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How to Respond to Autism Meltdowns

Advice for dealing with meltdowns in individuals with autism spectrum disorders, including low functioning autism and Asperger's syndrome.

Meltdowns in people with autism spectrum disorders are characterised by shouting, throwing things, screaming, name calling, and other inappropriate behaviours. They manifest as severe temper tantrums and can be nearly impossible to control. While more common in children, adults with autism spectrum disorders may also experience meltdowns.

Whether you are the mother, father, caretaker, or partner of an autistic individual, it is important to learn what you can do to lessen the severity of meltdowns.  Meltdowns are common in all forms of autism spectrum disorders.  Some of the advice may not work for those on the lower end of the autism spectrum.  

The following tips should help you understand, control, and cope with an autistic individual’s meltdown. 

1. Tell him/her firmly in one word that they are out of control. This word should be agreed upon and understood between the neurotypical and autistic individual.  This will avoid hostility or hurt feelings. It could be anything that holds meaning to the autistic individual, emotionally or conceptually.

2. Don't touch an autistic individual if they are melting down.  Your touch adds to their sensory overload and can farther aggravate the meltdown. Wait until he/she is calm before approaching.

3. Don't lecture him/her. If an autistic person begins to meltdown they will not be able to truly understand what you are saying. Higher brain functioning shuts off and understanding words and phrases becomes nearly impossible (this is why one word with strong meaning should be used to alert the autistic that they are losing control, not a whole sentence or abstract concept).

4. Leave the autistic individual alone. Let him/her have the last word. He/She will feel bad and apologize later. There is no need to tell them they are being rude or inappropriate. Let them say what they want to say, don't respond, and don't take it to heart. They can clarify when they are calm and can act appropriately.  Sometimes silence will help effectively fizzle out a meltdown.  Either way, talking through a meltdown will not improve the autistic's behaviour.

5. Let them run. Don't stop them from leaving the room, running around the block, or locking themselves in the bathroom. If you follow the steps above they will quickly calm down and return. Stopping them from leaving will make the meltdown worse. They can't understand you so why trap them? Neither of you will achieve anything by forcing the interaction.

6. Leave them alone when they reappear. They are most likely not ready to talk and are probably still upset. Forcing them to talk before they are ready will only throw them back into meltdown mode. Let them come to you when they are ready and do not push.

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Comments (2)
kathryn turner, Autistic/ADD/ADHD...no tools in my toolbox

I have been taking care of my blind mother 24/7 w/o a day off for 21/2 years. I came straight from a caretaking job of 2 years w/o time off. we are on S.S. mother is 90 and I am 60. I have recently had both cars break down. I have 2 sons and no other family. one son took 800.00 and did not fix cars or return money. other son had me sell my jewelry and he took one car and 400.00 and did not fix car or return car or money. I have Aspburgers/ADD/ADHD and was never diagnosed until 5 years ago.I have severe problems without the cars and money being ripped off. I love my mother who is blind, but cannot get through a day now...cooking and everything w/o crying, yelling and isolating.I do not leave the apt. anymore...do not have a support or help.I am afraid I am going to go to jail. I had a heart attack a few weeks ago...bad angina. I cannot take mood elevaters or tranks....thay make me aggressive. I cannot bear for my mother to go to a crummy lousey nursing home, and we do not have enough money to buy a car now, or even get help.I do not do well with schedules or asking for rides, even if we had freinds, we do not.I was never unhappy or depressed before, and even though I have problems and a poor quality life, I managed. I also have a high I.Q. and am an artist on ovation tv website, and have friends online...but now I cannot even do that.I am burnt out burnt up, broke, no car, no motivation, no ability to cope, no joy, no love,all I want to do is go live in a tent somewhere in the desert.I can't talk on the phone well......I am screwed. having a car was my lifeline. I am going to end up somewhere bad, huh?

Your advice about how to react to an autistic in meltdown is excellent. My son, who is now 31, is a high functioninf autistic. We were told when he was young that he was retarded and would never get any better only worse. For years we were shuffled back and forth between various child psychologists and psychiatrists, before we finally learned he was autistic. This explained his behavior perfectly. He has temper control problems but thay are less of a problem for him and my wife and me now that he is older. It took years for us to understand how to deal with his situation, however, with the information now available parents should be better able to cope with the autistic's meltdown. Most important in the whole process is for you not lose control along with the autistic. Simply give him room and allow him to regain his self control. I want to thank you for posting this important information. Autism and autistics are still not well understood by many people but the information you are providing will go a long way in helping with this situation.

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