Calming Strategies For Autism Meltdowns

One of the stressful aspects of autism parenting or autism caregiving is having to face sensory meltdowns often. People often think that a sensory meltdown and temper tantrumOpens in a new tab. are synonymous. The fact of the matter is, they are not. A sensory meltdown is not the same thing as a temper tantrum.  

What Is The Difference Between A Temper Tantrum And A Sensory Meltdown? 

You are at the grocery store and you encounter a kindergartener screaming and yelling on the floor while the parent understandably appears frazzled. If you have a child on the autism spectrum, you sympathize and empathize with that parent because you may be thinking that the child could be having a sensory meltdown. Or perhaps the kindergartener has no neurological issues and is just having a temper tantrum.  

A temper tantrum is a manipulative tactic that the child does in order to get a certain response out of something whether it is positive or negative. Let’s just say that the child you saw at the supermarket was having a temper tantrum because he wanted his mother to get him candy and she refused. Therefore, he didn’t like how she refused to get him what he wanted and started screaming and yelling while laying on the floor and kicking his legs. The best thing to do in a case with a temper tantrum is to ignore it because the child wants to get a response in an inappropriate way.  

However, if the child has a neurological condition such as autism and is kicking and screaming on the floor due to the fact that he cannot handle that the lights in the supermarket are too bright, or the smells are too strong – that is a sensory meltdown. There is no manipulation tactic that comes with a sensory meltdown, and that is not a result of any type of misbehaving. Sensory meltdowns happen due to the child not being able to react well to stimuli or an environmental factor that is overwhelming. It is also beyond the control of the child.  

Sensory meltdowns also are not necessarily tied only to sensory overload to the child. A meltdown can result from a child with autism having to face a change in his or her routine without being warned about ahead of time. Children and adults on the spectrum must be able to know what will happen on a given day to process it. And if there are any changes in their schedules, they will need to know ahead of time to process that as well. This way, they can prepare themselves for the change in routine and handle it better than they would if the change in their schedule was abrupt without any warning.  

Both verbal and non-verbal children on the autism spectrum will have sensory meltdowns. However, the good news is that there are calming techniques to manage meltdowns and to help the child recover from one quickly as well. Let’s now go over the 6 calming meltdown strategies for parents and caregivers to utilize: 

1. Give The Child Activities That Involve Heavy Lifting 

When the child is having a meltdown, one of the things that will calm the child is by giving your child a heavy work activityOpens in a new tab.. This involves heavy lifting and heavy carrying. The extra weight helps calm the child’s nerves which will help fizzle out the meltdown. This can be done in many ways. There are heavy work therapy balls that the child can hold once a meltdown has started which will get the child to become calmer.  

If there are no therapy balls that you can use, you can also get a backpack for the child and to put heavy objects inside of it such as books that add a lot of weight. Then the child can carry the backpack around which is a good heavy work activity. In fact, you can have a backpack prepared just for this purpose.  

Go and add old heavy books that you don’t plan on reading as well as other heavy objects into the backpack and keep it around in case your child begins to have a meltdown. It will be hard to carry around if you go run errands with your child but it is a great took to use at home.  

Other activities that can be done to solve this issue is by having the child push a heavy sofa to another corner of the room. Pushing heavy objects will have the same effect as carrying them which is to get the child to calm down.  

2. Sensory Activities That Children Like 

If the stages of a meltdown are beginning and it has not gone into a full spiral yet, the best thing you can do is give your child sensory activities to help soothe them. Activities that involve water, kinetic sand, or even sensory jars are ideal to have around if a meltdown is going to happen or worsen if it starts.  

These sensory activities will be enough to distract the child from having a full-blown meltdown. An idea for a sensory activity is a letter sensory binOpens in a new tab. that a parent of a child with autism had developed. it is important to know which activities the child likes during a calm time. The last thing you will want to do is give your child a sensory activity that he or she does not like in the middle of a meltdown which will only cause it to worsen.  

3. Weighted Blankets Are A Must-Have 

The best thing to have around in order to help a child with autism recover from a sensory meltdown is a weighted blanket. Children are calmed by having the weighted blankets on them because it applies pressure which is soothing. Another great thing about weighted blanketsOpens in a new tab. is that they help improve the self-awareness of the child, as as a result of that alone will help calm the meltdown.  

If you are traveling with the autistic child where meltdowns are likely due to being somewhere unfamiliar that has unpredictable schedules, bringing a weighted blanketOpens in a new tab. is highly important to do.  Additionally, during the summer when there is less predictability with schedules and routines, a weighted blanket will be of great use for this reason as well. 

if you have not yet invested in a weighted blanketOpens in a new tab., you can always massage the child because the pressure, in general, is very soothing for him or for her.  

4. Get Noise-Cancelling Headphones 

If the cause for a sensory meltdown from the child is due to loud noises, the easiest thing to do in order to prevent the meltdown from escalating is by putting noise-canceling headphonesOpens in a new tab. on the child. This can help lessen the sensory overload by loud noises and will help the child recover quickly from a meltdown that was brought on by a loud noise.  

For instance, if you are cooking burgers in the oven and if they end up burning, the smoke alarm could go off. The sound of a smoke alarm going off is bothersome to individuals that do not have any neurological conditions at all. Imagine how much worse it is for someone with autism. This means when it is cooking time, have the noise-canceling headphones on hand just in case the smoke alarm would go off.  

5. Watch What The Child Is Eating 

This tip will not necessarily help a child recover from a meltdown but it can help reduce the severity of future sensory meltdowns. Children that are eating too many processed foods such as foods that are high in sugar, artificial coloring, additives, and preservatives. Too many refined carbs can increase the levels of anxiety in children with autism which will cause them to have more severe sensory meltdowns.  

Many parents resort to putting their kids on the autism spectrum gluten-free dietsOpens in a new tab., or reducing the sugar and carb intake is a help as well.  

6. If All Tips Fail, Take Your Child To The Doctor 

If you have tried each of these tips to help calm the child down after having a meltdown or to reduce the severity of it and nothing is helping – then you will need to have the child examined by the medical professional. The sensory meltdowns may be in some situations the result of a medical condition that is underlying that needs to be ruled out, especially if the child is non-verbal. 

If there is an underlying condition found that results in medical treatment, then the tips mentioned above for helping children cover from sensory meltdownsOpens in a new tab. are more likely to work. Sometimes it can be a result of allergiesOpens in a new tab. as well which must be ruled out. If an allergy is found then the trigger must be avoided as much as possible.  

While a meltdown is happening, it is highly important for parents to remain as calm as they can. If they become anxious and raise their voices, it will only worsen the meltdown. It is also important to remove anything that can be potentially dangerous for the child in the room where he or she is having the meltdown. 

For more information, check out Dr Tracey Marks’ (Psychiatrist) video below:


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