What is an Autism Meltdown?

Reviewed by:
Hannah Andreasen
M.Ed BCBA

January 16, 2023

An autism meltdown is a behavioral response to a particularly stressful or overwhelming situation, often due to a challenging sensory experience. While not exclusive to people with autism, meltdowns are a common experience for children and adults with autism. People with autism experience the world differently than neurotypical people. For those with autism, particular sensory input can feel overwhelming, resulting in a fight, flight or freeze response.  

While each child’s meltdown can look different, some common signs include

  • Screaming, crying, or other verbalizations
  • Covering ears 
  • Running away or dropping to the floor
  • Physical aggression toward people, objects, or self
  • Inability to focus
  • Self-stimulatory behaviors (stimming)

How do meltdowns compare to tantrums?

It is common to hear people use the terms meltdown and tantrum interchangeably, though they describe different processes. Meltdowns and tantrums can share many similarities in how they present. A child experiencing either a meltdown or a tantrum may scream, cry, and run away, for example. However, the reason behind the behaviors differ. 

A tantrum typically occurs in response to a desire that a child has. For example, they want a preferred toy or snack, resulting in tantrumming behaviors such as crying and stomping. Alternatively, a meltdown results from genuine distress, such as overstimulation or physical discomfort. When a child engages in a tantrum, the behaviors will generally stop if and when they receive access to what they are tantrumming for. For example, if a child is tantrumming because their parent told them no dessert until after dinner, the tantrum would likely end if the parent gave in and provided the dessert. 

Meltdowns are much different in that there is no particular end goal for the individual experiencing the meltdown other than to return to a state of comfort. Unfortunately, returning to a relaxed state is often not as simple as eliminating the triggering event. It is common for children to struggle with understanding or explaining what triggered the meltdown, and caregivers cannot always pinpoint that either. Meltdowns often end in one of two ways. The meltdown may physically drain the child to the point that they cannot continue, or they may regulate through calming strategies and supports. However, even with support, de-escalation often takes time. 

Supporting your child during a meltdown.

Meltdowns can be overwhelming for the individual experiencing it, caregivers, and others. We’ll review strategies for handling meltdowns. If your child is currently attending therapy, speak with their BCBA or therapist to discuss a personalized plan for responding to and preventing meltdowns. 

Find a calm area

One way to de-escalate a meltdown is to move the child to a calmer space. Some children may resist a transition during a meltdown, so it is important to avoid forcing it, as this can exacerbate the experience. However, if your child is comfortable moving to an alternative location, bring them somewhere free of noise and other intense sensory input. 

Reduce the sensory input

If you cannot move your child from the area, do your best to reduce the sensory input. If you know what triggered the meltdown, eliminate those triggers if possible. Otherwise, assess your environment and modify it accordingly. 

Some examples of modifying sensory input include

  • Turning off music, TV, or other electronics
  • Limiting other sounds 
  • Dimming the lights
  • Removing others around the child, such as peers or siblings

Offer sensory supports

Each child’s sensory experience is unique. Offering sensory support during a meltdown can help a child return to a calm state quicker. First, it is helpful to identify tools that may be beneficial during a meltdown when the child is currently calm rather than trying new things during a meltdown. For example, offering noise-canceling headphones to a child who has never used headphones in the past may intensify the meltdown. Alternatively, a child who has established headphones as a calming strategy might more readily accept the headphones during the meltdown. 

Here are a few examples of sensory tools

  • Noise-canceling headphones
  • Sunglasses
  • Chew tools
  • Weighted blankets or lap pads
  • A compact tent or swing
  • Fidget toys
  • Chewy or crunchy snacks

Try creating a portable kit with sensory supports that you can easily access to provide your child with during meltdowns. 

Avoid conversation

When your child is experiencing a meltdown, this is not the time to teach new skills. Limiting conversation and avoiding trying to reason with your child or resolve the situation is best. Instead, be a calm and reassuring presence. Let your child know you are there to support them. Stay nearby, providing space to calm down. 

Follow their lead

Allow your child to tell you verbally or through their behavior when they are ready to re-engage. For example, if your child shows signs that they want physical contact, provide it for them. Otherwise, continue giving them space and time to work through the meltdown with you close. 

Conclusion

Meltdowns are a common experience for individuals with autism. While they can be difficult to prevent and a challenge to stop, many strategies can reduce their impact and help a child return to a physically and emotionally calmer state.

If you are concerned about your child’s meltdowns, ABA therapy can help with individualized strategies to support you and your child. If you are looking for in-home ABA therapy, Songbird Therapy can help.

Songbird Therapy is a technology-enabled provider setting a higher standard for children’s autism care. With a deeply passionate team and innovative technology, we’re building a world where every child can access world-class care at home, uniquely tailored to them.

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