Autism Meltdowns & Tantrums: There Is A Difference, Here’s Some Help

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Autism is not an excuse for bad behavior.  Yesterday Andrew was overloaded by a busy day and no sleep (nap) at all.  It was the worst I have experienced yet. He broke down hardcore style.  We’re talking red-faced nonstop unconsolable crying. I was trying to reason with him in the midst of a complete autism meltdown which resulted in more anger and a SIB (Self Inflicting behavior).

If you’re a parent of a child with autism, then you may have a similar frustrating story. You know that there’s a difference between a tantrum and a meltdown.  And you have to know what it is so you can act accordingly.

A tantrum occurs when your child is denied something they want. Generally speaking, he is in control of his behavior in a tantrum scenario.

A few months ago my son would throw a tantrum every time my husband or I denied him candy, iPad, or trips to Target and Walmart.  He would cry and scream until he gave into his demands  Why? Because he knew we would eventually give in and he’d get what he wanted. Unknowingly, we were reinforcing his bad behavior by buying his candy etc. During his fits or tantrums, my son was entirely in control of his behavior.

Tantrums are goal driven behaviors. Meltdowns are not.

Autism Meltdowns

Autism meltdowns happen as a result of sensory over-stimulation and a feeling of being overwhelmed. That’s why they’re also known as sensory meltdowns.  Sometimes there’s an obvious cause for these meltdowns like a change in routine, hunger, thirst, lack of sleep, and sensory overload.  During a meltdown, the child is not in control of his behavior.

He’s not being bad.
He does not need a spanking.
He’s not “acting this way” because he’s spoiled.

His brain is overloaded, and he’s no longer in control.  Due to the sensory overload, his brain has switched to “fight or flight” mode. Fight or flight looks a lot different in your child with autism than it does in you or me. 

Fight or Flight in Autism Looks Like…

Kicking, Biting, Screaming, Spitting, Throwing Things
Crying inconsolably
Covering Eyes, Ears, & Tucking his legs
Curling up in the fetal position
Running
Checking or zoning out
Not speaking or moving

Now, what can a parent or caregiver do?

Strategies for Tantrums 

Ignore the Behavior Not to be confused with ignoring your child, ignore the tantrum. Also, stay calm. Sometimes the child is feeding off of your reaction & that is the very reason he is doing what he’s doing.

Reinforce Positive Behavior Don’t forget the 4:1 Praise-Criticism Ratio Rule (4 Praises or Confirmations, or Approvals for Good Behavior or Deeds for Every 1 Criticism)

Strategies to Calm Sensory Meltdowns

Stay Calm

Your child needs a calm and steady voice of reassurance. He needs to feel safe. Speak in a soft voice and lead by example.

Change Location

If possible, remove your child from the scene of overwhelming activity. This may mean seeking a calm room at a home or leaving the mall or grocery store.

Use Visual Schedules  

Visual schedules allow kids to understand the plan and help make transitions from task to task easier. These morning and bedtime visual schedule and activity cards are perfect for daily routine.

Keep a Journal

Be proactive and create a meltdown notebook where you write down everything that happened leading up to and during your child’s sensory overloads. By doing such, you may discover patterns or triggers that you can address in an action plan.

Be Aware of Warning Signs

Autism meltdowns usually do not occur out of the blue. Recognizing the warning signs of your child’s impending meltdown is crucial to ensure it doesn’t escalate. Meltdowns typically begin with what is known as “rumblings” Look out for pacing, stimming, or rocking back and forth.

Use Distractions

Once you recognize rumbling behavior, try using a distraction to calm your child. Try a simple activity or familiar toy they enjoy.

Sensory Toolkit

Many parents collect these items and have them at the ready in case of a meltdown. You know it’s hard to think clearly in times of panic, so it’s a good idea to be prepared. Consider gathering items and keeping them in your car as well.

Bubblesautism-bubbles

 

Noise Cancelling Headphones These can be a lifesaver for kids who are sensitive to auditory stimuli. Sometimes the noises coming from the dishwasher or the coffeepot are even too much to handle.These Bose QuietComfort Wireless Headphones are worth every penny when you have a child that’s sensitive to sound.

autism-headphones

Fidget Spinners.  You probably have a few fidget spinners around your house. Many kids with autism or sensory processing disorder are soothed by them, and sometimes you can even curb unwanted habits like nail biting and hair pulling by spinning them!

Sensory Diet You may want to look into a sensory diet for your child. (A Sensory Diet has nothing to do with food.) It’s a set of custom physical activities and accommodations to give your child the sensory input he needs. Sensory Diets are often used in sensory integration therapy.

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Hey, I know how hard it is to remain calm during a meltdown. I know how bad it feels not to be able to help your child.

I’ve been there.
In my house.
At Dollar General.
At Walmart.
In the car.

You’re going to be tested over and over again, and I’m telling you that you are going to make it.  It just takes time. (I had to remind myself of all this s*i$ yesterday.

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Autism Meltdowns & Tantrums: There Is A Difference, Here’s Some Help

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