All children become frustrated and have temper tantrums, but as a parent of an autistic child, you’ll know that meltdowns are something quite different. While a meltdown might look a bit like a tantrum, it’s not about your child trying to get what they want. Instead it’s a reaction to being overwhelmed - a reaction they have little control over and causes them an awful lot of distress.
Unfortunately the rest of the world doesn’t always understand this difference, which is why it can be particularly tricky as a parent when your autistic child has a meltdown in public. So what can you do to make sure you’re prepared for those occasions so you can handle them in a way that is best for your child and for you?
The more you understand about the antecedents and causes of your autistic child becoming overwhelmed, the better prepared you will be to both prevent and deal with situations when they do happen. Next time your child goes into meltdown mode, take a moment to observe them. What behaviours are they displaying? What signs did you have that this was coming?
What environment are you in and what might have happened to trigger this episode? How frequent are the meltdowns and how long do they last? How serious do they feel? What helps bring them to an end? Keeping a diary to help you spot trends and develop effective methods to help them resolve their feelings can be really valuable.
Being able to define and describe your child’s meltdowns will not only help you feel more in control, it could also help you get the support you need from other people, whether that be teachers, family or experts like the clinicians here at Clinical Partners.
As you get to understand how and why your child becomes overwhelmed, then the better you’ll start to know what triggers them. It could be anything from sensory overload to anxiety, tiredness, unfamiliarity with the environment or struggling to label and convey their emotions.
Once you’ve identified key triggers, you can start to mitigate against them. If your child can’t handle loud noises, ear defenders could make a trip to the shops more bearable. If new places are a problem, talking to your child about where you’re going together and what that experience might be like could help them feel more prepared.
You might simply avoid bringing your child into some public settings because you know it’s likely to be too much for them at this point in time.
If your child does have a meltdown in public, the first thing to do is to remind yourself that you don’t need to be embarrassed. This is not your fault and it’s not your child’s fault. If other people don’t understand, that’s their issue. Your responsibility is to your child - not to anyone else. Ignore any disapproving glances you might detect and focus instead on the person who most needs your attention.
Because every child is different, there isn’t a one size fits all approach to handling meltdowns. However there are a few ideas you might like to consider, the first being to find a quiet space where there are less people. This will reduce the stimulation your child is experiencing while giving you some relief from the worries of what others might be thinking - or even how they might accidentally escalate things by trying to help.
If sensory overload is a trigger, try not to add to this. Obviously shouting is a no-no but other natural responses such as touching or hugging can be just as detrimental. Keeping yourself calm, using the right amount of eye contact for your child and not too many words is the best thing you can do.
Don’t be tempted to use this moment to try out a new coping technique at this point. It will most likely act as further unwanted information and exacerbate the situation. Far better to work on emotional self-regulation when they aren’t having a meltdown.
If you’ve come prepared with sensory tools that you know your child finds soothing, make these available but don’t force them. You might also find that deep touch pressure can help your child calm down.
When our children are distressed or displaying behaviours we don’t like, we can feel a huge sense of responsibility to change or fix the situation. But remember what you can and can’t control. Recognise your own feelings about the situation so you can address your own needs later.
You will learn which strategies best help your autistic child to avoid meltdowns and to get through them if they do occur. But you’re human and so are they. There is no silver bullet that will work every time.
We’d all love to be able to banish the anguish and triggers which cause meltdowns for good but the truth is that it’s not about how well we parent our autistic children. Even with the best strategies in the world, there will always be moments that trigger a meltdown. Preparing yourself for them both practically and emotionally will help you support your child and allow them to move through them more quickly.
At Clinical Partners our specialist clinicians have years of experience working with autistic children and helping them and their parents find ways to understand and manage their needs to enable them to thrive. To find out more about the treatment options and support available, visit the autism hub, listen to the latest podcast in our autism masterclass series for parents or call the team on 0203 326 9160;