HOW TO CALM CHILD WITH AUTISM AND MANAGING MELTDOWN
HOW TO CALM CHILD WITH AUTISM AND MANAGING MELTDOWN
Children with autism can have a tough time managing their behavior and can “meltdown” in situations that would be only mildly challenging to a typical peer. Children with more severe symptoms can get very upset on a daily basis. Meltdowns and anxiety can make it very hard to participate in typical activities or, in some extreme cases, to even leave the house.
Children with autism “throw fits” in order to gain more attention or to get a desired outcome like a new toy, a favorite food, etc. In most cases, they react to physical or emotional stress without any particular agenda; they are simply expressing feelings of excitement, frustration, or anxiety or responding to sensory assaults. They may have less control over their emotions than their typical peers; as a result, emotional explosions are in many cases more common.
It’s not always easy for a neurotypical parent to predict or even recognize situations likely to upset a child with autism. Ordinary changes in a daily routine such as a detour on the way to school can be terribly upsetting to some autistic children. Odors such as the smell of fresh paint can be a sensory assault; even the fluorescent lights at the grocery store can be overwhelming to certain individuals with autism. However, children with autism may react differently to the same situation from day to day. An overwhelming stressor on Tuesday can be experienced as background noise on Thursday.
It can also be difficult to predict an autistic person’s reaction to a social setting or situation. The same autistic person who fell apart at a crowded mall may have no problem being in a crowded movie theater especially if the movie excites him/her. In addition, while typically developing children might have hurt feelings or even anger when excluded from a social event, a child with autism may not even notice the social slight. Alternatively, the same child who couldn’t have cared less about being excluded from a party might get terribly upset over a friendly fist-bump, perceiving it as an assault.
How to Recognize Reactions
It is challenging to predict the response of an autistic person and also difficult to interpret autistic reactions to difficult emotions as these reactions may take different forms. In some cases, reactions take the form of major temper tantrums while other reactions can look very different. For example, they might take the form of;
- Bolting or eloping (running away)
- Intensive self-stimulation (fast, intense rocking, pacing, self-talk, etc.)
- Self-aggression (head-slapping or banging, pinching, etc.)
- Aggression toward others (in rare cases)
- Sensory avoidance (covering ears, covering eyes, retreating)
- Sensory seeking behavior (crashing against furniture, squeezing into small spaces, etc.)
- Refusal to engage
- Compulsive behaviors such as touching the same objects in the same order over and over again
Some of these behaviors are actually attempts to self-calm. Others are simply physical manifestations of internal upset.
How to Calm a Child with Autism
As parents you need to understand that the best way to be calm is to stay calm to start with, that means teaching your child how to manage his/her own feelings; however, there are some techniques that can make a big positive difference. Many are related to sensory integration therapy an approach which helps people with sensory dysfunction to manage challenging situations. These techniques include:
- Offer an “escape hatch.”If your child is easily overwhelmed, be sure you and your child know what he should do if anxiety or frustration starts rising. Can you go outside? Can you retreat to a bedroom and watch a favorite video? Just knowing there’s an option can sometimes make all the difference.
- Provide your child with sensory toys that can help lower anxiety.You can actually buy sensory toys, but easy options range from soft “squeezy” balls to plasticine (soft clay), buzzers are helpful for some children and more.
- Consider purchasing indoor or outdoor swings and trampoline.These are often great ways for kids with autism to get the sensory input they need to self-regulate. Small indoor versions are often available through toy stores; no need to buy a special “sensory” swing.
- Make or purchase a weighted vest and/or blanket.For some children, these heavy items can provide a feeling of security, making it easier to manage the sensory assaults that go along with most school and community experiences.
- Consider buying “chewy” tops for pencils and pens.For some children, being allowed to chew can make a big difference
- Teach and learn meditation and guided meditation techniques.Not all autistic children can use these tools, but many get a lot out of mindfulness and related techniques.
- Be sure your child gets enough physical exercise.While most typical kids get plenty of time to run around and play or participate in team sports, children with autism often spend their after school time in therapy. It’s important for them like everyone else to get active.
- Teach simple methods for staying calm.Depending on your child’s abilities, options include counting to ten, walking away, deep breathing, meditation or when appropriate tuning into a calming video or book.
- Add a pet to your family.Pets have been shown to have a calming effect on children with autism; in fact, some autistic children have service or emotional support dogs whose primary job is to help the child manage his feelings.
Avoid These Pitfalls
In moments of stress, it can be hard to remember that autistic children are different from their neuro typical peers. It’s very unlikely, for example, that an autistic child is being “naughty” to cause you embarrassment. It’s also unlikely that he or she will react well to typical consequences such as time out or grounding autistic children aren’t motivated by social activities, so losing them is hardly a tragedy. It also probably goes without saying that spanking an autistic child for responding badly to a stressful situation is not likely to have positive consequences.
- Don’t attempt to shame or embarrass the child “act your age!”; Not only is this a poor approach to discipline in general, but it will also have no impact on a child who doesn’t connect with the idea of age-appropriate behavior or interests.
- Avoid trying to reason or argue with your child if he is already melting down. Even a very bright child with autism will find it impossible to have a rational conversation in the middle of an emotional breakdown.
- Avoid threatening consequences for bad behavior during a meltdown. Depending on the child, this will either be ignored or will escalate the situation.
- Don’t allow your child to leave the situation alone. Children with autism have a tough time understanding danger in the best of circumstances. While in the throes of a meltdown, they are very likely to run into the street or another dangerous situation.
- Don’t ask someone else to handle the situation. If an autistic child becomes upset at a coach, instructor, volunteer, grandparent, or another adult, it’s easy to assume that a person will handle the problem. But the vast majority of adults have no clue how to manage a flailing child with autism. It’s far better for everyone, including your child, to step in and take charge.