The key to handling an autism meltdown is to first understand them. This means identifying why they are occurring and spotting the warning signs that lead up to them.

Parents can learn how to effectively minimize meltdowns by recognizing events and actions that can trigger them. Oftentimes, parents can avoid a meltdown altogether by recognizing that one is coming and removing the potential stressor.

An autism meltdown is different from a typical temper tantrum in young children. For a child with autism, a meltdown can occur at any age, and it is not used as a manipulative tool.

Autistic meltdowns occur when a person becomes so emotionally overwhelmed, or experiences such a strong sensory overload, that they can no longer control their behaviors. This can manifest as withdrawal, an emotional outburst, or physical lashing out. These meltdowns can be prolonged and intense. Meltdowns can be tough on parents of autistic children. But remaining calm is pivotal to managing a meltdown that is in progress. Techniques that can be used ahead of time can help to prevent an autism meltdown, and coping strategies can help parents to diffuse a meltdown that is in progress.

Why These Meltdowns Happen

Autism is a spectrum disorder that impacts as many as 1 out of every 54 children. As a developmental disorder, symptoms of ASD (autism spectrum disorder) include problems understanding emotions in both oneself and others. Language delays and communication deficits are aspects of autism that can lead to frustration and an inability to effectively communicate wants and needs. Sensory issues, emotional outbursts, and aggression are common in autistic children.

Temper tantrums are a normal method children use to gain negative attention or to impact their situation. An autism meltdown is different. It is not used as a tool to get something the child wants. Instead, it represents a loss of control. Autism meltdowns signify a complete overwhelming of the system (senses and/or emotions) and a loss of behavioral control as a result.

Autistic children have difficulties regulating their emotions and struggle with changes to their routine. They often have sensory issues and problems communicating effectively. All of these things can lead to a meltdown when their system feels overloaded and they can no longer control what is going on in their minds or bodies.

Autism meltdowns:

  • Can occur at any age and are not specific to young children. This can be challenging for parents when out in public since the child may not show outward signs of disability.
  • Are not used for a purpose. Autism meltdowns, unlike temper tantrums, are not manipulative in nature. Instead, an autistic meltdown is a sign of an internal crisis and a call for help.
  • Are frequently preceded by warning signs. There is often an outward sign of distress before an autism meltdown ramps up. This sign can be either verbal or physical.
  • Can include self-stimulating behaviors, either before or during the meltdown. Repetitive motions — such as rocking back and forth, tapping, or pacing — can be signs of an oncoming autism meltdown.

Recognizing an Autistic Meltdown

An autistic meltdown can manifest in a variety of ways, including both physical and emotional outbursts. Aggression is common in children with autism. In one study, over half of the participants directed this aggression toward their caretakers. Self-harm is another concern, as a quarter of children with autism hurt themselves intentionally in some way.

An autistic meltdown can include:

  • Social withdrawal.
  • Running away or bolting.
  • Zoning or tuning out.
  • Screaming or yelling.
  • Hitting, kicking, or aggression toward others.
  • Self-harming behaviors, such as biting, hitting, or head banging.
  • Extreme crying.

Autism meltdowns can be the result of several different triggers, such as sensory overload, a change in schedule or routine, communication difficulties, or anxiety. It is helpful to know what can lead to a meltdown in order to minimize their frequency.

Managing a Meltdown

There are several steps that can be used to manage autism meltdowns.

  1. Identify the possible cause of meltdowns. It can be helpful to track a child’s meltdowns. Note what was happening before, during, and after the meltdown. This can help you get a better handle on why they occur, what works to diffuse them, and how to better avoid them in the future. This diary or written record can help you to notice patterns in these meltdowns.
  2. Anticipate and circumvent the meltdown before it occurs. There are often signs or “rumblings” that autistic children present with prior to a full meltdown. Self-stimulating behaviors and signs of anxiety are often present beforehand. When these signs appear, distraction, diversion, or a removal of the potential stressor can often diffuse a meltdown before it starts.
  3. Minimize potential triggers. There are several things that can lead up to an autism meltdown, and many times, these things can be managed. A child sensitive to loud noise can be soothed with noise-cancelling headphones in loud environments, for instance. It can also be beneficial to have a method for dealing with sudden and unavoidable changes as well. Build in relaxation time, and teach your child techniques to manage anxiety and stress, such as breathing deeply. Work to improve communication, so the child is able to express their needs more easily.
  4. Stay calm. It is important to be kind, understanding, and as calm as possible during an autism meltdown. You can learn coping skills in therapy that you can then practice with your child.
  5. Give the child space when needed. It can take some time for a child to calm down during an autistic meltdown. A safe space or quiet room can help. This can be difficult when out in public. It can be helpful to carry a card to give out or have some other visible sign to explain that the child has autism and needs some space and understanding. Children with autism do not generally have any outward signs of disability, and a meltdown can be disconcerting for passersby and feel shameful to parents. Having an easy way to let others know what is going on helps some parents to focus on their child and manage these uncomfortable feelings.
  6. Use a distraction. Once the child has calmed down a little, a distraction or diversion can work to change the focus and bring the sense of control back. This can be an object or conversation topic that is comforting to the child.

It is important to keep a child safe during a meltdown. This may mean holding tightly to the child, taking them to a quiet space or a controlled environment, or just leaving them alone.

Autistic children can hurt themselves or others during a meltdown. Sometimes, it may take more than one adult to keep everyone safe during a full-blown meltdown.

Interventions & Therapeutic Techniques

While parents are essential in helping to minimize and deal with meltdowns, they need assistance. Therapy plays an essential role in managing the problem overall.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy is considered the primary form of therapy for autism. It teaches emotional regulation and communication skills. When a child is able to recognize and express what they are feeling, meltdowns are far less likely to happen. 

Parents are active participants in ABA therapy, giving the therapist and technician valuable information that shapes the overall treatment plan. The lessons taught in therapy will be reinforced by parents in everyday life, helping these new skills to take hold.

Roleplaying can be an effective way for therapists and parents to set expectations for how to act in various situations. Your child can practice how to interact and react in specific environments with a therapist while in the safety of your home. Potential problems can be explored in this safe environment, such as the experience of having to wait in line or walking through possible changes that can suddenly arise.

When autistic children know what to expect ahead of time, and know what is expected of them, they are more likely to behave better. Reward positive behavior to reinforce the lesson.

Autistic meltdowns can be scary and unpredictable, but with the right tools and assistance, parents can learn to successfully minimize and manage these outbursts. Talk with your child’s treatment team to come up with specific strategies that work best.