A complete guide on how to prevent and manage meltdowns
Updated: November 3, 2022 · 5 Minute Read
Marsha Stepensky, MS.Ed, BCBA
- While it’s not always possible to avoid a meltdown, there are strategies that can help
- Prepare your child for outings by ensuring they’re well rested, well fed, and have used the restroom before leaving the house
- Teach your child coping strategies and practice when they’re feeling calm so your child can learn to manage their reactions
- When meltdowns happen, try your best to remain calm and make sure your child is in a safe place
Meltdowns can be a scary and exhausting experience for parents and children. An autistic child can experience an intense explosion of emotions if triggered by change or unexpected situations. They can cry uncontrollably, scream, hurt themselves, or zone out. Meltdowns can last for a few minutes to a few hours.
How do I prevent a meltdown?
There are strategies you can use to help avoid meltdowns, but it’s important to remember, it’s not always possible to prevent them from happening.
Teach and practice calming strategies with your child. Helping your child learn how to manage their emotions and reactions is very important. Teach your child different ways they can calm down and relax, such as:
- Deep breathing, counting to 10, using sensory toys (like squishy balls or putty), going for a walk, listening to music
- Build "relaxation time" into their normal routines and schedules
- Practice these when your child is happy and calm so that later, when they’re highly stressed, they can access these skills
Prepare your child before outings. Before venturing out, make sure your child’s essential needs are met, they know what to expect, and don’t forget to bring their favorite toy or sensory item with you!
- Before leaving the house, be sure your child is well-rested, well fed, and has used the bathroom.
- Using timers and visual schedules can help with getting out of the house on time and minimize frustrations.
- Try using social stories to help your child know what to expect during their day and what to do if they start to feel overwhelmed or upset.
Have a back up plan. Have a Plan B and possibly Plan C when going out to places in the community.
- Share the back up plan with your child or have your child help create a plan B
- For example, “If Sing 2 is sold out, we'll see Luca instead”
Investigate areas for calm and respite. Have a sense of any safe, quiet, and secluded areas you can take your child to in the event of a meltdown.
- Empty store aisles can offer quick reprieve from overwhelming situations
What if I can’t prevent them? How do I manage meltdowns?
Stay calm. This can be very difficult but try to stay calm and keep a neutral face. Take some deep breaths, use a low voice volume, and talk slowly to model for your child what “calm” looks like.
Offer help. This will look different depending on the child and their communication skills. You may have to use visuals or program your child's augmentative communication device to ensure they can make these communication requests.
- You can ask "how can I help you?"
- You can offer 2-3 choices to the person e.g. “do you want some water or do you want to take a walk?”
- If the child does not use spoken communication, you should have their visuals or communication device available so they can tell you what they need
- Use simple, clear sentences. Talking can sometimes increase escalation.
Catch the good moments. Use specific verbal praise rather than “good job.” Specific verbal praise tells your child exactly what they are doing correctly
- “Thank you so much for telling me you need a break.”
- “Nice work calming down your body”
- “Thank you for making your voice sound like mine”
Provide time and space. If your attempts to de-escalate have not been successful, you may need to wait and give your child space. Make sure they’re in a safe area and they don't have access to items they can use to hurt themselves or others. And, get down on their level – literally. If your child is on the floor, sit on the floor near them.
- Dealing with a meltdown in public can feel uncomfortable and embarrassing but you have nothing to be ashamed of. You are taking care of your child and that’s most important.
- It might be helpful to have a prepared script in your head like “my child is autistic and needs some time to calm down. We are OK.” to easily let others know what is happening.
Avoid power struggles. Don’t punish or shame your child for what is happening. Instead provide reassurance that you love them and validate their feelings.
- Avoid making threats like, “if you don’t stop, there will be no more iPad!”, as this typically escalates the situation.
Write down what happened. When the meltdown ends, try to keep a journal (can be in your phone) of when, where, and what time the meltdown occurred. This will help you with predicting meltdowns and how to best diffuse. It also may help when you speak with your child’s doctor.
- What happened right before, how long did the meltdown last, and how did it end?
- Note any triggers you noticed leading up to the meltdown. What exacerbated the meltdown, and what made it better?
When a meltdown happens, try your best to stay calm and keep you and your child safe. Practice coping strategies when your child is calm and in a good mood, and keep practicing!
You’re not alone. Learn more expert strategies from behavior specialists and other parents in the Beaming community.