Unlike typical temper tantrums, autism challenging behaviors (also referred to as meltdowns) aren’t “naughty” behavior. They are your child’s way of communicating discomfort and overwhelm. But that doesn’t mean dealing with them isn’t challenging.
To better know how to deal with meltdowns in children with autism, it’s essential to understand what causes them and how to spot when challenging behaviors may happen.
Causes of Autism Challenging Behaviors or Meltdowns
While what causes challenging behaviors in children with autism varies from one wonderfully unique child to the next, you may be able to narrow down what triggers your individual child. Here are some of the most common causes of autistic meltdowns:
Children with autism often have sensory differences compared to neurotypical children. Some may have overly-sensitive senses, while others may be under-sensitive in certain areas. Or, perhaps they have a little of both. Sensory overload can lead to autism meltdowns when there is too much stimulation for an individual to handle.
For example, if your child with autism is extremely sensitive to sound, they may become over-stimulated in a loud, noisy place leading to panic, overwhelm, and an autistic meltdown.
Change in routine
Sticking to a predictable, structured routine is typically very important to children with autism. But sometimes, the routine has to go out the window unexpectedly. And that can very easily lead to challenging behavior.
Many children with autism find it challenging to express their overwhelming and distressing feelings to caregivers. Sometimes they have trouble understanding their own feelings of discomfort. So when children with autism become overwhelmed and anxious, their lack of innate self-calming abilities often leads to a buildup of emotions. And that leads to autism meltdowns.
When children with autism get way too much information thrown at them at once, they can get confused or overwhelmed. If you are giving your child with autism instructions or if someone is speaking to them in a language difficult to understand, they can become stressed and anxious, leading to an autistic meltdown.
Recognizing Challenging Behaviors and Meltdowns in Children with Autism
To reduce the occurrence of autistic meltdowns, note what events, places, activities, and the surrounding where meltdowns typically occur with your child. When you arm yourself with that knowledge, you can do your best to try to avoid them.
Get to know your child’s “rumble stage,” which includes warning signs of distress that your child may be overwhelmed and anxious, eventually leading to challenging behaviors. Some of these warning signs may include:
- Repetitive questioning for reassurance
- Becoming very still
- Stimming (repetitive or unusual noises and movements)
While it may be impossible to avoid all meltdowns, if you recognize the warning signs and what triggers meltdowns in your child with autism, you’ll be equipped to avoid them or handle them calmly.
If you are unable to avoid challenging behaviors in your child, it may include some of the following characteristics:
- Hand flapping
- Inability to communicate
- Bolting away
- Attacking others
- Screaming loudly
- Breaking things
While autistic meltdowns may look like a child having a temper tantrum, they are much different. Unlike a neurotypical child doing any of the above, children with autism don’t have meltdowns with intention or purpose. Because their brains are wired differently, they are typically unaware of self-control, and their behaviors are unintentional.
How to Handle Autism Meltdowns
When considering how to deal with meltdowns in children with autism, it’s crucial to remind yourself your child isn’t having a meltdown to get attention or get their way. They aren’t “naughty.” They are trying to communicate to you that they feel overwhelmed and distressed. You may want to explain this to your family members and the families of your child’s peers.
Tips for how to deal with autism meltdowns and challenging behaviors:
- Move to a quiet, safe space.
If possible, try to move away from the stimulation that led to the meltdown. If you are in a public area, you may have to plan for where you may go if challenging behaviors happen. If you are in a situation where you have control over loud noises and bright lights, do your best to eliminate them to create a calm environment.
It is also a good idea to pack an autism meltdown survival kit for possible public meltdown situations. Include soothing items your child likes to use to feel safe and cope with feeling overstimulated. These could include noise-canceling headphones, fidget toys, or a weighted blanket or lap pad.
- Give them time
When children with autism feel anxious, overwhelmed, and distressed enough to cause challenging behaviors, that means their nervous system is firing on all cylinders, doing what it can to keep them safe. One of the best things you can do for a child having an autism meltdown is to be patient. It will take more time than you may anticipate for them to calm down their emotions and nervous system.
And if your child doesn’t respond to you right away during their meltdown, don’t take it personally. They’ll respond when they are ready.
- Focus on your child
Challenging behaviors can undoubtedly get loud and attract unwanted attention from onlookers. You may hear judgmental comments and see wide-eyed dismay on the faces of others.
But do your best to forget about what they think and focus on your child. Help your son or daughter feel safe, loved, and supported, and before you know it, the meltdown will be over.
- Teach coping strategies
When thinking about how to deal with challenging behaviors in children with autism, prevention is your best bet. Once your child is in a rested state, not during their meltdown, work on helping them with their emotional regulation skills.
Try practicing deep breathing or restful mind techniques and calming strategies involving movements such as yoga or nature walks. While these things may take some time for your child to master, they can help before and during challenging behaviors.
Our ABA Therapy Can Help You and Your Child With Autism Deal With Challenging Behaviors
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is one of the most proven effective treatment approaches to helping children with autism achieve their full potential. Board Certified Behavioral Analysts like ours at The Autism Therapy Group work with you and your child using a personalized treatment plan to overcome difficulties in:
- Social skills
- Motor skills
- Learning and academic skills
- Play skills
ABA therapy and early intervention in your child’s life is an excellent way to better understand your child’s autism behavior triggers and how you both can learn how to deal with them at home and in public.
Through ABA therapy, your child can build the emotional self-management skills they need to help minimize the chances of challenging behaviors. What your child learns through their personalized treatment plan can also aid in their ability to effectively communicate their needs and wants, which will, in turn, lead to fewer meltdowns too.
If you are in the Chicago area and looking for help dealing with and avoiding as many autism meltdowns as you can, reach out to us. Our team of high-quality autism experts is here and ready to walk you and your child through a customized treatment plan that can help.