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Meltdowns and Autism Spectrum Disorder

Meltdowns can be a source of often daily stress for parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). Of course, emotions are a child's way of communicating to parents that they need help. With other children this might be a simple fix of finding a toy or providing food. Problem solved and the meltdown stops. But for a child with ASD, the cause of the meltdown can be baffling. One, because kids with ASD have difficulty communicating what the problem is, and two, because what might be a problem to him or her (e.g., a noisy vacuum) may seem like a non-issue to the parent. Here are a few issues that can cause a meltdown in a child with ASD and may need to be sorted out in order to help them regulate their emotions. And remember, there can be multiple triggers to a meltdown that need to be sorted out in order for the child to feel safe and calm.

  • Sensory issues - Is there a sensory overload happening for the child? This could be to do with any of the senses (touch, taste, smell, sound, sight). For example, are you in a noisy environment such as a shopping centre or rowdy classroom? Is the child sitting next to him eating something smelly like tuna? There are lots of sensory issues that can affect a child with ASD so think about what it might be and remove them from it.

  • Playground issues - Often children with ASD will have had a playground issue during a break and not have thought to tell anyone about it. Nevertheless they remain stressed. Consider having a check in with the child about break time and whether there were any issues.

  • Illness - Is the child sick or tired or are they currently affected by a pre-existing condition such as gut issues?

  • Sleeping issues - Sometimes simple tiredness is a cause. Having a nap or looking at sleeping issues with a paediatrician can help.

  • Food - Has the child eaten? Sometimes a meltdown can be caused by lack of blood sugar, and feeling sick and hungry.

  • Anxiety - Is there something the child is scared of or worried about? Examples could be a raised voice, a change in routine that is coming up, a test, a performance of some sort, or a disliked subject or task.

  • Perfectionism - Since many children with ASD are very black and white thinkers, they often consider tasks as passed or failed. Therefore, trying new tasks, learning new things or not doing well at something can be extremely frustrating. Of-course school is where we learn lots of new things on a daily basis. Where there is extreme meltdowns with a task, consider adapting the task to build on success rather than making the task too difficult. Build in some immediate rewards for effort and consider making tasks shorter.

  • Routines and Rituals - Has the child been prevented from performing some sort of routine and ritual. These can be very important to children with ASD as they make them feel safe and in control. For example, have they had to put their bag in a different spot or sit in a different seat to usual.

Reference: Thompson, T. (2009). Freedom From Meltdowns. Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co., Maryland.

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