Autism Question #1: What do you do when there’s an autistic meltdown?

What do you do when there’s an autistic meltdown? This is one of the most stressful times as a parent of an autistic child, and one of the biggest worries about school, outings and the wellbeing of autistic kids.

What’s an autistic meltdown?

What’s commonly called a meltdown is a period of dis-regulation. Children with both ASD and ADHD have under-developed emotional regulation for their age. It’s not a tantrum, like when toddlers are frustrated with life. Dis-regulation can occur for many reasons, but it’s nothing to do with ‘bad behaviour’. A ‘meltdown’ is when kids are completely overwhelmed and out of control.

An interesting study in 2023 interviewed 32 adults with autism about their lived experience of ‘meltdowns’. The common themes reinforced how distressing and painful experiences exhibited as meltdowns. The researchers identified six themes around the reasons for meltdowns including:

  • feeling overwhelmed: autistic people have process sensory information in different ways, and can easily become overstimulated by information, sensory, social or emotional inputs.
  • having extreme emotions: experiencing big emotions such as anger or frustration.
  • having cognitive confused: not comprehending the logic of things including thinking and memory challenges
  • losing self-control: feeling out of touch with themselves
  • finding a release for emotions: having internal feelings exploding out into external actions or self-harm

A ‘meltdown’ might look like screaming and crying. This might be accompanied by hitting out, self-harm behaviours, head banging or other physical acts. It may also look like a complete shutdown, going non-verbal and passively withdrawing from surroundings.

Another study from 2010 looked the stress and stigma of meltdowns in public places on children and parents. Especially if there are no outward signs of a disability and social expectations demand “good behaviour”. This study found that parents avoided outings for fear of being embarrassed. Families limited their outings, or didn’t take their children with them, and also stopped holiday travels.

First, don’t do this

Don’t talk at them. They can’t listen at this point.

From our Big Emotions post,

Using a hand model of the brain, if your fingers are in a fist covering over your thumb, the thumb is like the emotional brain. It’s important for survival, to feel courage, fear and prompt fight/flight responses. The fingers coming over the thumb are like the thinking part of the brain. It’s the last part to develop and is needed for attention, logic, and thinking.

Children with autism are often quick to ‘flip the lid’ or have the fingers (thinking brain) lift up. Then they go straight to the emotional brain. They lose the ability to listen, talk through things or use logic. They are responding on emotion and instinct takes over.

Big emotions and how Psychologists help autistic kids

So, don’t try to talk, lecture, or yell at them. It won’t have any impact apart from making the sensory overload even worse.

First, do this

Regulate. Following the advice from psychologists, kids need to be calm to be able to think and problem solve. So if there’s a meltdown, keep them safe and use regulation strategies to bring them back down to a calm state.

Following steps to calm, finding the best strategies for quick calming is important for co-regulation.

This might look like:

  • getting out of there and going to a quiet/dark space
  • going for a walk
  • hugs or other pressure-based physical sensory input
  • being physically active like kicking or punching a punching bag or cushion
  • getting a drink
  • listening to calming, quiet music
  • breathing exercises
  • distraction through another preferred activity

The end goal, really, is to find strategies that work, and to teach your child how to regulate themselves. For example, to be able to regulate their emotions at school themselves.

Steps to Calm: how to support regulation for autistic kids

Then, when they’re ready, talk

Once calm, if you need to talk about what happened and triggers, you can have a conversation.

Some kids will have slow processing so even once they appear calm they may not be ready to talk about things – even for a couple of days.

When having a conversation about big emotions, be aware that sometimes kids won’t remember or know what they were thinking or feeling. If it was so overwhelming an experience, they might not even remember to be able to talk about it. So, if you come up against lots of “I don’t know”, then this might be the case.

If kids are having a hard time using their words, try one of these strategies:

  • go for a walk and talk ‘alongside’ rather than face-to-face with eye contact
  • use a whiteboard or paper to draw pictures of what happened
  • write about it in words on paper or a whiteboard
  • use a toy or puppet to ask what happened and talk through the toy rather than directly to the child

Structuring a conversation

Show empathy, consider their point of view, and focus on empowering kids through problem solving. Here’s two conversation prompts to help.


P – is there a Problem

L – Let it go? if not, go to the next step

A – what are some possible Actions to solve the problem?

C – which action will I Choose?

E – Evaluate. Did it work for you?

4 step problem solving

  1. You seem … <insert emotion here>. (this helps to identify emotions and put a name on it, and show empathy by validating the child’s emotion).
  2. Tell me about what happened.
  3. What could we do about that? Can you use your flexible thinking to come up with some ideas? (this empowers the child to problem solve themselves)
  4. Which of those do you think would be best? Great. You go do that and tell me how it goes. Go you!

Next, watch for autistic meltdown triggers

Moving forwards, you want to find out what the common triggers are. Is it loud places? Bright lights? Frustrating situations? Transitions and changes to routine?

Using a planner for tracking, or a behaviour tracker, record when each meltdown occurs. Keep track of what happened just before (the triggers), and what helped resolve it or bring back calm.

You might decide to avoid situations where there are environmental or social triggers. Or put into place things that will reduce the impact of these triggers like noise cancelling headphones or scaffolds to reduce task-frustration. If you can’t avoid these situations, you might work with therapists on role play or other preparation or de-sensitisation for these situations.

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