For most families who have children with autism, meltdowns are a part of life. Often triggered by communication difficulties, overwhelming sensory input, changes in routine, or anxiety, meltdowns are not the same thing as tantrums.
Tantrum versus Meltdown
A tantrum can precede a meltdown, but a tantrum typically stops when the child gets what they want while a meltdown must run its course. During a meltdown, the child suffers a complete loss of control of their emotions and behaviors. Parents and caregivers should learn what to do during a meltdown and strategies to help minimize them, but learning what to do “after” a meltdown is equally as important.
My son is 4 1/2 years old and has ADHD and autism. His meltdowns usually happen for one of two reasons. He is either trying to avoid doing something we expect of him or doing something we don’t want him to do. They also often follow the same pattern beginning with a non-compliance followed by a tantrum. If the tantrum continues and turns into aggressive behavior, a meltdown is likely coming next. It is crucial for family members and caregivers to notice patterns like these in their own child because awareness can often help you intervene to either prevent or lessen the duration or intensity of the meltdown.
When a Meltdown Happens
During one of my son’s recent in-home therapy sessions, he had a severe meltdown. In therapy, he “works” 5 minutes then gets a 10-minute break to play. When the timer went off during this session, signaling break-time was over; he wasn’t ready to go back to working with the therapist. His next task was his toothbrushing routine, and he was having none of it.
At first, he was simply refusing to go into the bathroom. Then once his therapist got him into the bathroom, he refused to put the toothpaste on the toothbrush. Using the hand-over-hand technique, the therapist “helped” him put it on. His protesting continued getting louder, and he became more adamant that he did not want to brush his teeth.
I then heard the therapist say, “ouch,” and I knew immediately what had happened. He bit her. I ran into the bathroom, sternly told him “no, bite,” and put him in his room. Usually, the therapist handles all behavior during a session, but he bit her hard.
While she and I discussed what had happened, I could hear him kicking the walls of his room and screaming. He was in full-blown meltdown mode, and we both knew this just had to ride its course. He ended up falling asleep during the process.
After the Meltdown
After the therapist left, I made myself a cup of coffee, and I thought long and hard about what I would do after he woke up.
An hour and a half later, I hear his sleepy little voice calling me, and I go into his room. Remembering what had happened, he innocently asks, “Mommy, you happy?”
I said, “No, Mommy is sad you didn’t brush your teeth, and you bit Kim. But I will be happy if you brush your teeth and tell Kim you are sorry.” He immediately walked into the bathroom and brushed his teeth. After I recorded a video of him telling his therapist, he brushed his teeth, and he was sorry for biting her. She was very appreciative, and my son appeared genuinely remorseful and also proud that he completed what had been asked of him.
After a meltdown is over, it is important to let your child reset. For my son, this was his nap. But then revisit what initiated the meltdown and set it up so they can be successful in the same setting. We have done this several times with my son, and each time I see him not only making the mental connections but also being proud of himself.
By doing this, you are sending the message that you forgive them, but that your expectations haven’t changed. Both are important concepts for our kids with developmental disabilities. Meltdowns are stressful for everyone, especially your child. Offering them the opportunity to reset and redo is a great way to let them know you love them and have faith in them!
My child is not giving me a hard time. They are having a hard time. – Author Unknown