February 21, 2024
by Bradley Ross, M.A., BCBA, LBA
Assistant Clinical Director, LEARN/AST, Louisiana
There is no “one-plan-fits-all” approach for handling meltdowns. When children with autism hit sensory overload, their reactions can be intense, and knowing how to respond thoughtfully in the heat of the moment can be challenging.
Unfortunately, there is no magic wand to make meltdowns go away. But there are tactics and strategies to help tame a meltdown when your child feels overwhelmed. The key is to stay calm and work your way through it.
Assessing the Situation, Identifying the Triggers
One thing that can help is to understand the reason for the meltdown, while recognizing that reasons can vary greatly from child to child. For instance, your child may not want to do certain tasks. They may be nervous about school. They may get embarrassed about underperforming, when compared to peers. Or they may struggle with separation from mom or dad.
Some kids have meltdowns because of environmental factors like room temperature, new students, or how the desks are set up in the classroom. Even small changes in the environment can lead to lead to intense feelings—rearranging furniture, for instance. Take note of the time and place of the meltdown and factors that might be overwhelming. Once you identify the trigger, you can see if there is a way to avoid it.
If your child can have conversations, try to discuss and get to the root of the problem. This can also help you identify patterns of behaviors to address. If your child is unable to have a conversation or communicate verbally, pay attention to other communication cues to try to better understand the problem.
Knowing the cause of the behavior isn’t mandatory, but it is helpful in knowing how to address it. In some cases, you can eliminate the trigger. Other times, you just have to wait it out and give your child space to rest and recover.
One way to make your expectations clear is to create a token/reward system at home. For example, you can create a chart on which you and your child come up with and list desired behaviors. Use pictures instead of words if it helps your child understand your expectations. Talk out loud about your goals and the rewards your child can expect for meeting those goals. Remember: the rewards don’t always have to be tangible items like a pack of gummies or a cup of hot chocolate. Rewards can also be experiential, such as playing a special game before bed, reading a favorite book, or baking a tasty treat together.
As you work with your child to create your list or chart of behavior goals, consider these possibilities:
- Turn-taking: Here, you can explain that you and your child are going to sit down and play with toys. After a minute, ask your child for a turn with their toy. If your child gives you a turn, they can earn a token/reward.
- Sportsmanship: Play a game with your child. Ask them if they want you to let them win the first game. During the second game, let them know you’re going to try to win. Tell them that if you win, and they tell you “good game,” while keeping a happy face, they will earn a token/reward.
- Doing work: Let your child know that in two minutes, you’re going to ask them to pick up their crayons. If they pick them up quickly, they can earn a token/reward.
Start with easy goals. Over time, you can provide less warning and make these more natural, everyday interactions.
Understanding What Happens at School
Targeting meltdowns at school can be more difficult since you aren’t there. If your school has a reporting system to give you a sense of your child’s behavior each day, that can help you measure progress.
For example, some schools use a color scale: green equals good behavior; yellow is slightly disruptive; and red is a meltdown. If your school does not have a behavior reporting system and you think your child could use one, talk to your child’s teacher.
You could include behavior reports from the school in your token/reward system at home—or even set up a separate system based on these reports. For example, a green mark at school could equal an hour of TV time or three tokens, while a yellow mark could equal 30 minutes of TV or two tokens, and a red mark could equal 15 minutes of TV or one token.
You’re probably wondering, “Why reward a red score?” The reason is to reward your child for the positive behavior—bringing home the report—and to avoid taking away everything. For instance, if they think they will lose every privilege, this can increase the chance of a meltdown at school. Remember that you’re creating a reward system, not a punishment system. Focus on reinforcing positive behaviors, without being too harsh when there is a meltdown.
Also realize that reports you receive from school—or from your child or from your own observations, for that matter—are not a complete representation of the situation. Typically, a number of factors contribute to the situation, and behaviors that happen at school (or anywhere else, such as at the doctor or on the playground) can change according to the environment. Be careful not to make assumptions about solutions that may not work in every environment.
Stick to Your Rules, Celebrate Small Victories
Once you set the rules, stick to them. Avoid bartering. This system holds your child accountable and can begin with goals that are easy to reach. Accept that kids will make mistakes and that all kids engage in meltdowns from time to time. Remember to stay calm and keep your cool—these are key to addressing your child’s behavior successfully.
Start with small goals and set realistic expectations—the first one being: your child’s meltdowns will not stop at once. This is a process that will happen slowly over time. Track your progress, and celebrate the little victories when your child reaches behavior goals.
Looking for more strategies on raising kids with autism? Learn how a “calm down kit” can help your child through the hectic holiday season.