensures your child is getting the unique input their body needs—throughout your child’s routine to provide consistent opportunities for self-regulating activities. For children and teens with sensory processing difficulties, the needs for input are more intense. Various strategies like the use of fidgets, alternative forms of seating, chewing gum or eating crunchy snacks, movement breaks, and weighted blankets can help the body remain focused and attentive throughout the day. An occupational therapist can help develop a specific program tailored to your child’s needs. The more skilled your child or teen is at mastering self-regulating activities that work for them, the better they will be empowered to manage potential meltdown triggers.

Create a Routine
A change in routine can be distressing for those with autism, so creating consistent, predictable schedules can be useful in preventing meltdowns. Visual schedules, timers, and incorporating the child’s interests into transitions are all helpful tools. Should there be an unexpected change, strategies such as using a picture to explain it or allowing the child to express their emotions appropriately (ripping paper or hitting a pillow) can help avoid a meltdown.

Have a Plan
Practice coping strategies ahead of time and prepare to use them when emotions start running high. Consider designating a ‘calm down’ area in your home for your child to use when upset, equipped with sensory tools or regulating strategies. Having such a space can help your child or teen learn to independently engage in self-regulating activities that can prevent or manage a meltdown.

How BRAINS Can Help
Here at BRAINS, we offer a range of therapeutic services and resources aimed at individuals and families managing autism. Through collaborative care, your child may benefit from outpatient counseling, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and/or Applied Behavior Analysis. Each service provides education, emotional support, and tailored strategies to your child’s and family’s needs. Services include:

  • A behavior management plan specific to your child’s needs
  • Strategies to increase cognitive flexibility
  • Identification of triggers and warning signs
  • Practicing new or difficult skills during a therapy session to reduce stress
  • Developing a routine with built-in breaks or supports during high-stress activities
  • Developing a reward system and/or visual supports
  • Sensory processing needs assessment and family education
  • Honing social skills (specifically expressive language, social pragmatics, perspective-taking, etc.)
  • Increasing independence with ADL and IADL tasks, sleep hygiene, etc.
  • Developing executive functioning skills (e.g. attention, planning, organization, following multi-step instructions, memory, task initiation, etc.)
  • Connecting with schools to request accommodations
  • Coordinating care with other medical/mental health providers
  • Providing referrals to other services, as needed

The team at BRAINS provides expertise in understanding and treating all aspects of autistic spectrum disorders (including autism, PDD NOS, and Asperger’s Syndrome) for all ages, from early childhood through adulthood.

To learn more, contact us or call (616) 365-8920.

No More Meltdowns: Positive Strategies for Managing and Preventing Out-Of-Control Behavior by Jed Baker

Trauma-Informed Social-Emotional Toolbox for Children & Adolescents: 116 Worksheets & Skill-Building Exercises to Support Safety, Connection & Empowerment by LIsa Weed Phifer and Laura K. Sibbald

National Autistic Society (UK)

How to Calm a Child with Autism