Managing Autism Meltdowns, Tantrums and Aggression
To someone on the outside, a child with autism having a meltdown might appear like a child having a temper tantrum, but the circumstances and reasons are more complex than what meets the eye. Those who have cared for a child with autism will know that autism meltdowns need to be handled differently and with intimate knowledge of the child’s personality.
What is an autism meltdown?
A meltdown is defined as an intense reaction to sensory overwhelm. Autism meltdowns, in particular, can be more emotional and last longer than usual. When a child with autism is overwhelmed, he/she knows no other way to express it other than with a meltdown. This might involve verbal outbursts (screaming, crying, etc.) or physical reactions (kicking, biting, hitting, etc.).
Meltdown vs. Temper Tantrum
Although they may look similar, autism meltdowns are different from temper tantrums. A temper tantrum is usually a child’s way of getting what he/she wants. An autism meltdown, however, has no purpose and is beyond a child’s control.
To be more specific, a temper tantrum happens when:
- A child is frustrated with not getting what he/she wants
- A child is not able to do what he/she wants
- A child is not able to properly communicate what he/she wants
A child might stop a tantrum after the following responses:
- Being comforted by a parent or caregiver
- Being given what he/she wants (although not an ideal strategy)
- Being ignored and giving up on his/her own
Children who throw temper tantrums are aware and in control of their actions and can adjust the level of their tantrum based on the response they get from a parent or adult.
On the other hand, autism meltdown causes are entirely different. Because it is triggered by sensory overload, a child with autism having a meltdown can have a few defining characteristics.
- Start with “warning” signs called “rumblings”
Rumblings can be obvious or subtle, such as verbal requests to “stop” or “leave” the cause of distress. It can also be a physical sign like covering of ears or running away from the source of distress.
- Be preceded with stimming
When a child with autism is on the verge of a meltdown, he/she might resort to repetitive behavior called stimming to relieve anxiety. Rocking back and forth, flapping hands, and twirling are some examples of stimming.
- Be caused by overstimulation
This can include a noisy and crowded place, bright lights, and strong smells.
- Not be limited to young children
Meltdowns can also happen to teens and adults with autism.
- Happen with or without an audience
Unlike a temper tantrum, autism meltdowns can happen with or without people around. It can even happen when a child or a person with autism is alone. However, an autism meltdown in public is common since public places like malls and airports are often sources of sensory overload for children with autism.
- Last longer than tantrums
You might be asking, “How long does autism meltdown last?” The answer differs with each child, but since there is no stopping a meltdown once it starts, you can expect the episode to continue until the child is taken out of the stressful situation or until all energy is spent.
Once you can tell the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown, then you can apply the right strategies to deal with the situation.
Difference between autism meltdown, tantrums, and aggression
Aggression in children with autism refers to violent behavior that may include kicking, hitting, throwing objects, punching, and biting. Aggressive behavior can be directed to others or oneself. Both an autism meltdown and a tantrum can involve aggression.
Outside of sensory overload that leads to a meltdown, there are other reasons why a child with autism uses aggression. Some children become violent when an object of comfort is taken away from them, or when they are forced into something they do not want to do.
The key goal of handling aggression is to ensure the safety of the child and others around him/her. Some strategies would be removing the cause of aggression, providing calming toys and/or activities, and giving your child a safe space where he/she can calm down.
How to deal with a temper tantrum
Dealing with a temper tantrum is different from dealing with an autism meltdown. Children throw tantrums because they want something. This does not mean, however, that you should always give in to every demand behind a tantrum.
Keep your calm
It is easy to get upset when your child is throwing a tantrum but try to keep yourself calm first before addressing your child’s behavior. It does not make sense to tell your child to stop yelling when you are also yelling. You want your child to see how he/she should be acting—which is calm and collected.
Don’t give in
The fastest way to stop a tantrum is to give the child what he/she wants. While you can do this on certain occasions when you cannot afford to deal with a tantrum, it is not a great strategy in the long run. Your child will learn that he/she needs to throw a tantrum to get what he/she wants.
Acknowledge your child’s emotions
Instead of telling your child to “stop crying,” you can let him/her know that you understand his/her feelings. You can validate feelings without giving in. For example, saying something like, “I know you’re upset that you can’t have that toy, but we can’t buy it right now. Maybe next time.” This lets your child know that you feel bad that he/she feels bad, but there is nothing you can do—for now.
How to deal with autism meltdown
As no two children with autism are the same, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy on how to handle autism meltdowns. Not all autism meltdown strategies are guaranteed to work on every child on the spectrum. However, there are some general techniques that can be customized to your child’s behavior and personality.
The best way to prevent your child from having a meltdown is to predict and avoid stressors or triggers that can lead to a meltdown. This can be avoiding crowds, establishing a set routine, and by planning ahead.
However, when a meltdown is already happening, you can try the following approach:
Leave the room or location
Sometimes, simply leaving the source of the stressor can significantly lessen a meltdown’s severity. Lead your child away into a quieter space where he/she might be more comfortable and able to manage his/her autism meltdown and recovery.
Use calming devices
A fidget toy, noise-canceling headphones, or weighted vest might provide immediate comfort to an overwhelmed child. Once you identify what caused the meltdown, you can use the appropriate calming tool to help your child tune out sensory overload and recover from his/her meltdown.
Teach calming techniques
When your child isn’t having a meltdown and is receptive, teach him/her a go-to plan if and when a meltdown does happen. You can teach him/her deep breathing techniques, meditation, or counting from one to ten. Once in place, you and your child can use these strategies in calming autism meltdowns in the future.
Ensure your child’s safety
Always be with your child during a meltdown to make sure he/she is safe from harm. Do not allow your child to run away to a busy street or run around an area where he/she might get hurt. Learn safe ways to restrain your child’s arms and/or legs during violent meltdowns.
Keep yourself calm
It can be frustrating trying to pacify a child during a meltdown, but it’s important to remember that your child is not doing it deliberately. He/she is simply responding to sensory overwhelm and has no control over his/her behavior at this point. Keep yourself calm and composed and do your best to comfort your child in the best way you know-how.
Autism meltdown medication
While most autism meltdowns can be managed without medication, some cases of aggression and violent meltdowns might require additional help. It is essential to consult your child’s doctor when deciding to use medication for autism meltdowns.
Some antipsychotic medications like Risperdal (risperidone) and Abilify (aripiprazole) have been found to be effective in treating aggression and irritability in children with autism. Both of these medications are approved by the FDA. Risperdal can be given to children as young as five years old, and Abilify for children six years old and older.
Autism meltdowns, tantrums, and aggression may all be part of raising a child on the spectrum. While these can be difficult to manage at times, having the right strategies that work for your child can significantly improve your child’s ability to regulate his/her emotions in the future. As a parent, you know your child best and should, therefore, keep finding the most effective and safest ways to help your child during a meltdown or tantrum.
Meltdowns – National Autistic Society. Retrieved from: https://www.autism.org.uk/about/behaviour/meltdowns.aspx
What Causes Tantrums? – Healthline. Retrieved from: https://www.healthline.com/symptom/tantrums
How Autistic Meltdowns Differ From Ordinary Temper Tantrums. 2019, August 21. Retrieved from: https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-is-an-autistic-meltdown-260154
Aggressive behaviour: children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder. Retrieved from: https://raisingchildren.net.au/autism/behaviour/common-concerns/aggressive-behaviour-asd
How to Handle a Temper Tantrum – WebMD. Retrieved from: https://www.webmd.com/parenting/guide/preventing-temper-tantrums-in-children#2
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Efficacy of antipsychotics for irritability and aggression in children: a meta-analysis. 2017, August 21. Retrieved from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14737175.2017.1371012
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