Identifying Meltdown Triggers

Children on the autism spectrum can be prone to severe meltdowns, which are not the same as a typical temper tantrum. A tantrum is goal-oriented (meaning the child wants something, and if they get it, the tantrum usually stops) and requires an audience (meaning if the child is left alone, the tantrum usually stops).

But meltdowns aren’t typically goal-oriented (even though they may start that way) and aren’t audience-dependent (the meltdown will continue even if the child is left alone). Meltdowns can be exhausting, emotionally draining, and physically challenging for both the child and their caregivers. However, learning what triggers a meltdown can help to minimize the frequency.

What Exactly is a Meltdown?

A meltdown is a complete loss of control over emotions and behaviors. During a meltdown, a child may engage in aggression towards others, self-injurious behavior, and property destruction. Often during a meltdown, the child appears to lose touch with reality and awareness of their environment. Meltdowns can last for several minutes up to several hours. Once a meltdown has started, it almost impossible to stop it, so prevention is key.

Identifying Meltdown Triggers

Meltdowns can be dangerous to the child and others around them as well as impact them socially. Learning to identify meltdown triggers and minimizing or eliminating them will help to minimize or eliminate the meltdowns themselves.

How to Identify a Meltdown Trigger

To identify a meltdown trigger, analyze what happened immediately BEFORE the meltdown. Some common triggers are:

  • Being denied access to something
  • An attempt to avoid something
  • Attention-seeking
  • Sensory overload
  • Difficulty transitioning
  • Disruption in routines

How to Prevent Meltdowns

Once you’ve identified potential triggers, make a change that either minimizes or eliminates the triggers. Over time, the goal is to teach children with autism the tools to prevent meltdowns as well as give them time to mature, but in the interim, removing the trigger may be the best intervention.

Our Family’s Experience

My son is five years old and on the autism spectrum. The other night, as my husband and I were eating dinner on our back patio, he came outside and asked me for some popcorn. I thought he wanted a snack. So I put a little popcorn in a bowl and handed it to him.

He then walked to the couch, where he had several toy monster trucks parked, and dumped it out. On his iPad, I saw a video of a child enthusiastically driving monster trucks through a popcorn mountain on a couch.

I immediately knew what was happening. He loves to watch toy review videos and recreate them. So, I just chuckled to myself and thought, I’ll just let it go. Popcorn wasn’t going to stain the couch. I mean, I didn’t really want him playing with popcorn, but in this unique parenting journey, sometimes you must decide which battles you are willing to fight and when. At this moment, I just wanted to finish my dinner.

A few minutes later, he popped back outside and said, “I need 100 popcorns. I only have 65.” Apparently, he had counted each kernel! At this point, I felt I couldn’t keep letting this go. I told him that he couldn’t have any more because popcorn was for eating, not playing. I then realized how confusing this must have been to him. What I am telling him and what he was seeing the child do in the video were not in alignment.

He then dragged his little chair to the pantry to reach the high lock to serve himself 35 more popcorn pieces to make it an even 100. Because I had orginally denied him access to his requested 35 more kernels, I couldn’t let him have more. I tried to block him, and that sent him spiraling downward rapidly. He screamed, “I am very angry,” he hit me, and he knocked over the chair.

I put him in his room and set a timer for two minutes, hoping he’d calm down. However, the entire time I could hear him kicking the walls, and he continued screaming, “I am very angry!”

When the timer went off, he came out of his room and continued screaming, “I am very angry,” while clenching his fists and trembling. The meltdown remnants were obviously still present.

It was now his shower time, and he demanded taking the monster trucks in with him. But, because of the meltdown, I’d removed both the popcorn and trucks. He was not happy about that. Getting him into shower was not easy, and he fought me the whole time. But, toward the end of the shower, he grew less tense, relaxed, and began to cry. That is typically how his meltdowns end. He cries because he is just physically and emotionally drained.

Once he was in his pajamas, and we were huddled in his room preparing to read a bedtime story, he unprompted softly said, “Mommy, I am sorry I made a bad choice.”

I just hugged him and said, “Thank you for saying sorry. But you hurt me. When you are angry, you can say you are angry. But hitting is a bad choice. Saying you are angry is a good choice.”

He again, softly apologized and said, “You happy, now?” I hugged him again and said, “Yes, I am.”

This meltdown taught me something. As much as he LOVES watching toy review videos, they can be a meltdown trigger. He can’t pour slime on mommy, dump popcorn on the couch, or own every toy he sees a reviewer advertise, and he doesn’t understand any of this. At this time, the line between entertainment and reality is difficult for him to comprehend.

I also realized I had some culpability in the meltdown. Either I should have allowed the popcorn play to happen or not, from the start. Putting confusing contingencies such as you can play with 65 kernels but not with 100 (when I know how important numbers are to him) was a poor choice on my part.

After he went to sleep, I sadly deleted the app he had been using to watch those videos and replaced it with some other apps I knew he’d enjoy. That doesn’t mean he won’t ever be able to watch those videos again. We will continually work on the skills he needs both at home and in behavior therapy to help him understand what he can and can’t do and teach him how to manage frustration appropriately. And over time, those skills will improve.

The Take-Away

If meltdowns are currently an issue that a child on the autism spectrum in your family is having difficulty with, uncovering the triggers and minimizing or eliminating them until the child learns more appropriate ways of dealing with frustration may help. Working with a behavior therapist is a great place to start!

When a meltdown occurs, please understand that an individual isn’t trying to control the situation – they are doing it because they can’t control their response to the situation. – Autism Odysseys

Published by

Amy Nielsen

Amy Nielsen is a former children's librarian of nearly twenty years. She now spends most of her time obsessively pounding on a keyboard. She is the author of It Takes a Village: How to Build a Support System for Your Exceptional Needs Family, Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her upcoming YA Worth it debuts in May of 2024. She is also a freelance writer for The Autism Helper. When she's not writing, she and her family are most likely crusing the waters of Tampa Bay.