As someone who works with kids on the spectrum, I’ve witnessed my fair share of meltdowns. As I said in my sensory 101 post, a meltdown is not a tantrum. A tantrum happens when a child wants something (a toy, candy, attention) and is not getting it. In contrast, a meltdown occurs when a child is overstimulated and cannot handle all of the stimuli in their environment. A child throwing a tantrum is attempting to change your behaviour, a child in the midst of a meltdown cannot change his. It’s all well and good to have this distinction in mind when things are going (relatively) smoothly, but when your child is the one having a meltdown it can be hard to remember they’re not trying to manipulate you. Here are some tips to help you survive your kid having a meltdown.
1. An Ounce of Prevention Can be a Godsend. Children don’t melt down out of the blue. There are usually warning signs. Every child has a different set of signals but some common ones are: increased agitation, rocking, crying, getting louder, repeating the same words over and over, appearing to ignore you (not responding to questions), or not wanting to be touched. The best case scenario here is that you see the meltdown coming and use a prearranged verbal or non verbal signal to usher your child to a safe and calming spot, use stress reduction techniques like deep breathing or meditation, or tactile stress relievers like a Sensory Ball, Massage Roller, or a Weighted Lap Pad. All of these sensory tools can help calm a child and prevent a meltdown before it starts. (As a note, you will need to work on the signals when a meltdown is not imminent – and as my friend Melissa points out, the language needs to be consistent across home, school, and relatives – anywhere the child will be. The more consistency in the language and actions, the more likely they will work when they need to.)
If you can’t manage to avoid the meltdown (and you won’t always be able to), here are some tips for when you’re in the eye of the storm.
2. Stay Calm. As your child gets louder, you may find yourself getting louder to be heard over them. This adds to the sensory stimuli and can prolong a meltdown. Any talking should be done in a calm, measured voice. Though it is unlikely that your child will remember anything you say or do while they are having a meltdown so if it’s important, wait.
3. Make Sure Your Child Is Safe – A child in the middle of a meltdown is not aware of her surroundings – she may accidentally injure herself. If possible, try to shepherd the child into a safer space – out of the kitchen where there are sharp knives for example.
4. Remove any stimuli you can from the environment. This can include siblings, music, scents, new fabrics, loud toys, or anything else you thing might be overloading your child’s senses. If it is possible, remove your child from the environment – if you are in a store, go back to your car and have a “time in” – sit with your child to ensure they are safe (see number 3 above), or carry your child to a safe room (usually their bedroom) that is free of the stimuli that is causing the meltdown.
5. Add in a calming stimulus. Depending on your kid, this could be an essential oil blend, a calming music mix on an ipod or other personal music player, a flashlight, a calming bottle, or a favourite toy to hug. It usually takes some trial and error, and again consistency is key – duplicates of whatever works need to be sent to school and triplicates kept on hand at home in case of loss.
5. Hug it out – Although it seems counter-intuitive, sometimes more stimulation in the form of a tight hug can help alleviate a meltdown. Many kids on the spectrum benefit from deep pressure so a tight hug or some time in a Giant Pea Pod can be a huge help. A Dynamic Movement BodySox(pictured below) can be just the right amount of pressure, but check reviews carefully, sometimes saving a few dollars results in getting a product that rips on the first use.
6. Remember – It’s Not About You. It can be hard to remember that your child isn’t doing this on purpose. Some days it feels like you just can’t take any more. Hopefully you have a support network you can call on to take the kids for an hour or two so that you can sit and have a coffee. It’s important for parents with kids on the spectrum to get some alone time. Not that it’s not important for all parents, but it has a way of slipping though the cracks for parents of special needs kids. If you don’t have friends or family who are able to watch your children, look into respite care. It will help you unwind and decompress which will in turn help your relationship with your child.
Once a meltdown starts, it’s not easy to stop it but hopefully these tips make it a little more manageable.