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Tips for Managing Autism Meltdowns

Updated on August 1, 2017
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Flo is a certified teacher for children with special needs. Her experience with children with autism impacts the majority of her writings.

Have you ever dealt with a child in the middle of a tantrum? For some young kids between the ages of one and four, a hug works best to calm the behavior. For other older kids, ignoring, speaking calmly, or diverting attention to something more interesting are some effective strategies to manage temper tantrums. However, these same strategies to manage tantrums do not work well for children on the autism spectrum. These unacceptable behaviors or "tantrums" should not be confused with "meltdowns," which are common among children with autism.

Tantrum vs. Meltdown

Autism is a social-relational disorder, wherein a person on the spectrum has difficulty forming personal relationships due to an impairment in social interaction and communication domains. With these challenges, persons in the spectrum whether they are old or young, verbal or nonverbal, are unable to communicate and relate to people effectively their needs and wants. While a tantrum arises from a frustration over a need not met, a meltdown is a reaction of a child with autism to an overwhelming situation caused by sensory, emotional, or information overload. While a tantrum needs an audience for attention, an autism meltdown happens with or without an audience, or when the child with autism is alone. Any normal approach to control or reduce the behavior like a hug, distraction, or other forms of discipline does not work in an autism meltdown.

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Tips for Managing Autism Meltdowns

For a regular child, the calming approach works well, but the same action may not be as effective for a child in the spectrum. As a general approach, the following tips can be used to help manage autism meltdowns.

1. Provide a safe space for the meltdown

Ensure the safety of the child by removing any dangerous objects nearby. If a child engages in self-injurious behavior, prepare the environment by having standby items you can use to protect the child from hurting self, e.g. pillow, soft mattress.

2. Know the antecedent

It is important to make a log of behavior triggers that may be causing the meltdown. Monitoring patterns of trigger that cause the negative behavior can help avoid possible future meltdowns. These triggers can be an object or an incident that may be overwhelming for the child. If it is an item, remove it immediately and out of the child's sight.

3. Calming routine

During and after a meltdown, establish a routine that will help the child with autism to slowly calm down. You can offer a weighted blanket or a sensory item like a stress ball for the child to squeeze. You can also teach the child deep breathing techniques. Deep breathing is beneficial as it can help regulate and control a child’s emotional outburst. Talking to the child may not work most of the time. As soon as the meltdown decreases in intensity then you can start implementing your established calming routine.

4. Stay calm yourself

Being calm as a care provider is the most important. Try to stay calm and not join the child in his/her stress.Children with autism can feel when you are in a panicky state thus affecting their emotions more negatively.

The following are just some of the most common methods practiced by care providers in managing autism meltdowns. There are no one-size-fits all rule though, but being loving, patient, and understanding must be the top traits to possess when dealing with children with a special condition.

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