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The Key to "Disciplining" Autistic Children's Meltdowns: Having a "At Home Behavior Plan"

Disciplining Autistic Children

Discipling an Autistic child is a tricky thing; each child is different and each parent’s opinion on how to do it is different. When it comes to disciplining a meltdown the whole concept is altered though. When you discipline a child for having a temper tantrum it is different than disciplining for a meltdown.


When a child has a temper tantrum you may use time out or ignoring the behavior; when your child melts down these approaches often do not work. Bad behavior and discipline are almost synonymous with temper tantrums; nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to meltdowns. The key is disciplining meltdowns is actually being on the same page with your partner and coming up with an at home meltdown "Behavior Plan."

Autistic Meltdowns vs. Tantrums

Every parent has been faced with a Temper Tantrum. The ones where your child is screaming in a store over a toy or having a fit at home. While your child is on the floor screaming you may have started your speech on how you are not going to put up with another tantrum. You may already be telling them what they are doing wrong-as they are throwing the temper tantrum. Maybe you even throw around threats about what is going to happen if the tantrum doesn’t stop. With a meltdown these tactics do not work. It is all about helping your child cope with their overstimulation before teaching them what they did wrong. Typical punishments, when associated with meltdowns, only work if your child has some amount of control over their behavior, or with the more Higher Functioning Kids.

When a Temper Tantrum is going on you are focused on what you don’t want your child to do and teaching them that at that moment. When a Meltdown is going on you are more focused on calming them down first, then teaching them about what was wrong second. During temper tantrums you may even change the tone of your voice to get a reaction from your child. This often doesn’t work with meltdowns. You must also remember that often after a meltdown a child is either remorseful for their actions, or do not remember them. During a tantrum they have a goal in mind and are not remorseful afterwards. Many people are entirely lost when dealing with their first meltdown. They only know how to discipline for a tantrum and do not realize that sometimes using methods that work with tantrums only make meltdowns worse. Basically, you don’t “punish” a meltdown, you love them through it. You punish a tantrum.

Why you don’t “Punish” a Meltdown
-The child is not purposefully acting out; many people mistake this fact and think that what the child is doing is on purpose.
-During a true meltdown the child loses self-control and is not being oppositional on purpose
-Punishment works if the child has some degree of control over themselves but doesn’t work if they do not
-When a child’s stress chemicals in their body overact, or they become overstimulated, they must act out in order to reduce the overstimulation, or the chemicals
-A child has a breakdown of reasoning skills during a meltdown, therefore reasoning with them is ineffective until after they have calmed down
-Meltdowns are often caused by overstimulation. Why punish a child for something they can not understand or control?
-You teach the appropriate responses to overstimulation and triggers, not punish them for not knowing how to respond naturally

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Working with Each Other

First and foremost, all parents should discuss how they feel about each type of discipline with all the people in charge of their child’s care. You should all be on the same page. Speak about timeouts, tantrums, meltdowns, and spankings. Talk about it all. I personally do not believe in spanking a child, but some people do. Make sure you speak about this with the people in charge of your child’s care in your absence so there are no confusions.

After you have discussed the essential points of discipline it is recommended that you implement a ‘Behavior Plan’ with everyone involved with your child’s care (i.e. Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, other Parents, Sitters.) In this “Behavior Plan’ make sure to put steps to follow in it, and be consistent. Break down each different kind of meltdown your child may have with everyone involved. If it’s a change of routine you believe sat it off you may handle it differently than if it is a sensory issue; and they should be aware of that.

Things to Include in an at Home ‘Behavior Plan’
-Who is primarily going to handle the child in the case of a meltdown
-Who will move any siblings out of the way during said meltdown
-What should be done in the event that there is only one care giver there at the time and there are two children
-Make sure to discuss keeping an even tone while dealing with a meltdown

When faced with a tantrum it is important that everyone knows that a tantrum is a power play by their child to get their way. The discipline associated is generally to punish the child for their behavior. The discipline for a tantrum is also to teach how to appropriately handle themselves in the future. When faced with a meltdown it is important that everyone involved in their discipline is aware that you are essentially not disciplining them for their behavior, as in a traditional sense.

You are analyzing their behavior for triggers and deciding how to handle it from there. You are discerning whether it is sensory or not, whether it is a tantrum or a meltdown. If they are aware of their surroundings or not. It is important that everybody agrees on how to handle a meltdown. Your job and their job are to help your child cope with a meltdown and the world around them, not punish them for them not being able to cope.

If you have more questions about the difference between a Meltdown and a Tantrum I wrote an article a while back more directly about it- if that article would help you follow this link.