“When a meltdown occurs, please understand that an individual is not trying to control the situation - they are doing it because they can’t control their response to the situation.” - Autism Odysseys
Do you ever wonder why your child has a meltdown? As a parent, I’m sure you’re familiar with the following scenario: You’re at home cooking dinner for the family and to your knowledge your child is happy watching their tv show while stimming out of excitement for his/her favorite song being played. About two minutes later your child is crying, has dropped to the floor, hitting his/her head on the floor and as you approach you get kicked for being in harm’s way. You attempt to tell your child to “stop it” that doesn’t work. You turn off the tv and the crying and head hitting intensifies. You try to give your child his/her favorite toy, but it is thrown across the room or bitten into. At which point you feel hopeless and resort to just sitting next to your child occasionally saying, “stop it” or “you’ll be okay” or “use your words.” If any of this sounds familiar to you, you are not alone.
Unfortunately, meltdowns are common among children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Especially for children needing more support than others. Possible reasons for meltdowns are sensory overload, anxiety, lack of ability to communicate needs or wants, and, but not limited to denied access to a desired item or activity. So, the question becomes, can I as a parent prevent the occurrence of these meltdowns? To prevent them do I just need to cater to my child’s every wish? The answer to the first is somewhat yes and to the second no.
You can somewhat prevent meltdowns from occurring if you know the triggers. For example, bright lights can be a trigger of a meltdown if your child is sensitive to light and so to prevent it, switch out the light bulbs or put a light covering over the light. The adjustment in the environment is an accommodation for your child and that is one trigger your child won’t have to encounter. Now, removing the trigger isn’t always an option which is why catering to your child is also not an option. Rather than catering to your child, teach them to advocate for themselves (when they are not having meltdown) so they can request for the accommodation that they need.
In the scenario mentioned above, the child seemingly started crying out of nowhere. With a little more observation of what happened right before the meltdown occurred, the child’s preferred song had just finished, and he/she wanted to hear the song again. During the meltdown however is not the exact time to rewind and play the video again, because 1) the child is not paying attention – they are in struggle mode and 2) that teaches the child that crying is the way to communicate “I want to listen to the song again.” Instead you as parent should either a) speak calmly to your child and remind them they will be okay or b) remain silent but present. As your child calms down, model the language for requesting to repeat the song. If you child repeats the modeled language in whatever method of communication, allow the song to be repeated in its entirety. If the child doesn’t follow through, assist them according to their needs to request the song to be repeated and then follow through. Do this sequence of modeling of appropriate way of requesting and playing the song. In doing so, your child may even demonstrate independence to self-advocate for what they want within a few practices.
This approach takes patience, withholding frustration and the desire to yell at your child, and simultaneously helps to support your child. A good time with a good song is worth reliving over and over. This could even turn into an opportunity for your child to learn how to repeat the song on their own without your assistance as the parent.
It’s important to note that this is just one example of how to respond when your child has a meltdown. There are many different approaches that can be taken, but following these basic steps of: 1) determining why the child is engaging in the meltdown – look around for the trigger; 2) being present, either silently or speaking in hush calming tones; and 3) modeling how to solve the problem when the child is calm are just a quick strategies of how to respond. Each meltdown occurs for a different reason, but if you are support and teach your child self-advocacy skills, they can request for accommodations decrease the occurrences of meltdowns. Remember patience is a virtue (key)!