Meltdowns in Autism…Not tantrums

September 18, 2014

It was a tough day for Zak at school yesterday.  On his daily communication sheet sent home from school, we were told about several incidents where Zak melted down in the classroom.  Self regulation is another area Zak (and most children with Autism) struggles with.  We have worked very hard in this area providing Zak & the school staff with tools to help him be successful.

As part of his IEP and is a topic that routinely discussed with the school staff

  • Zak has noise cancelling headphones available at school
  • The 5 point scale has been implemented for Zak to regularly rate where he is at emotionally.  When he gets to a 3 or higher, intervention is done to see what can be done to help move him down the scale (move to a beanbag in the room, take a break outside the room, swing on the playground)

Zak also works on self regulation strategy skills through his social skills groups.  His group is taught through the “Social Thinking” approach created by Michelle Garcia Winner.  I spoke of this in the earlier blog

We also have worked very hard with the school and the teachers that work with Zak, to teach them skills on how to try and prevent meltdowns.  One of the critical components of that is finding the antecedent (what triggered the meltdown).  It is critical to recall what was happening just prior to the meltdown with regard to environment & document it to look for patterns.  The goal is to reduce & prevent meltdowns and the one way to do that is trying to determine why they are occurring.  I sometimes think you need a “degree” in detective work because it is not easy.

Another point that is critical to mention & help your child’s team understand is that meltdowns occur because the child is probably over stimulated not because they are acting out.  There is a big difference between meltdowns & tantrums.  Here are a few examples:

  • During a meltdown, a child with autism does not look or care, if those around him are reacting to his behavior. A child having a tantrum will look to see if their behavior is getting a reaction.
  • A child in the middle of a meltdown does not consider their own or others safety. A child in the middle of a tantrum takes care to be sure they won’t get hurt.
  • A child in the meltdown mode has no interest or involvement in the social situation. A child who throws a tantrum will use the social situation to their benefit.
  • A melt down gives the feeling that no one is in control. A tantrum will give you the feeling that the child is in control, although they are pretending they are not.

I found a great blog on meltdowns.  An occupational therapist does a wonderful job explaining why kiddos with Autism have meltdowns, the sensory aspect to meltdowns & how to help and respond during a meltdown situation.  I strongly encourage you to read

Even with all this focus on self regulation, Zak still has meltdowns in school.  It is heartbreaking as a parent to know your child gets so upset he loses control.  I constantly think about what the teachers & kids in his class are thinking when they see him meltdown and how that impacts him socially.  I feel like we fail in helping him since we cannot always see & prevent a meltdown from happening.  We continue to help Zak learn skills to self regulate.  I am always speaking to therapists, teachers, my Autism community and searching the internet for strategies to try.  Don’t give up the fight in helping your child be the best they can be!

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