Autism meltdowns and strategies on how to manage them

What is an autism meltdown? A meltdown manifests when a child loses control over their behaviour and can only be calmed down by a parent, or when he reaches the point of exhaustion. 

Meltdowns are reactions to feeling overwhelmed and are often seen as a result of sensory overstimulation. Tantrums can lead to meltdowns, so it can be somewhat challenging to tell the difference between the two outbursts (and respond appropriately) if you’re not attuned to your child’s sensory signals.

When a person with autism experiences too much sensory stimulation, their central nervous system is overwhelmed and unable to process all of the input. These inputs come from the world around them, or what we call environmental triggers. It’s a neurological “traffic jam” in their brains. In times of anxiety and stress, the sympathetic part of your autonomic nervous system produces cortisol hormones and triggers a “fight or flight response.”

Signs your child is overstimulated


Physical cues: 
  • Putting hands over ears
  • Bolting from the room 
  • Increased frequency and/or intensity of stimming: rocking, humming, hand flapping, vocalizations 
  • Onset of self-injurious stimming: biting, head banging, throwing self on hard surfaces
  • Aggressive behaviours: screaming, kicking or biting (overstimulation can result in rage, often the child’s intention is usually not to harm others; it’s only that their tolerance level has reached its limit)

Strategies for handling autism meltdowns

You’ve heard the saying: “When you’ve met a child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.” Because every autistic child presents differently, with varied skills, communication, and sensory processing profiles, it is impossible to have a one-solution-fits-all approach to managing meltdowns. Work with your occupational therapist to find a tool that works best for your child. Some strategies are listed below. 

  • Quiet time
    • The first step is to de-escalate the situation. Start by moving away from the environment or place that is causing the overstimulation (classroom, mall, train station etc). Leaving the place of overstimulation will automatically decrease the stimuli that was over-stimulating your child, which means they are more likely to be receptive to the additional calming strategies that you will give them. Give your child the space they need, while also ensuring their safety and the safety of others around them. When your child is starting to calm, it is best to get on their level physically, limit your verbal interactions, and offer any on-the-go calming tools you might have available. This is why it’s beneficial to have kit ready with you at all times. If the meltdown occurs at home, you can perhaps set up a ‘’cozy corner’’ in your home where your child can retreat to whenever they need. 
  • Social stories
    • Sit down with them and help them learn about the world around them using social stories. Bonus points if the story specifically addresses their issues using their own faces. This added visual input helps to better connect them to the expected behaviour.
  • Visual schedule with check off lists
    • Preventing a meltdown is certainly better. Having a visual schedule gives them an overview of what their day would be like, no surprises. They can even have the autonomy to decide what they want to do for the day. This predictable routine will give them a sense of security and calmness that they will appreciate.
  • Portable calm down kit

You can include items listed below. Have it readily accessible by teachers/caregivers to help your child calm down

1) Sunglasses/Eye mask

These are great for light sensitivity. Your child would appreciate the vision break for when the sun is too bright or dealing with harsh light of fluorescent light bulbs.

2) Weighted lap pad

Deep touch pressure is one of the best ways to calm your child. You can place it on your child’s lap or back to give them the deep proprioceptive input as a way to ground them and lower their stress levels. 

3) Noise-cancelling headphones/Ear muffs

If you see your child placing their hand over their ears, it is a clear indicator that they are bothered by loud noises or even background noise. Having a good pair of over the ear noise-canceling headphones to block out auditory stimuli or distraction can really help. 

4) Chewy, crunchy snack

While snacks are always good to have on hand, crunchy ones can help because oral proprioceptive input is calming and hungry kids are crankier! Pretzel sticks, apples, biscuits, and gummy worms are good options. 

6) Unscented hand wipes

These help with any tactile sensitivities when your child accidentally touches something that irritates them.

7) Fidget toy

Something repetitive, simple, and preferred can be very calming for these children.  A good one that I personally love using with clients is the pop fidget toy. I incorporate nursery rhyme singing as they pop, to give them an added calming effect. 


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