Last week I talked about getting yourself through your child’s autism meltdown (Hope for Surviving an Autism Meltdown). Today I finish my month-long Autism Awareness series with some ways to help them calm down.
Every parent deals with meltdowns for their children. It’s a natural part of child development. It stems from children learning to deal with disappointment, exhaustion, emotions, sensory overload, and more. But when a child has autism, meltdowns continue far longer than with neuro-typical kids. And when a child is no longer in diapers and has a meltdown, it can carry with it feelings that come flooding over parents.
- Embarrassment and shame. When your child is two and has a tantrum, you get looks from people (usually people with no kids). When your child is 8 or 13 or 16, you get looks and so do they. You can feel the judgement—both real and imagined—radiating off strangers and even people who know you. “Why are they behaving this way?” “Why is she letting him?” And the ever popular, “If it were my kid….”
- Helplessness. You want to help fix it for them and sometimes you can’t. It can make you feel powerless and like a failure.
- Anger. You know, logically, they are not doing this on purpose. But that doesn’t change the all-too-real feelings of anger—at them, at the situation, at autism.
- Confusion and frustration. The meltdown can be for an obvious reason or for some reason you can’t understand at the moment. The confusion can make you freeze. The frustration at “what now?!?” is no fun.
All of these responses are normal. All are ones that other special needs families understand and families without special needs kids may or may not. But what they can do is take your focus off helping your child calm down and fix the problem that caused it. Here are some practical steps to do just that:
- Ignore other people. What they are thinking or not thinking about the situation has nothing to do with helping your child. If someone you trust asks what you need, let them watch your groceries, make sure other kids don’t run off, or saves your seat in church. You know how to respond to your child. Other people can help with the other, non-autism stuff.
- Give your child space and some way to channel their energy. Dealing with their behavior in the middle of a meltdown doesn’t work. Remove them from public first. Then, give them a safe place to cry, rock, swing, or other safe comfort measure. They need to calm down before you can make any progress on what’s upsetting them or how they are behaving. My son seeks out deep pressure and motion. When he was smaller, time on the trampoline or swings helped. Now he’s too big so I experimented with giving him heavy hand weights and alone time. Finding what helps your child calm down is an amazing tool.
- Limit talking to them as much as possible. They are not in a place to listen yet. Kids with autism can’t handle an overload of words any more than sensory input. I struggle with this because I’m a talker. But when he is melting down, he needs me to zip it until he’s calm.
- Breathe. Both you and the child need to remember to breathe. Breathing is calming and one of the things we forget to do deeply when stressed. My son’s Kindergarten teacher would tell him to “breath from your toes.” I would sometimes hold up my index finger and tell him to blow out the air like he was blowing out a birthday candle. It helped him get oxygen and took the focus off the meltdown.
- As they start to calm, figure out what triggered the meltdown. Was it something physical—hunger, thirst, exhaustion, etc.? Was it sensory—too much or too little of something? Was it disappointment or another emotion they don’t know how to regulate well? As your child calms, you can talk about constructive ways to fix whatever upset them or how to respond in the future if these triggers arise.
- When fully calm, talk about their behavior. My son understands that once he is calm, we will talk not only about what caused the meltdown but any behavior he engaged in that was not okay—yelling at me, throwing anything, or anything else he needs to apologize for or fix. You can have them make amends for poor behavior and seek forgiveness. It helps them grow up and realize there are consequences even for behavior caused by autism. Do not let autism be an excuse for violent or abusive behavior. Teach them other ways to respond.
Each time we weather the storm of a meltdown, we all learn. My neuro-typical kids learn ways to help me and give him space. He learns new tricks that help him communicate or satisfy his sensory needs. And he learns what is not acceptable for a young man his age, no matter how upset he is.
I can tell you that meltdowns happen less often the older he’s gotten. The more I’ve learned ways to help him calm and help myself stay calm, the less we’ve had really bad meltdowns. The more he’s matured and become self-aware, the more he’s leaned on tricks to deal with his frustration in healthier ways. If you have a young child, I can tell you it often gets better. Consistency and patience is key.
You can do this. You are a special-needs parent and the fact that you are trying to learn to do better, help better, be better already qualifies you as a rock star. Helping our kids learn to function with their disability is a life skill they need.
What tips have you found to help your child weather an autism meltdown? I’d love to hear some idea in the comments. We are better together.