Meltdowns in Children With Autism

Having a meltdown is a thing that every human being can experience. Because it is an intense response to overwhelming situations. It is not something that you need to angry with yourself after experiencing a meltdown. Because of the fact that it happens when you feel overwhelmed whether by the situation or people around you. Also, it may happen as a result of losing behavioral control. Depends on the person, it can be expressed verbally such as shouting, screaming, swearing; physically such as kicking, lashing out, biting, crying; or it can be expressed in both ways.

In addition to those, many people on the autism spectrum experience meltdowns and it is more frequent compare to normally developed people do. Loosing of control is one of everyone’s biggest fears while the other is fear of the unknown. For many people on the spectrum, this unknown triggers a feeling of losing control. In this way, one leads another, one triggers another.

Meltdown is not a term that you can find scientific books or studies. IT doesn’t belong to any official language. “Difficult and challenging behaviors” is the definition you are most likely to hear in response. However, this does not fully meet because it contains many other behaviors. However, we can apply the same word to anyone who exhibits this type of behavior because it looks like a self-emerging definition.

Basically, it is completely losing control of behaviors. People tend to be loud, hurt people, hurt directly themselves, break things around them when they have a meltdown due to loss of behavioral control. Once they reach the line for the meltdown, it means they have already lost control. After that point, it is almost impossible for them to step back and stay quiet.

A meltdown occurs like a seizure. It means that without any reason and without giving a warning, it happens suddenly. It is a very frightening, shocking, and traumatic event for anyone experiencing and observing.

There are a variety of behaviors that a child shows his or her meltdowns. They may cry, swear, say bad words, scream, tell at people, fall down, act out, throw things, break things, hit themselves, hit others, hurt themselves, hurt others, bite others or run away from others. Meltdowns last from seconds to hours depend on the child’s need. They are emotional explosions because when your child doesn’t express themselves, it happens. When they feel overloaded and they are incapable of thinking in a rational way, it happens.

You may be very familiar with meltdowns. The people around you, for example, your child, your adult child, your friend, or your coworker frequently may have. However, it doesnt mean that each person has to show the same symptoms and has to live in the same way. It looks different in each person. Meltdowns can look like in different actions such as withdrawal or outward distress. Since you have someone with autism experience meltdown, you can offer help.

Meltdowns are very disturbed and irritated experiences; both for the child with autism spectrum disorder and for their parent. Observing your child’s suffering can be heart-breaking for parents. While these meltdowns happening, it can be difficult to keep them safe but necessary.

What are The Reasons for Having a Meltdown?

When someone starts having a meltdown once, there is no need for any reason not to continue. However, you should know that there is no specific reason in the first place. It is unlikely that you will understand how it happened, but what exactly caused them may never be known for sure. This situation varies from person to person and from meltdown to meltdown. But in some cases, these melts may have common starting points.

Sensory Overload

As we all know, many individuals on the autism spectrum are hypersensitive. Too much stimulation in any sense makes them more anxious and can cause a meltdown.

Information Overload

Apart from having autism, having intellectual difficultiğes comes with autism. Even though it doesnt affect each child on the spectrum, most of them suffer from it. “Overload” means something doesnt affect normally development children but affects children on the autism spectrum. It can be anything even more than your imagination. For example, basic language riddles. As a result, these tiny things can cause a meltdown in them.

Emotional Overload

If a person experiencing problems when they express themselves and their emotions, the reason could be understanding and managing their own feelings. If the reason is that, of course, asking for help to deal with this situation is more difficult for them. As a result, if they experience an emotion unexpectedly, that emotion can shake them and make them down. It can be a very important problem that shouldn’t be underestimated for individuals on the autism spectrum who cannot give meaning to all their emotions.

Excessive Demands

Excessive demand or demand that is very complicated to deal with. Having autism makes it difficult to understand all the demands and all information they have been asked for. Form a person who in on the autism spectrum’s perspective, let’s say they are asked for something and they don’t understand, or they don’t know how to react, or they don’t know how to communicate, or basically they don’t know. It can be overwhelming and it may cause a meltdown.

Excessive and Unnecessary Unpredictability

Individuals with autism have difficulties in thinking flexibly. If things don’t go as expected, they may not be able to manage this situation. If they get caught off guard, it can make a child with autism feel insecure. This can cause them to experience a meltdown. These changes do not need to be major changes. The smallest, any event that does not make any sense to us can affect individuals with autism and cause a meltdown.

Everything can start as a tantrum at first. But over time, it can get out of control and turn into meltdown. Children with autism may have difficulty managing and regulating these emotions. They may also be too insistent on practicing what they know. They can insist on the same thing, regardless of any reason. As a result, tantrums are indispensable for families with an individual with autism. It becomes a part of their lives. However, care should be taken to ensure that these temper tantrums do not go to disappointment. If they pass this point, tantrums turn into a meltdown.

Autism Meltdown Managing Strategies

A meltdown could be a scary experience. A brain of an individual with autism is already freaking out sometimes when the senses come overload. Therefore, even a ting change in daily routine, which is one of the things that people on the spectrum cannot tolerate, may cause overwhelmed for people on the spectrum. As a result, it can cause a meltdown. It is like a machine that freezes because too many commands are being given at once. So, what does a machine need to do? Shutdown, restart, or a manual override. It is exactly the same process as experiencing a meltdown. Those people need to rest and need time.

It is important to approach a person who is experiencing a meltdown calmly. It is important to give only simple commands. Keep in mind that they are already not functioning very well. Since lots of information is already going on in their mind at the same time, it would be a wise choice to give them simple commands.

You need to give them time. They need time to be alone to let themselves calm. In the end, the meltdown runs and overs its course. It is important to show them respect during this process. When a person experiences meltdown causes trauma in the sense of losing control. It is not what normally developed people do. They perceive this experience as embarrassing, heartbreaking, frustrating, scary, and horrifying.

To the person around them, meltdowns may look strange and horrifying. Nevertheless, to the person on the autism spectrum, it is only horrifying. You need to always keep in mind how hard experiencing meltdown is. More than anything else, respect is more important. Give them space. Give them time. Give them simple and clear commands. You can do these steps, of course, if they are responsive. And most importantly, try our best in case of not letting them feel alone, emotionally, and physically.

What to Do During a Meltdown

Children with autism are not prone to cry, wail, or fail to get at people around them somehow. If they cry, it is a result of their body’s need. Their bodies are in need of cry that moment and they cry. They try to release tension, anxiety, and emotion from their bodies. These can be a result of overwhelming feelings or being overly stimulated. The brain of those people works completely different than ours. This is the reason why they perceive the world differently and why they interact with it differently. That is exactly the point that they need help. As a parent, as a friend or ar a teacher, supporting them is the best thing you can do.

So do you know how you can support your child on the spectrum in an efficient way when these meltdowns happen?

Be empathetic

It is hard to understand them but not impossible. It means you need to listen and acknowledge how they struggle with their lives. You need to do this without any judgment. For all human beings, it is healthy to express our emotions. Sometimes these emotions can be overwhelming and even though those times, we should be in need of expressing them.

The parent’s job here is very important. They should guide their kids in case of expressing emotion. They should make their children understand that those emotions don’t hurt their bodies or others. When they empathize with their kids and give importance to their experience, they feel like they are not alone anymore. Everyone wants to and felt by others. Especially if you are a person who feels misunderstood by others. So then, can you imagine a child with autism in this case?

Feeling safe, secure and loved

Sometimes, in a moment of our lives, we feel like we are lost in our emotions. Of course, it happens to children on the autism spectrum as well. Unfortunately, it happens to them more frequently. They can’t hear what other people around them tell them. If it is the situation they face, parents just need to be simple. Simple actions. Simple movements. Basically sit with them and be quiet with them. It is more than enough for them to feel comfortable. During panic times, it is useless to talk to them and make them calm. It is a waste of time.

During those times, it is important that the child needs to be loved by parents and they are safe. Parents should make them feel in that way. They do this by placing as near to them as they are comfortable with. Parents can show their children on the spectrum that they are there for them by staying close.

If your child is physically tiny enough, you can consider holding them. You make sure they don’t escape from your arms. Because when they start to run, they can be very fast and they can go, for example, under a truck or fall down from the steps. However, if he or she is an adult, forget about holding part. This may not be possible with strong adults.

If it is in full meltdown, it can be difficult to manage. Security is very important for both the person with autism and others in the environment. It may be necessary to switch to a quiet room until the meltdown period ends. Sometimes this may require more than one person to prevent injury.

No need for punishments

Whether on the spectrum or not, punishments can make children feel different and unwanted emotions. Unwanted feelings can be caused when trying to prevent meltdowns. For example; shame, anxiety, fear, and anger. It is not easy to control their meltdowns for a child with autism. Nor can they draw conclusions from punishment as well as normally developed children. So it is not a punitive method for them. Instead of doing that, you should let them cry, scream, or whatever they want loudly with the feeling of they are supported by their parents.

Focus only on your child

Meltdowns themselves are already noisy experiences. On the other hand, if a child on the autism spectrum is experiencing a meltdown, it becomes way worse. It becomes noisier. They take it more upper levels. Some parents can feel embarrassed because of their children’s meltdowns. Especially if it happens in public. They are ashamed when people stare at them. They feel the judgment. Or even worse, they already feel like unsuccessful and in those situations, they feel like their deepest fears are confirmed. They are afraid to be considered as a failed parent. Parents with children on the autism spectrum always keep in mind that their child is the most important person who needs support and attention.

Carry sensory toolkit

It is important to take some sensory tools or toys with you. You can carry some of them in your car, bag, house, or even grandparent’s house. There are different tools available according to your child’s needs. For example; weighted lap pads, weighted blankets, noise-canceling headphones or earphones, and fidget toys. These are more or less helpful for every child on the autism spectrum. They are helpful and don’t mean that each child is going to use them when they are having a meltdown. Let your child choose one if they feel like it. Otherwise, it can affect in worse. Instead of calming them, it may cause a lauder meltdown.

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Teach your child coping strategies

You need to teach your child how to make calm themselves when they are already calm. While trying to teach their children how to deal with their emotions during a meltdown, many parents cannot. Because it should be before the meltdown. However, when they are in a calm and relaxed mind, parents should definitely work together on how to regulate their emotions. There are some coping strategies. With the help of those strategies, they can learn how to make calm themselves. In a preferable way, they can learn to do before a meltdown happens. Especially, it is important if they can do it even their parents are not around to help them.

Empathy is the core of all of these processes. Behaviors are the way their children communicate with them. It is important to understand their behaviors, what they want to say, what they mean, and so on. If the parents try to perceive as a way of communication, it will help them to widen their perspective about their children’s struggles.

By focusing on the essence of the cause of their child’s actions, parents can understand what their children might be saying. For example; “My belly hurts, but I do not know what it is telling me; I am angry because other students don’t want to talk with me; My body needs more stimulation than others do; or vice versa; I am in need of knowing I am in safe.”

What to Do Once the Meltdown Is About to End

Low: A low and quiet tone should be used in order to communicate with the child with autism.

Slow: Language processing works slower in hem compared to normally developed people. Imagine after a meltdown how it is going to be? So, you need to pay attention to use as less as possible words and speak slowly.

Offering options: When you talk with them quietly and very slowly, during the conversation, don’t forget to give them choices. These choices make them feel better. Try to say the same choices in a couple of different ways to make them understand. Also, use as little as possible words. For example, would you like to drink water? Or would you like to go to the kitchen? These examples show them that your first desire is for them to be good and it is over now. After this point, there is no need to talk about meltdown anymore.

During the meltdown, if your child ruins the environment, encourage your child to clean up the room together. Before offering this, you need to be sure that meltdown is done for good. Otherwise, when you give directions to your child, meltdown starts again.

Reassure your child that everything is fine. After meltdown is completely over, you can write down what is happening in this process to prevent it from happening again in the future. Note when it occurred, why it occurred, what might have been the trigger, your child was hungry or saturated at this time, whether he was tired, how melting was terminated, how your child or you followed a relaxation method, other useful information you could use, and how long this process took. There is no benefit in scolding your child for melting. Therefore, you can use the information you write down to work on it with your child, so that you may prevent a meltdown.

It is very useful to have an effective relaxation routine for both children and adults. Some people may need help to calm themselves even after the energy from a meltdown is wasted. This may include visuals, music or whatever works best.

Mapping the pattern of behavior in your child or ward to see how escalation occurs can be very helpful. If you are aware of the signs of what is coming next, it may be more beneficial to start a calming routine before a complete meltdown. Even though there are some stereotypical behaviors, these behaviors vary depending on the person. Each person shows different signs of escalation. If you understand what triggers your child, you may be able to stop a meltdown before it happens.

Seek out support. Experiencing meltdown can be very challenging for both everyone in the family. You need to know that you are not alone at all. You need to keep in mind that it is not an easy ride. So, there are parent coaching sessions that are very helpful. It is not something you need to be ashamed of. You can always schedule one and get personalized strategies. It will be helpful both for your child and your family in general.

Meltdown Vs. Tantrums

It is often differentiated from autism meltdowns and temper tantrums. But, obviously, but they are completely different experiences. It is possible to help them by understanding autism itself, the person who is on the spectrum, and what you need to do if there is a meltdown happening. If someone around you has meltdowns, you can find a way to anticipate them, identify their causes, and minimize their frequency.

If you are not familiar with autism, you might think that it is another word for a tantrum. But, no! People with autism are perfectly capable of having tantrums, of course, but a meltdown is somewhat different.

If a child on the spectrum is having a meltdown, you can easily understand the difference. It is bigger, more emotional, long-lasting and harder to manage compared to an average temper tantrum. Also, they usually occur for different reasons, they can be surprisingly predictable and have different results. Each meltdown doesn’t have a specific purpose.


At the basic level, the tantrum is for getting attention or control. You will notice that a child having a tantrum often sneaks the odd glance at their parent or caregiver to see if it is working. On the other hand, a meltdown has no plan and often seems as if the child can hardly tell what other people around them are thinking, never mind trying to manipulate them.


If a child has a tantrum, it sometimes means that he or she has control over it, over what they do. They may go all-out to convince you they don’t, and there is probably genuine distress amongst the histrionics, but they are not in psychological free-fall. A child who has a tantrum may also pick their location for maximum effect. They want to make sure that there is a public audience, for example, they are aware of their surroundings. On the other hand, with a meltdown, the child has completely lost control. They are absolutely overwhelmed with distress and there is nothing they can do about it.


A child having a tantrum still has some sense of where the limits are. They may hit someone else, but they probably won’t hurt themselves, or at least not on purpose. In other respect, with a child having a meltdown, the brakes are off completely. They are too far gone to have any sense of what might or might not be dangerous, and people can get genuinely hurt.

A tantrum is generally aimed at getting something; if you give the child having a tantrum what they want, they most probably stop in an instant. Because of this reason, it is not the best way to deal with a tantrum, of course, but the fact that a child can stop if they get what they want shows they are still basically in control of themselves. Whether you give in or not, you do need to do something to resolve a lot of tantrums. They are intended to influence people and will carry on until it becomes clear whether or not that’s going to work.

With a meltdown, on the other hand, it can carry on even if you do give the child their way over whatever started the meltdown in the first place: their distress has started to feed on itself and can’t be ‘turned off’. However, the meltdown can gradually calm down at its own pace whether you give the child their way or not: it is a storm that needs to blow itself out.

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