child crying

Meltdowns or outbursts are common among children with autism. They can be caused by situations or emotions that your child may find frustrating, difficult, and new. As a parent, it’s important that you know how to help your child work through overwhelming emotions and feelings.


What Is a Meltdown or Outburst?

Children and teens with autism may experience meltdowns or outbursts as an intense response to a challenging or overwhelming situation. Patients on the spectrum find it difficult to process heavy emotions such as anxiety or anger in a normal way. Thus, they find an alternative route of expression: a meltdown.


During meltdowns, patients temporarily lose control over their behavior, resulting in shouting, screaming, crying, and lashing out. When a patient is overwhelmed but doesn’t know how to express themselves effectively, a meltdown is an understandable result.


As a parent or caretaker, you shouldn’t see this as bad behavior coming from your child. Instead, look at this as your child’s way of asking for help.


Children with autism show different signs of distress before having a meltdown. You should know what signs to expect to effectively respond to or assist your child when needed.


What Do Outbursts Look Like?

Patients with autism may experience meltdowns differently than others. Some patients are more vocal than others, choosing to scream, cry, or shout to express overwhelming emotions. Other patients are more physical, choosing to hit or lash out at their parents in response to a frustrating situation.


In some cases, children on the spectrum may also withdraw from their surroundings. They might try to find a small and quiet place to hide and protect themselves from overstimulation. Luckily, meltdowns are preventable – if you know what signs to look out for.


Signs of an Outburst


Generally, the patient may show signs of anxiety or worry. For instance, they may start pacing the floor or rocking back and forth. They may also try to seek reassurance from a parent or caretaker through ceaseless questioning.


During the early stage or the “rumble stage” of a meltdown, there’s a chance for you to divert your child’s attention and prevent a full-blown meltdown from ensuing. Some recommended strategies include diversion, listening to music, playing with fiddle toys, or removing potential triggers from your child’s environment.


Here are a few signs of an autism meltdown that may occur before or during a patient’s episode:

  •  Irritability or aggression
  • Fidgeting or repetitive movements
  • Repetitive noises
  • Frustration over small things
  • Trouble focusing on a task
  • Shielding ears or eyes from sensory input


Outbursts or meltdowns aren’t the same for everyone on the spectrum. Monitoring your loved one’s episodes and taking note of their symptoms can help you come up with more efficient strategies to ease their discomfort.


Try to record everything that happens during your child’s meltdown. You may notice patterns in your child’s outbursts, triggers that you never considered before. Find aspects of the environment that you can improve or make more comfortable for your child.


If you’re struggling to find an effective solution to your little one’s outbursts, there are other tried and tested methods that you can try.


What To Do When Your Child with Autism Is Having an Outburst

Despite your constant efforts at preventing your child’s outbursts, it’s not always avertible. Remaining calm and collected in the face of a meltdown is one of the first steps you should take as a parent. When you’re calm, you make your child feel safe and secure in your presence.


Other strategies you should consider when helping a child on the spectrum deal with an outburst include:


Giving Them Time

Meltdowns aren’t caused by a single event or emotion – it’s caused by a combination of factors that the patient finds difficult to process. As a result, the patient can become overstimulated by sensory input, stress, sudden emotional shifts, and even normal bodily functions. Giving the patient time to refocus is one of the best things you, as a parent or caretaker, can do.


Avoid questioning your child or pushing them to explain what’s wrong. Instead, give them a few minutes to gather themselves.


Making Space for Them


Moving your child to a quieter, less crowded space can help calm them down during an outburst. If it’s available, a pair of noise-canceling headphones can also help your child block out auditory sensory overload. During a meltdown, your child may also not like to be touched or felt.


As much as possible, avoid touching your child and keep other people away from them while they try to process what they feel. Tell other people to move along and avoid staring at your child while he’s having an episode. Do what you can to minimize sensory overload for your child.


Identifying Their Triggers


Children on the spectrum have various triggers that eventually lead to meltdowns. Identifying these triggers and removing them from your child’s immediate environment can help prevent them from experiencing more frequent outbursts. Some common triggers for children with autism include:


Sensory Considerations

A child with autism may be over-sensitive or under-sensitive to certain senses – sometimes even a combination of both. When a child experiences sensory overload from a sense that they are over-sensitive to, it may result in a meltdown.


For instance, if a child is overly sensitive to sound, hearing loud music or chatter in a public place can feel overwhelming to them. When the situation isn’t managed correctly, it can result in the child melting down. One option is headphones for children with autism.


Routine Changes

Children with autism are creatures of habit – they don’t like sudden changes to their routines. If something new comes along that creates tension in their daily activities, it can feel frustrating and overwhelming. Give your child the chance to express their distress over their new situation.


Later, you can help them make the transition by using simple methods such as timetables and calendars that allow them to track when and where a change will occur.


Difficulty Communicating or Being Understood

Children on the spectrum have a difficult time expressing their wants and needs. This is yet another trigger for meltdowns and outbursts. To help your child through communication difficulties, you may try the following strategies:

  • Provide your child with visual supports that help them communicate their needs clearly (e.g., flashcards, picture books, visual aids).
  • Use shorter and clearer sentences when communicating.
  • Take advantage of devices like tablets, phones, and communication software.
  • Help your child increase their understanding of emotions and social cues.


Final Thoughts

Meltdowns are common among patients with autism and are often caused by sensory overload and overstimulation. Parents of children and teens on the spectrum can help them manage meltdowns by becoming more familiar with what meltdowns are and what strategies can help ease their children’s worries.


By focusing on the root of the issue, parents can better understand what needs or wants their child is trying to communicate.


If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.


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