There was a time when my son melted down every day, more than once a day. I woke up anticipating and dreading it. I stayed awake half the night dealing with it. And every single time I met someone with any experience in autism and sensory issues, I asked the same question –
“What do I do when he melts down?”
I asked our first OT who recommended diet changes. When we eliminated gluten and dairy, we had more meltdowns.
I asked a parent who also has a child on the spectrum. She told me she never has to deal with anything violent with her son.
Feeling defeated, I asked our developmental pediatrician, whom I adore. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “Every single child is different and this is part of it. I can help, but only so much. You know him best. You will figure out his triggers and his needs.”
When she said that, I started to cry. Not only because deep down inside I knew she was right, but also because it meant something else was on me – All. On. Me.
More, more, more is what I felt at the time. More responsibility, more pressure, more expectation. Just more.
“What do I do?”
I wish I could tell you. I wish I could give you a list of the Top 5 Ways to Avoid Public Meltdowns, or 7 Secrets to Not Being Injured During A Meltdown.
But the truth is, I can’t.
This is one of those ‘if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism’ kind of things.
And it is just not fair.
The good news however, is that after speaking with many mommas dealing with this every day, I do know there are some tools that have helped every single one of us. Let me stress, these are recommendations from other mommas, not experts. This is not the answer, so much as a set of guidelines that help us when navigating the road to and from a meltdown.
So what do we do when our children melt down?
1. Lower Our Voices
Oh my goodness is this one hard to pull off. I used to lose my ever loving mind when my son would throw things or scream at me. And you know what? In hindsight, I realize I made every single one of those early meltdowns worse.
An overstimulated, melting down child does not need an overstimulated, melting down parent yelling at them and making an already horrible situation worse.
Calm, in control, low voices are always, always, always preferable mid-meltdown.
There was a time when I actually practiced what I would say during the next meltdown before it happened. It helped. When the time came, I was ready and didn’t have to think too much in the moment when I was aggravated and stressed.
It can be very difficult to stay calm, but usually helps to lessen the intensity and length of the meltdown.
2. Remove anyone who may make it worse and/or get hurt
Little brother and even my frustrated husband can, at times, escalate a meltdown quickly. Once a meltdown is happening, ask anyone who is not helping to please go and enjoy another activity. A sibling does not need to be in the middle of the mess. If possible, have the parent most likely to stay calm remain with the child melting down, and have the other take the sibling and blow off steam somewhere else. If you are alone with your children, ask the calm sibling to please go into the other room or outside and play for a bit. Use your calm voice (see above) and reassure the sibling that you are fine and are helping his/her brother or sister settle down.
My youngest felt abandoned at first when I would ask him to leave. I have learned to reassure him after each meltdown that the reason I ask him to leave is because I am worried about him being scared or hurt. It is as much for him as it is for his brother. He needs to hear me say that I am not choosing his melting-down older brother over him.
3. Find a Safe Place
For us, this is tough but necessary. Moving an already out of control child from one room to the next can be very difficult. However, remaining in an environment that is aggravating the problem (i.e. noise or smells) is not going to help your child.
I have learned to carefully walk my son, holding his arms gently at his side into his room. We have tried to keep most breakable items out of his space, so that it is a place he can calm down without doing too much harm.
If you are in the car, pull over. Please, for your own safety and the safety of everyone else on the road, pull over until your child is feeling more in control.
If you are in public, try to leave. If it is just impossible to navigate your child into a more private area, stay very close to him and again, use the calm voice. Try to keep your child away from other people or things that can be hit, broken, or tipped over (just trust me on this one).
No matter what, stay focused on your child. Ignore comments, stares, and obvious judgement from anyone looking on, no matter how angry or ashamed you may feel. Just keep working with and trying to calm down your child.
4. Speak Repetitively, Communicating Love and Support
While using a low voice, many moms have found success in just repeating the same thing over and over again until their child begins to relax. For example, once I have my son in a quiet place, I typically repeat, “I am trying to help you. This must be so hard for you. I am on your side.”
It may take some time, but eventually, I can see him relax a little more each time I repeat myself.
5. Stay Close
I try to remember that when my child is melting down, the person that is the most affected by it is my child. Meltdowns can be very overwhelming and scary. My son grows more and more anxious as he feels a meltdown coming on and starts to panic (thus inducing a meltdown – Ugh). The feeling of being completely out of control can be terrifying for our children. I have found that when I stay close, even if I am not actively doing anything, just my presence helps. If I do need to leave, I communicate why and for how long.
For example, I might say, “I need to leave for 2 minutes to go help your brother. I know this is tough for you. I will be right back. I want to help.”
He may or may not really hear me, depending on how overwhelmed his body is, but being nearby and communicating my absence has substantially decreased the duration of my son’s meltdowns.
The exception to this is when you just can’t…if you feel like you are losing it, or fear being seriously injured, there is no shame in walking away for a bit. When this happens (and it has) I try to explain that I need a moment to catch my breath and that I will be back shortly. Sometimes I choke this out through tears, but I try and say it just the same.
You are a person too. You have understandable limitations and this is not easy. Walk away if you need to compose yourself, and then calmly return to assist your child.
Please allow me to again stress, this list is not inclusive nor is always going to help when meltdowns happen. Please use these recommendations as much or as little as they apply to your child and your circumstances. The truth is exactly what our doctor told me – You are the momma. You know your child best. You will figure this out.
If you are dealing with daily meltdowns, I am so sorry. There is no way to really describe the level of stress and crazy you are enduring. At the very least, please know that you are not alone. Your child is not alone. Meltdowns happen. They are part of this life we lead.
Keep working. Keep trying. Keep going. Your child needs you.
You are exactly the right person for the job.
Shawna Wingert is a special education teacher turned educational consultant, and mom of two brilliant boys who have learning differences and special needs.
Shawna has also written four books: Everyday Autism, Special Education at Home, Parenting Chaos, and Homeschooling Your Child With Special Needs. A passionate advocate for individualized education, Shawna is frequently featured on Today.com, Simple Homeschool, Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers and The Mighty. She can also be found supporting parents online at her own site, DifferentByDesignLearning.com.