The Best Strategies for Calming Autistic Tantrums and Meltdowns

March 07, 2019 17 Comments

Calming Tantrums and Meltdowns in Autism blog post

If you’re a parent of a neurotypical child, you’ve surely experienced the temper tantrums that come along with denying your child that candy bar in the grocery aisle, or (gasp!) making them wear the Sesame Street t-shirt instead of the preferred dinosaur t-shirt!  

If you’re a parent of a child with autism, it’s less likely that you can predict what will cause behavioral and emotional meltdowns from day to day, situation to situation, environment to environment.

In this article, we will show you how to recognize the differences between how these behaviors are characterized: autism tantrums versus autism meltdowns.

They are not the same and cannot be addressed in the same way. After discussing each one, we will look at how to best calm down a child with autism depending on if they are having a tantrum or a meltdown.

  1. A Temper Tantrum is Not an Autism Meltdown
  2. Autism Meltdowns Come from Overwhelm or Overstimulation
  3. What to do When an Autistic Child has a Tantrum
    1. Recognizing the motivation or purpose of the tantrum
    2. Reinforcing positive behavior
    3. Building the skills
  4. Autism Meltdown Strategies for Children
  5. Portable Sensory Toolkit for Meltdowns
  6. Tantrums, Meltdowns, and Takeaways

A Temper Tantrum is Not an Autism Meltdown

A temper tantrum usually occurs when a child is denied what they want to have or what they want to do.

Parents observe many tantrums during the “terrible twos”. This occurs when young children are developing problem-solving skills and beginning to assert their independence.

In fact, this “terrible twos” stage is typically experienced between 12 months through 4 years old!

When you look at why temper tantrums occur at this stage, it is important to consider typical development and why toddlers are so easily frustrated:

  • Emerging desire to become independent, but limited motor skills and cognitive skills (planning, organization, execution) make it impossible to actually BE independent.
  • Emerging, developing language skills make communicating wants/needs frustrating.
  • The prefrontal cortex of the brain has not yet developed - this is the brain center responsible for emotional regulation and social behavior - so they do not have the ability to regulate!
  • Toddlers are developing an understanding of their world, and it’s often anxiety producing. This anxiety and lack of control often result in tantrums when it all gets to be too much to manage.

A hallmark of a tantrum is that the behavior will usually persist if the child gains attention for his behavior, but will subside when ignored.

When children tantrum, they continue to be in control of their behavior and can adjust the level of the tantrum based on the feedback they receive from adults around them. The tantrums will resolve when the child either gets what he wants or when he realizes that his outburst will not result in getting his way.

When parents “give in” to tantrum outbursts, children are more likely to repeat the behavior the next time they are denied what they want or need.

Children who exhibit frequent tantrum outbursts have difficulty regulating emotions associated with anxiety and anger. They can be impulsive in their reactions and, if not addressed appropriately, persistent outbursts (maladaptive responses to problems/not getting his way) can result in social-emotional difficulties as they get older.

While a tantrum isn't a meltdown, they are related and can be difficult to decipher, especially if you aren't the direct caregiver to the child.

Autism Meltdowns Come from Overwhelm or Overstimulation

Next, let’s answer the question, what is an autism meltdown? A meltdown is when the child loses control over his behavior and can only be calmed down by a parent, or when he reaches the point of exhaustion. These will sometimes be referred to as autism outbursts, but we will refer to it solely as an autism meltdown in this article.

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 hard to tell the difference between the two outbursts (and respond appropriately) if you’re not attuned to your child’s sensory signals.

For more information on sensory processing, check out Harkla’s articlehere.

When a person with autism experiences too much sensory stimulation, their central nervous system is overwhelmed and unable to process all of the input. It’s a physiological "traffic jam" in your central nervous system and the sensory overstimulation is not unlike a maladaptive response to an actual traffic jam.

We’ve all had the experience of happily driving to our destination, cruising down the highway singing along to our favorite song, when all of a sudden traffic comes to a dead stop. Now, instead of comfortably cruising (our expectation for the situation), you’re at a standstill surrounded by imposing big trucks, offensive exhaust fumes, blaring horns, and the blazing hot sun peeking through your windows.

The anxiety of the situation is compounded by the sensations you’re experiencing and, all of a sudden, the music in your own car is too much to bear (sensory overload).

The last thing you want is to be stuck in your car in that traffic jam - you want out!

But you can’t go anywhere… the typical response at this point is agitation and frustration. Maybe you shut off the radio, close your eyes, and take some deep breaths to calm down (adaptive response). OR maybe you just can’t handle it and have a road rage outburst (maladaptive response)!

In times of anxiety and stress, the sympathetic part of your Autonomic Nervous System produces cortisol hormones and triggers a “fight or flight response.”

When people with autism or sensory processing dysfunction experience sensory overstimulation, they are unable to regulate the sensory inputs from their environment and their bodies perceive these inputs as threats.

While the road rage analogy may seem extreme, it is important to view these sensory meltdowns as physiological responses and not controllable behavioral reactions. You cannot expect logical, rational responses to sensory situations when your body is perceiving those situations as threatening.

The bottom line is that tantrums are behavioral, learned reactions to certain situations. If the tantrums become severe enough, behavior plans may need to be put in place in an effort to decrease the unwanted behaviors. On the other hand, autism meltdowns are the body’s response to sensory stimuli, when this stimuli is perceived as threatening or overwhelming. Keeping this in mind, the strategies for managing meltdowns are much different than those of managing temper tantrums.

What to do When an Autistic Child has a Tantrum

autistic tantrum child

Now that you understand the fundamental differences between temper tantrums and meltdowns, you’ll recognize that the strategies to address tantrums are rooted more in behavioral supports and skill-building.

There are a number of parent-friendly resources that target tantrum management strategies and the majority of them focus on a three-fold approach/

1) Recognizing the motivation or purpose of the tantrum behavior

Here are a few examples of motivation children might have:

  • to get attention
  • to get what he wants/needs
  • denial of want/need
  • delayed access to what he wants/needs

Once you identify WHY your child is tantruming, you can respond more appropriately.

Recognize your child’s needs in the moment, without giving into them.

For example: Bobby wanted to choose the TV show but his sister put on Sesame Street before he got to the remote to turn on Dora. Bobby is now on the floor kicking, yelling, and crying (tantrum). Bobby wanted to choose Dora as the TV show but didn’t get his way (purpose of behavior). The adult could calmly, concisely respond with “I see that you are [angry/disappointed/frustrated] because you didn’t get to choose your TV show. When you’re calm, we’ll talk about it (walk away)” (parental response).

When Bobby calms down, he can then be engaged in conversation about how to solve the TV show problem but he does not get his Dora TV show immediately.

2) Reinforce positive behavior

Catch your child when they ARE responding appropriately to small problems and praise them or reward them for great behavior! A hug, high-five, or “Way to go!” are all ways of proactively avoiding those tantrum outbursts by teaching your child that he has your attention for the times he’s successful too!

Calling attention to what he does right, in the moment, will also help him build on those successes and positively respond in the future! In addition, modeling appropriate behavior yourself or pointing out acceptable behaviors in others can help reinforce appropriate ways for your child to respond and behave.

3) Build the skills

We know that children who demonstrate temper tantrums frequently struggle with impulse control, problem-solving, delaying gratification, negotiating, communicating wishes and needs, knowing what’s appropriate in given situations, and self-soothing.

Look for opportunities to build on these skills with your child and help them to be successful. It is best to work on these skills outside of tantrum moments, however.

    Autism Meltdown Strategies for Children

    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, levels of relatedness, communication, and sensory processing profiles, it is impossible to have a one-solution-fits-all approach to managing meltdowns.

    The following are some tips and strategies that have helped other parents, but you will have to consider these in terms of your individual child’s needs.

    We’d all like to avoid meltdowns completely, but that’s not possible. Instead, some parents find it helpful to put strategies in place to minimize the stress and anxiety of daily life that may contribute to a meltdown. This is typically referred to as a sensory diet and can be beneficial in preventing and managing autism meltdowns.

    Some common ones that support regulation across the day:

    • Visual schedules
    • Social stories
    • Check off lists
    • Activity or task schedules
    • Routine sensory diet activities,for example, using a weighted blanket during sleep, engaging in deep pressure activities at certain times in the daily routine, etc.

    Some parents find it helpful to schedule “quiet time” for their child, in order to allow for the downtime proactively before the activity of the day gets to be too much. Building in a “surprise” or “question mark” to visual schedules helps to shape behavioral responses to unexpected changes in routines that are often stressful.

    Another key strategy is to get to know your child’s signs of distress - Does he put his hands over his ears? Bolt from the room? Say “Go now!” or “Leave!”, or do you notice an increase in his self-stimulatory behaviors (rocking, humming, hand flapping, self-injurious behavior)?

    These signs of distress can be indicators that your child is quickly becoming overstimulated and needs your help regulating before reaching the point of meltdown.

    Next, let’s look at some strategies that may be helpful if your child is already experiencing an autism meltdown. The first strategy is to seek out a quiet, safe space. This may mean leaving the place that is causing the overstimulation (mall, grocery store, etc). Leaving the place of overstimulation will automatically decrease the stimuli that was over-stimulating your child, which means additional calming tools will likely be more effective.

    Allowing your child a safe space to calm down will also mean changing the amount of sensory input they are exposed to. Keep yourself calm,help them become grounded by using appropriate eye contact, limit the verbal language you use, and offer deep touch pressure input to help your child calm down. Read more about Deep Touch Pressure on ourblog.

    calming child with autism

    In some instances, children on the autism spectrum experience extreme meltdowns due to high levels of over-stimulation. In these instances, your child might even engage in aggressive behaviors, such as screaming, kicking, or biting. Anger can be an outcome of over-stimulation, though the child’s intent is usually not to harm others, it is just that their level of tolerance has hit capacity. This can be very stressful for you as a parent, especially if occurring in a public place. In these instances, the most helpful thing to do is to find immediate ways to de-escalate the situation.

    Give your child the space they need, while also ensuring their safety and the safety of others around them. If you are able to safely move them away from the area of over-stimulation, this also can be helpful. Removing the audience when possible is also helpful, as the presence of others may only make the situation worse. In most instances, allowing space will help de-escalate the situation on its own. 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. For example, a fidget tool or small, weighted item or lap pad.

    It is important to note that the classroom can often be a place of over-stimulation for children with autism, due to the amount of stimuli occurring and the presence of other people. If a child becomes aggressive in the classroom setting, the strategies mentioned above can be implemented. As always, it is important to ensure the safety of the child and others above all else. Strategies such as turning off or dimming the lights and removing the audience might be especially helpful in a classroom setting.

    If you’re on the go, you’ll want to consider ways to reduce the distractions in your environment and support your child’s ability to regulate with portable strategies. If you’re lucky enough to have an identified “cozy corner” or sensory deprivation area in your home, then great!

    Portable Sensory Tool Kit for Meltdowns:

    Here are our top must-haves for a portable sensory tool kit to help with meltdowns on-the-go:

    1) Sunglasses

    Sunglasses can be great for light sensitivity. Whether the sun can be too bright or your child has to deal with the harsh light of fluorescent light bulbs.

    2) A Weighted Lap Pad

    Like we mentioned above about deep touch pressure being a way to calm your child, a weighted lap pad can help with this as well. If you get onelike we offer at Harkla, it can also help with the soft minky fabric that can second as a fidget toy.

    3) Noise-canceling headphones

    Often times, noises can become too much. Having a good pair of over the ear noise-canceling headphones to block out auditory stimuli or distraction can really help.

    4) A Wide-brimmed hat or cap

    These can be helpful in allowing your child some distance from social interactions and also good for blocking any remaining light.

    5) 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!

    6) Unscented hand wipes

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

    7) Preferred scented hand lotion

    These can be helpful in combating offensive odors in the environment and instead offering a calming, preferred smell.

    8) A Fidget Toy

    Something repetitive, simple, and preferred can have a calming effect. Check out our list of the best fidget toys to get.

    As highlighted before, each child’s sensory needs will be different and the tools that are helpful for one child might not be helpful for another. The strategies above can be used across age groups, from toddlers to adults, depending on the individual’s unique needs. An occupational therapist can work with each individual to help assess and determine which sensory tools may be the most beneficial to aid in regulation.

      Tantrums, Meltdowns, and Takeaways

      Both tantrums and meltdowns are manifestations of difficulty with emotional regulation skills and if they persist beyond the stages of typical development, can be associated with other diagnoses like ADHD, autism, sensory processing dysfunction, learning disabilities, depression, and anxiety.

      While tantrums are behavioral in nature, meltdowns have a sensory, physiological basis that warrant different management strategies. While neither are fun outbursts to experience, focus part of your energy on proactively supporting your child’s emotional regulation.

      In the moments of tantrum or meltdown, use the guidelines we’ve outlined above to find what works for your child and please share with Harkla what management strategies work for you!


       

      About the Author

      Alescia Ford-Lanza

      Alescia Ford-Lanza MS OTR/L, ATP is an Occupational Therapist and Assistive Technology Practitioner with over 15 years of pediatric experience. She specializes in educationally-relevant interventions with a focus on sensory integration and assistive technology supports to learning. Alescia strives to help children by fostering a love of learning and supports families with her parent-friendly, informative blog posts. Alescia founded Adapt & Learn, LLC on the mission that children of all abilities can play, learn, adapt, and develop with the right therapeutic, family, and educational supports. You can get more information on Alescia and her practice at www.adaptandlearn.com.

       

      Resources

      "Autistic Meltdown or Temper Tantrum? by Judy Endow, MSW." Ollibean. N.p., 10 Nov. 2016. Web. 25 May 2017.

      "26 Sensory Integration Tools for Meltdown Management - Friendship Circle - Special Needs Blog." Friendship Circle -- Special Needs Blog. N.p., 18 Nov. 2015. Web. 25 May 2017.

      Bennett, David D. "Decreasing Tantrum/meltdown Behaviors of School Children with High Functioning Autism through Parent Training." Social Science. N.p., 04 Feb. 2014. Web. 25 May 2017.

      Caroline Miller. "Why Do Kids Have Tantrums and Meltdowns?" Child Mind Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 May 2017.

      Morin, Amanda. "The Difference Between Tantrums and Sensory Meltdowns."Understood.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 May 2017.

      "Why Toddlers Throw Temper Tantrums." Parenting. N.p., 17 Feb. 2015. Web. 25 May 2017.


      17 Responses

      Nicole
      Nicole

      March 19, 2019

      Thank you, everyone, for your feedback. We are so glad to hear that this article on tantrums and meltdowns has been helpful for you!

      Nicole

      Nicole
      Nicole

      March 19, 2019

      Hey Devin,

      I am so sorry to hear that your son has meltdowns and you’re unable to calm him. I really hope that this article will help you in some way, and if not, that you are able to find the help you need. Perhaps from therapists or his pediatrician.

      Thank you for sharing with us,
      Nicole
      Harkla

      Devin
      Devin

      February 11, 2019

      I have a year old diagnosed with a rare brain disorder called frontal ethmodial encephocele with hydrocephalus. And over the years I’ve experienced an array of tantrums and meltdowns. Both aggressive and self injurious to himself and me, my concern with my son is the level of aggressive behavior when he tantrums. He never seems to calm down, his meltdowns and or tantrums can sometime last 15_30 mins and counting. With all precautions taken he still elevates with anger, these styles of tantrums only happen with me not Dad. I need help I notice all warning signs but still he exceeds with no calming

      Trina
      Trina

      February 04, 2019

      I have a 4 year old daughter who is an only child. She got kicked out of head start because she had what I call a fit because the teacher told her she couldn’t finger pant. They say she threw the finger paint spilling it. She scratched and pulled the hair of 2 female teachers and tried to bite 1. She has not been diagnosed but now is in the process of getting tested. It is a long process. She gets like this mainly when we are out in public and it’s hard when others don’t understand and judge or comment as if I can’t hear them……

      Pam Smith
      Pam Smith

      January 28, 2019

      I am a caregiver of a 26 yr old autistic young man, my problem is his father doesn’t tell him no if he doesn’t get his way he attacks the caregivers or he breaks something. So when he gets what he want he always says sorry for his outburst. He breaks his portable DVD player and if he doesn’t get another one he has an outburst so his dad bought quite a few for backup. There are no consequences for his action and he is on the computer from 5:30am to 6pm.

      Kelly Cowin
      Kelly Cowin

      December 11, 2018

      Thank you my daughter is asd, adhd, Tourette’s and has a generalised anxiety disorder. I’ve had mainstream school (waiting for move to specialist school) say she’s having temper tantrums not melt downs, I’ve been in during one an it was definitely a melt down but seen her have a tantrum so I want to know how to handle them! I have two younger boys 5 and 7 never act like her when angry and upset so what that says to me is the diagnosis my daughter has impacts on her tantrums and I need more help to manage them and understand this page has been fab! I’ve felt anxious and down and feel awful for feeling that way over my child who I love so much this pace given me a smidge of hope x

      Ruth
      Ruth

      December 03, 2018

      What a wonderful article. The sensory overload traffic jam…. wow that really helps me understand what is happening in his mind and why the meltdown is so intense.
      It is so hard to know how to help as my assistance seems to add to his sensory overload.. and despite my best efforts my frustration to the build up of the meltdown adds to it too.
      (My son is 11 and more often than not he is aware of his meltdown but can’t help himself due to his meltdown, and we seem to realise too late what is going on!) It is so painful to watch. This article will help me respond sooner and more effective and will hopefully have a positive effect on our relationship.
      Thank you so much for explaining it in this way!

      Kate
      Kate

      November 16, 2018

      Thank you so much for the ideas. Sometimes all a parent needs is a few to good tips and a little bit of understanding. This helped me so much. Now I know how to be prepared for the next Doctor’s appointment for my special kiddo.

      GENESIS JIMENEZ
      GENESIS JIMENEZ

      October 02, 2018

      THANK YOU FOR THIS I ALSO APPRECIATE THE COMMENTS IT LETS ME KNOW I AM NOT ALONE IN THIS. EVEN FAMILY MEMBERS DONT UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU AND YOUR CHILD IS GOING THROUGH. GOD BLESS.

      raffey
      raffey

      August 01, 2018

      THANK YOU.
      I HAVE BEEN STRUGGLING WITH MY SPECIAL BOY’S OUTBURSTS AND HAVE STRUGGLED TO CONTROL THEM. WE CALL IT “APEMODE.” HE GOES ABSOLUTELY INSANE AND HAS DESTROYED TWO OF OUR TELEVISIONS AND IS ABUSIVE TOWARDS MY HUSBAND AND MYSELF BUT AFTERWARDS HE REGRETS HIS ACTIONS. MY CHILD IS A BIT OLDER AND HIS 25TH BIRTHDAY IS COMING UP SO I’M PLANNING TO BUY HIM A WEIGHTED BLANKET, BUT I WILL BE ADDING WEIGHTED PLATES TO HE CANNOT LIFT IT UP. ANY OTHER IDEAS ON HOW I COULD CONTROL HIS INSANE OUTBURSTS?

      London
      London

      August 01, 2018

      Thank you so much for this simple. but very helpful, article.

      My eight year old was diagnosed with autism six years ago, and has benefited greatly from his therapists and the tools they have given our entire family (many of which are covered in the article). He is highly functioning, with math/reading skills a few grades about his current grade level, but his meltdowns can still be formidable. I agree wholeheartedly with the other commentators that a pro-activity and and calmness are keys to successful diffusion.

      Thank you again, and may you all have peace and happy kiddos!

      rudo
      rudo

      July 02, 2018

      Thank you for the advice, really needed it.

      Nicole
      Nicole

      June 07, 2018

      Hey Steven,

      The strategies you use to help prevent meltdowns should be based on the individual, taking the specific needs of the child into consideration. If your child can’t have a crunchy snack then maybe another strategy will work, like using a different snack (ex. an applesauce or yogurt pouch) or maybe an oral sensory tool will help.

      Thanks for your comment!
      Nicole
      Harkla Happiness Ninja

      steven kemper
      steven kemper

      June 06, 2018

      what if he/she can not have a crunchy snack? just sayin’

      Heather Gilbert
      Heather Gilbert

      May 24, 2018

      As a mom of a 13 yes old autistic young man, we all can identify the signs before a meltdown occurs. It could be days, or even weeks before he " blows," but we are all on “operation eggshell alert.” It’s tough and frustrating!
      When the meltdown happens, it is usually something so minor that just happens to be the final straw for him. In the school setting, I realize everyone wants to help, but I cannot stress enough, only one person at a time can address him. No one of the neurotypical nature likes six – eight people giving instructions or even words of encouragement. We all need personal space. I need my own bubble! But too much talk for a child in sensory overload crisis. This method of approach can not be stressed enough. Have additional staff for backup, and clear the area of all other students and keep away other teachers who have nothing to do with your child but simply want to nose. Been there done that. One adult, the preferred adult should be giving the options and praising the small directives the child meets. All in the teaching profession should have autism training.
      Everyone, right down to our Administration and school board. Just because your neighbor’s cousin has a child who is autistic and they wear headphones, does not master make. Eventually, we will all be affected closely by someone with autism.

      Jeanne-Catherine
      Jeanne-Catherine

      May 15, 2018

      The sole thing I have noticed is that calm parents (or caregivers) are a prime buffer for the autistic child. When I noticed a meltdown and asked the child if she were alright, the parent behaved very defensively, which seemed to prolong the outburst. On a different occasion, when I observed a meltdown in a known autistic child, the calm reaction of the parent made the entire room feel more at ease, which, in turn, seemed to help the child decompress more easily and rapidly.

      LARRY E. PUTU
      LARRY E. PUTU

      March 04, 2018

      Great resource. Thanks

      Leave a comment

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