Autism is not an excuse for bad behavior. That’s what my mom told me after visiting us on Christmas a few years back. My mother thought my autistic son’s Christmas Day meltdown was due to a lack of discipline.
You see, he was overloaded by all of the holiday festivities and six hours into the happiest day of the year he broke down hardcore style.
We’re talking red-faced nonstop unconsolable crying. My parents were trying to reason with him in the midst of a complete autism meltdown which resulted in more anger and a bite mark on my mother’s hand which she showcased as if it were a medal.
Do you see what he did? You must get these tantrums under control...
If you’re a parent of a child with autism, then you may have a similar frustrating story. You know that there’s a difference between a tantrum and a meltdown.
And you have to know what it is so you can act accordingly.
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A tantrum occurs when your child is denied something they want. Generally speaking, he is in control of his behavior in a tantrum scenario.
When my daughter was little, she would throw a tantrum every time my husband denied her candy at the grocery store. She would cry and scream until he gave in to her demands for a Hershey’s candy bar or bag of Skittles. Why? Because she knew he would eventually give in and she’d get what she wanted. Unknowingly, he was reinforcing her bad behavior by buying her candy. During her fits or tantrums, my daughter was entirely in control of her behavior and did not harm herself.
Tantrums are goal driven behaviors. Meltdowns are not.
Autism meltdowns happen as a result of sensory overstimulation and a feeling of being overwhelmed. That’s why they’re also known as sensory meltdowns.
Sometimes there’s an obvious cause for these meltdowns like a change in routine, hunger, thirst, lack of sleep, and sensory overload.
During a meltdown, the child is not in control of his behavior.
He’s not being bad.
He does not need a spanking.
He’s not “acting this way” because he’s spoiled.
His brain is overloaded, and he’s no longer in control.
Due to the sensory overload, his brain has switched to “fight or flight” mode.
Fight or flight looks a lot different in your child with autism than it does in you or me.
Fight or Flight in Autism Looks Like…
Kicking, Biting, Screaming, Spitting, Throwing Things
Covering Eyes, Ears, & Tucking his legs
Curling up in the fetal position
Checking or zoning out
Not speaking or moving
Now, what can a parent or caregiver do?
Strategies for Tantrums
Ignore the Behavior Not to be confused with ignoring your child, ignore the tantrum. Also, stay calm. Sometimes the child is feeding off of your reaction & that is the very reason he is doing what he’s doing.
Reinforce Positive Behavior Don’t forget the 4:1 Praise-Criticism Ratio Rule (4 Praises or Confirmations, or Approvals for Good Behavior or Deeds for Every 1 Criticism)
Strategies to Calm Sensory Meltdowns
Your child needs a calm and steady voice of reassurance. He needs to feel safe. Speak in a soft voice and lead by example.
If possible, remove your child from the scene of overwhelming activity. This may mean seeking a calm room at a family event or leaving the mall or grocery store.
Use Visual Schedules
Visual schedules allow kids to understand the plan and help make transitions from task to task easier. These morning and bedtime visual schedule and activity cards are perfect for daily routines!
Keep a Journal
Be proactive and create a meltdown notebook where you write down everything that happened leading up to and during your child’s sensory overloads. By doing such, you may discover patterns or triggers that you can address in an action plan.
Be Aware of Warning Signs
Autism meltdowns usually do not occur out of the blue. Recognizing the warning signs of your child’s impending meltdown is crucial to ensure it doesn’t escalate. Meltdowns typically begin with what is known as “rumblings” Look out for pacing, stimming, or rocking back and forth.
Once you recognize rumbling behavior, try using a distraction to calm your child. Try a simple activity or familiar toy they enjoy.
Many parents collect these items and have them at the ready in case of a meltdown. You know it’s hard to think clearly in times of panic, so it’s a good idea to be prepared. Consider gathering items to keep in your car as well.
Noise Cancelling Headphones These can be a lifesaver for kids who are sensitive to auditory stimuli. Sometimes the noises coming from the dishwasher or the coffeepot are even too much to handle.These Bose QuietComfort Wireless Headphones are worth every penny when you have a child that’s sensitive to sound.
Fidget Toys You probably have a few fidget spinners around your house. Many kids with autism or sensory processing disorder are soothed by them, and sometimes you can even curb unwanted habits like nail biting and hair pulling by spinning them!
We like these slow rising squishies better. My ten year old daughter introduced our household to this trend & it stuck with my son. They come in fun shapes and vibrant colors. Squishies are like a stress ball that you can flatten out and watch rise. Pretty cool & distracting!
Weighted blankets may help with sleep and many kids are soothed by the extra pressure they provide. You may also want to consider a weighted vest.
Sensory Diet You may want to look into a sensory diet for your child. (A Sensory Diet has nothing to do with food.) It’s a set of custom physical activities and accommodations to give your child the sensory input he needs. Sensory Diets are often used in sensory integration therapy.
Hey, I know how hard it is to remain calm during a meltdown. I know how bad it feels not to be able to help your child.
I’ve been there.
In my house.
At Dollar General.
In the car.
You’re going to be tested over and over again, and I’m telling you that you are going to make it.
It just takes time.
Please share your favorite calm down strategies. I love to hear from you!