Behavioral and Emotional Meltdowns in Children with Autism

Parents of children with autism sometimes need to deal with physical and/or emotional outbursts. They could be out-of-control aggressive episodes which include screaming, shouting and crying. They may escalate into kicking, lashing out, and even biting.

These episodes are not ‘temper tantrums’, but are actually a coping mechanism for the autistic child who seeks relief from overwhelming tension or anxiety.

Have you been able to figure out what triggers cause your child to have a ‘meltdown’?

Are you aware of the therapeutic responses that best help an autistic child when in the throes of such an episode?

It is hoped this article will bring you some of the answers you may be seeking.

Behavioral and emotional meltdowns can be a hallmark autism trait

The serious behavioral challenges posed by many children with autism are referred to as ‘meltdowns’ and are not ‘learned behaviors’. In other words, they are not tantrums.

The signs and symptoms of autism become quite apparent between ages 12 months to 18 months. Yet, those unfamiliar with the disorder might think their child is just going at his/her own pace and don’t attach much importance to delayed milestones at such a young age.

Nor, to the severe behavioral outbursts, thinking they are just an early manifestation of what are commonly called ‘the terrible twos’.

However, when these symptoms have not improved around the age of 3 years or so, parents commonly seek medical input, and may learn their child has a type of ASD.

Let’s take a deeper look at the behavioral meltdowns experienced by many children diagnosed with ASD.

Behavior as a form of communication

When an autistic child has a meltdown, the child is expressing his/her feelings and needs in the only way he/she knows how.

It’s up to those who care for the child to ‘interpret’ his/her ‘message’; and it’s worth the time for both the parent and the child to do so.

Amanda Friedman of Emerge & See Education Center agrees, adding, "We need to become translators of our children's behaviors."

She urges those caring for the child to identify what happened just before the meltdown.

In other words, what was the ‘precipitating event’?

Once this trigger is identified, the next step is to explore if there’s anything that can be done to either prevent or lessen that trigger in the future.

What triggers are most likely to cause meltdowns?

According to the American Autism Association, common triggers leading to meltdowns for those with autism include:

  • Sensory overload: Those with autistic disorders tend to be overly sensitive to environmental cues. Loud noise, certain smells, fabric textures, and bright lights are a sample of triggers for meltdowns. Those with ASD generally do not do well with commotion or in large crowds. Too much exposure to such stimuli causes sensory overload. Not having the natural resources to cope with these stimuli, those with ASD resort to emotional and behavioral meltdowns to convey their distress.
  • Social challenges: Those with ASD deal with stressful social encounters on a daily basis. While each person has variable limits for handling social confusion, the accumulated stress can take its toll. “Too much stress, and the boiling point can be reached.”
  • Long-term stress: Combined long-term stressors of both sensory overload and social challenges, intermixed with ‘routine hassles’ throughout the day, creates a breeding ground of overstimulation for those with ASD. The result can be over-reaction to seemingly insignificant events.

Over time, you will become aware of what triggers lead to your child’s meltdowns. Once identified, you are advised to avoid them completely whenever possible.

Tips for responding to meltdowns

When your autistic child goes into a melt-down are you aware of specific techniques that can help calm him or her?

The American Autism Association offers suggestions for responding to your child’s meltdowns:

  • Create a diversion: Guide your child’s attention elsewhere! Be creative. Do anything that will distract them from the current situation.
  • Remain calm: Don’t become excited or angry. This may lead to another meltdown. Choose a relaxing spot to help your child de-escalate.
  • Provide positive reinforcements: Encourage your child to relax and mellow out, praising him/her for their efforts.

Meltdowns can feel unavoidable

Caregivers of an autistic child are reminded they need to be prepared for responding to a meltdown. And, that it’s just as important to not intentionally put them in an environment that could be a high-risk situation for them.

Author Riley-Hall, an English teacher at an inclusive high school in upstate New York, also reminds us, "It's really important not to always give in to meltdowns because you're afraid of them.”

“Keep them safe and soothe them in whatever way you know works until they can recover," she concludes.

Try handing out wallet-sized cards that say, “My child has autism”, with a website listed for them to learn more about the disorder.

These cards are available through various autism organizations, or they can be made at home.

And what about aggressive behaviors?

Blogger Shannon Des Roches Rosa is a mom to an 11-year-old son with autism. She’s also “a high-profile advocate and educator for autism awareness.”

She tells us that, “Aggressive and self-injurious behaviors are fairly common in children with autism.”

She also informs us that, "Most times, when people better understand the basis for the aggressive or self-injurious behavior and then accommodate or support the person with autism, things can improve dramatically."

Ms. Des Roches Rosa is a proponent of data-tracking: "We keep scrupulous notes about [my son] and his behaviors and all the factors in his day."

Having done this for years, De Roches Rosa incorporates notes such as what he eats, how much he sleeps, even whether his father is on a business trip.

"We can actually identify seasonal behavioral arcs. So, when something is wrong, we can go back and figure it out."

Don’t be afraid of professional help

But when Des Roches Rosa’s son went through an extremely violent phase, she called in a behaviorist. "A good behaviorist is purely there to analyze and understand and come up with positive solutions for behavioral issues," she explains.
NAS informs us that childhood behaviors that are unsafe, damaging to others, or self-injurious need to be evaluated by the child's healthcare provider (who can determine, with input from the family, if a referral to a behaviorist is warranted).

With aggressive and self-injurious behavior, Ms. Des Roches Rosa advises: Safety comes first. Move away. “Say very loudly and clearly, 'Stop' or 'No’. Make it very clear with a very different, very strict tone of voice that what he/she's doing is not okay."

Tools to help your child calm down

On their site, the American Autistic Association, includes links to seek out such calming-inducers as weighted blankets for deep massage, pop-up tents for your child to spend de-escalation time with the his/her’s familiar ‘soothing items’ such as a bean bag, soft blanket, etc., and also a gluten-free cookbook “to help lessen meltdown tendencies.”

The site also gives guidelines for preparing two sensory meltdown tool kits: One kit for at-home use and the other for for use away from home.

Additionally, they sponsor a 24-hour helpline: 1 (877) 654-4483.

Supportive services for the primary caregiver

A plethora of supportive services may be available for you and your child through your state’s unit of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

While eligibility requirements and services vary between states, the division is intended to provide technical and funding assistance to those with intellectual/developmental disabilities.

To see what services your child may be eligible for, contact your local Department of Social and Health Services/DSHS, which in your area may be known as the Department of Social Services/DSS.