Why talk about meltdowns?
Well, that’s simple. They are very common and very hard, both for the child and for the adults involved.
Tantrums vs. meltdowns.
Tantrums and meltdowns are not the same things.
Two ways meltdowns can happen.
First: A specific event triggers a meltdown. For example, your child reacts to a very noisy, busy space. Or it can be a difficult task, for example, requiring a child with reading challenges to read. The possibilities are endless.
Second: The trigger can also be an accumulation of stress or fatigue over time. For example, your child might have had a challenging week that they managed very well, but it took a lot out of them. Now they are exhausted from the accumulated processing load and cannot keep coping.
What does the meltdown mean?
Often, a response to a meltdown is that it is a bad behavior, that the child is acting spoiled. Well, behavior is communication. Your child’s meltdown is telling you something. Usually, it is telling you that
either your child is at the end of their rope,
or they do not have the skills and energy to cope with the situation,
or they are frustrated by an inability to communicate their needs and challenges in the situation.
What can you do to improve the meltdown situation?
Short term, you need to adjust the environment so there are as few stressors as possible.
Sensory Challenges and Sensory Diet
Change your home environment to get rid of sensory inputs that are bothersome for your child. Think about lights (bright lights can be bothersome even if your child isn’t reporting it), noise level and specific sounds, and smells of food, cleaning agents, or disinfectants.
Does your child get sensory inputs throughout the day to help with the level of arousal? This would mean specific activities that help your child not to feel too low energy or too hyper and “keyed up.” An occupational therapist can help you find a few activities that will work for your child, or you can find the right ones by trial and error.
Routines and Schedules
Think about the child’s routine. If they don’t have a routine, that might be stressful because children on the spectrum or with ADHD need predictability and structure. Create the routine and some visuals, post it where your child can see it, and review the daily schedule with your child as often as needed.
If your child has a routine, is it working? Mornings can be very hard for those on the spectrum or with ADHD. Does your child have enough time to “get going?” Too many activities or too many transitions can also be hard. Add breaks, especially for movement or going outside.
Think about anything unpredictable or new in your child’s daily life. Preview those things with your child. Tell them what to expect. Explain the rules and what they need to do. Having visuals (pictures from the internet, social stories, etc.) can help.
Unpredictability and change. Every child has a different ability to tolerate this. You know your child. Try not to challenge them in this area, as it is a huge strain on their processing. Exhaustion can result in a meltdown.
Children on the spectrum like to be in control. Does your child have some control over their life? Are they offered choices, and do they know how to communicate their preferences? This can help reduce meltdowns.
Meltdowns can be caused by anxiety. Has your child been assessed for an anxiety disorder by a clinician informed about autism?
Your child might not have an anxiety disorder, but most kids on the spectrum or with ADHD experience anxiety. If things are unpredictable or confusing, that can trigger anxiety. Having to do hard things can also bring on anxiety. Any time you see increased rigidity, chances are you are hitting anxiety. If anxiety becomes very intense, a child can go into a meltdown.
One common source of anxiety is when an adult does not validate the child’s view of the world. Your child’s mind is different from yours. Your child might be much more precise about information or how things need to be done than you think is necessary. If it is important for them that their breakfast toast is toasted for precisely 2 minutes and 33 seconds, it should be important to you too. For your child, 5:09 pm is very different from ten past five. Your child might be a perfectionst and while their work looks great to you, to them it is not finished. Accept that it is your child’s worldview and it is valid. Having their world view threatened can cause major anxiety, which can lead to meltdowns.
Communication, Pain, and Self-regulation
How does your child communicate? Are they able to express what they want, if something is bothering them, or if something hurts? Find a way for your child to let you know about their basic needs.
Pain and physical discomfort can also cause meltdowns. If you are seeing more meltdowns than before, consult a physician. Children on the spectrum can have trouble identifying physical discomfot, locating it in their bodies, and communicating about it.
Stimming. Are you allowing your child to stim? Stimming can be a communication strategy, a coping strategy, a self-regulation strategy, and a source of positive emotions. Many individuals on the spectrum stim to reduce stress or to tune out overwhelming sensory inputs. If you do not allow stimming, your child can lose an important coping strategy. Increased stimming cal also be a signal that the child's environment is stressful and needs adjusting.
Long term, your child needs to learn skills to be able to manage the situations that are currently leading to meltdowns. These skills can include:
functional communication (being able to communicate about needs and preferences)
self-awareness (how am I feeling? What emotions am I experiencing?)
self-advocacy, including protesting
executive functioning (being able to plan for an event)
Wishing you peace, calm, and as few meltdown as possible! Sign up for updates at the top of the page to be notified when Part II (Managing Meltdowns) and Part III (Adult Meltdowns) will be posted.
If you need coaching around managing your child's meltdowns or another issue related to parenting a child on the spectrum or with ADHD, I am happy to help. Please take a look at the parent support groups and coaching services I offer.