Defusing Autistic Meltdowns: Tips from a Mother of an Autistic Teen

Mother of an Autistic Teen

Most every parent of an autistic individual has dealt with those moments of chaos. The moments where our child is out of control and you don’t know what caused it or how to fix it. You all know what I’m talking about, those dreaded meltdowns. Though it must be said that not all meltdowns are over the top screaming, flailing fits.

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Some autistic individuals simply shut down whenever they have a meltdown. They simply collapse where they stand and refuse to move or speak. No matter which way your child melts down, the way you go about defusing it really depends on your composure, the environment, and their individual triggers.

Whenever you are first learning your child’s meltdowns it is important to understand that triggers are key. Not every child is going to have the same trigger, but every child will have something that triggers them. If you don’t know what your child’s triggers are, don’t feel alone or guilty. Every parent starts their research at various times. The only thing that matters is that you are learning about it now. If you already know the majority of your child’s triggers- kudos to you. It is an important step in understanding your child. If you don’t already know them, there are several common triggers to meltdowns. They include things such as:

  • Sensory issues or overstimulation.
  • A demand not being met that they cannot express.
  • Changes in their daily routine.
  • Simple transitions between tasks.
  • Being in new environments.

Of course, there are other triggers, as I said- no two autistic individuals are going to have the same triggers. Those are just the most common ones. Once you can pick out what triggered your child’s meltdown you’ll be able to more readily defuse the situation. Now, how do you defuse a meltdown? There are steps to take to do it safely.

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1. Stay calm
2. Be assertive and confident
3. Remove anything and anyone that could get hurt
4. ONE person take control to minimize the stress on the child
5. Don’t touch the child unless they allow you to, or you must
6. Give a lot of personal space if needed
7. Tell them to take deep breaths and to close their eyes
8. Give the reason you want them to do a task before you give the direction to do it
9. Try not to use the word No, it can be a trigger itself
10. Give clear directions of what you expect
11. Acknowledge their feelings but at the same time remind them that they need to calm down
12. As soon as they start to calm down encourage them
13. When giving information during a meltdown try to sit to their side, if they’ll allow it
14. Give the person an emergency calm down box or utilize a calming toy
15. Play music softly
16. Use natural distractions
17. Avoid arguing

Another important point in defusing meltdowns is picking your battles. A wise woman once told me to always pick mine carefully. I still hold this advice close to my heart every time my child melts down. After all, picking our battles is a huge part of being the parent of an autistic individual. For example, if your child is in the middle of a giant meltdown in a restaurant and you identify that his/her trigger as being the absence of their comfort object that is in the car; that is an easy fix, you go to the car and get the comfort object. However, if you are at home and you child melts down over a transition change that happened with plenty of advanced warning- sometimes your best bet is to remove anything from the area that they could harm themselves others with and let them work it out on their own (or have a designated meltdown area that your child picks and feels secure in, like their bedroom or a special chair). They must be aware that there are transitions in their day and be willing to accommodate them. Other times, you’ll find it is best to hold your child and coddle him/her until he/she calms down. It all depends on the environment and the trigger for the situation.

Another colossal part of managing a meltdown is your composure. It is imperative that you maintain a calm, even tone about your voice; and a calm and even tone about your body language. Autistic individuals feed off their caregivers emotions. If you begin to raise your voice, you’ll often find that you’ll have an unhealthy response from your child. If you stay calm they will calm down faster. It’s all about keeping their environment calm and safe.

Just know that there is hope in meltdowns. You are not alone. Your child is not a brat. Your child has autism- that makes you a rock star parent of a superstar kid. Remember that not all steps are going to work better for one meltdown than they will for another. You will have to recognize that you’ll have good days and bad days. Some days will seem like a dream, while others a nightmare. The key to handling meltdowns is time, experience, patience, research, knowing your child’s behaviors, and being able to pick out their triggers before a meltdown happens. Like they say:

“This was never going to be simple, but it is going to be worth it.” - unknown

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