Daniel is 8 and he hasn’t had a meltdown in probably 3 years. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t get frustrated–or loud–but he has it under control, and I can immediately redirect him. Daniel being verbal helps, though he wasn’t verbal until he was about 3.5 yrs old.

While Daniel is able to avoid having meltdowns, there are children out there who are no more autistic than Daniel who are still having meltdowns in their teens. It’s one thing if the child is so severe that they cannot speak and otherwise have extreme difficulty communicating–the frustration of trying to communicate and having your body refuse to cooperate is without question extremely frustrating. But there’s honestly no excuse for someone who is verbal to be having constant meltdowns (which isn’t to say that we won’t have our very, very bad days).

There are several things we did with Daniel that resulted in him no longer having meltdowns. One thing we would do was hold him until he calmed down. We would also repeat his name and try to sooth him by encouraging him to tell us what happened. Afterwards, we would talk to him about what frustrated him and ask him if his reaction seemed reasonable given the situation. He always agreed it wasn’t.

We also told him that if he felt a meltdown coming on, to squeeze our hands or to count down with us from ten. We introduced these at the same time that he was agreeing the causes of meltdowns were unreasonable.

The bottom line is that we always held Daniel accountable for everything he did, even during a meltdown. We made him apologize to anyone he may have harmed during the meltdown and clean up any mess he made. We helped him communicate rather then have a meltdown, and helped him to reason through his frustrations. Autistics can be reasoned with–perhaps more so than non-autistics–and so if you’re using reason with them, their meltdowns should becoming less and less intense and coming on less and less often.

What cannot be done is to accidentally reward them for having meltdowns. Never give in. Never avoid what may lead to a meltdown, as they will learn that having a meltdown will get them out of uncomfortable situations (or simply situations they don’t want to be in). Make them talk about it (if they’re verbal, of course). While it’s true that once you’ve crossed over a certain point, the person is no longer entirely in control of what they’re doing, since the world has become extremely chaotic and confusing, the fact of the matter is that autistics are in fact in control of themselves up to the moment they have their meltdown. If that weren’t the case, it wouldn’t be possible to reduce the number and intensity of meltdowns through reason and various calming techniques.

It has been my experience that older children especially will actually use meltdowns to get themselves out of things they don’t want to do–such as go to the store, stay home, apologize to someone, go to class, or even be around someone in particular. If you give in because they have a meltdown, that will tell them that meltdowns will get them what they want. While I do not think you should punish a child who has had a meltdown the same way you would punish a child who threw a temper tantrum (since they are hardly the same thing), there should still be consequences for the meltdown, as already mentioned–apologies, cleaning up the mess, etc.

Too often we find ourselves tempted to offer the “autism excuse” to justify ongoing meltdowns or other behaviors. Somehow excuses are only offered for the most problematic behaviors that we can in fact learn to control, while we are held responsible for “minor” things that are in fact more emblematic of autism and less under our control. When that happens, we mostly end up being pitied rather than taken seriously. We aren’t given accommodations for reasonable things and given excuses for the most outrageous ones. This benefits no one–especially not us.

7 thoughts on “Meltdowns

  1. In our family, teen meltdowns seem mostly to result from frustration–either technological ( the computer is not doing what i want or has shut off prematurely while i was “in the zone”)or fine motor (i cant for the life of me get this pickle jar open!). We also have occasional grunts, short screams or growls that express disappointment ( it is my time to go on the computer but look Daddy is sick and has the insolence to be napping now!).
    On the verbal/nonverbal question , my son has been absolutely verbally proficient (though delayed in development) in the past, and still is, in his writing, capable of clear and often humorous communication, but he has recently been going through a more or less (orally) silent period. I am very interested in your comment about not being able to get the words out.
    Meltdowns have been much less frequent, as compared to, say, a year ago, in our house as a result (i believe) of proper medication and vigilance on our part. But not completely under control, as you might hope would happen with age and wisdom.
    Your insights,as always, are so interesting and valuable!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, computer frustration and opening bottles still result in what I might term a “flash meltdown.” And I don’t mean in Daniel. πŸ˜‰

      With Daniel, there are the grunts and screeches. Still, far better than a meltdown any day. We’re working on the screeching. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The computer (or the phone) … absolutely – when they don’t do what they are supposed to do, or do something unexpected or that they are not supposed to do. Either the startling, the loss of control, or the inability to use it how and when I want (which instantly becomes NEED). That can definitely result in a flash meltdown. Windows is by far the most egregious of offenders.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: An Intense World

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