What to do before, during, and after a meltdown?
I am often asked by parents how to help their child through a meltdown. I don’t often dig too deeply into matters that involve “coaching” someone through Autism signs and symptoms. The reason? That’s a post for another day. Here, in this space (this blog), however, I will open myself up more to these type of shares. And though this isn’t something that most of you require of me, I know that it’s something that a lot of you want to see more of from me.
So, strap in, get your coffee and a snack…this will be a long one.
Prior to meltdown prevention and/or management:
A few meltdowns here and there are unpleasant and scary but if your child is having a lot in a short amount of time or really severe ones, I suggest you take a pause from anything that your child is doing that is considered “extra” for your child and your family. This could be therapy or any extra-curricular activities with the school. Put those on hold for a week or two (or more). Sometimes, an improvement is made here because your child might be experiencing burnout or overwhelm. This break can bring them back to their center, but also serves as an opportunity for you to look for other triggers/causes…starting with medical.
I know for myself and my boys, we often have difficulty with communication and cannot always relay what type of pain or discomfort we are feeling. It is most definitely a chore to assess our children medically for any underlying conditions we do not know about but it’s necessary in my opinion.
Keep a behavior log. Document any changes in your child’s mood and behavior. Chart when they take any meds. Note any behaviors that may occur afterwards and how your child was prior to the medication. Keep track of all the things you and your child do throughout the day. How is their mood and behavior before, during, and after you finish an activity? Chart their food. How do they feel before, during, and after they eat?
You are writing everything down in this log. From the weather to the lighting in your home. Does your child appear more relaxed in low lighting? We have led lighting and in yellow blue red and orange. Those colors are more soothing to our eyes. We also have white light, they are led and not as bright. This helps as well. Check to see how well they do with light. See how well they can actually see visually. If your child has not yet had an eye exam, it might be time. There are developmental optometrists out there that can conduct special exams, they are hard to find and you might have to travel, but this too, is worth it. Look for GI issues. Check for seizure activity (this is common in Autistic individuals). Sometimes, doctors will look at you like you have lost your mind. Pay them no mind, let them know the communication issues your child has, and that these tests/assessments are necessary to find any underlying causes.
How is their sleep? Sleep is incredibly important and so many within this population have poor sleep. A lot of times, lack of sleep is the result of something lying beneath the surface.
Told you, this is a lot. And I am just getting started. It is a LONG process. But like I said, it’s necessary.
I hope you remember that during this time, you are taking a break. All of you. During this time you are just observing, learning, documenting, researching, and PLAYING. I LOVE play because it shows that you are engaged with them on their level and in their world. They begin to trust you more. Trust me, they really do.
This log you keep is you identifying all triggers, new and old. Doing so will help you to create an environment that is more accommodating to his needs. Also, it helps you to work on specific areas.
My meltdowns and that of my boys have decreased dramatically because we have identified triggers and any underlying causes that may bring a meltdown on.
Once it happens, it happens. And it is difficult to deal with, and scary for both parent and child. I know, we have been there so many times.
Public meltdowns. Do your best to guide your child to a safe space. This can be done more quickly if you are familiar with the space that you are in. Many people think they are familiar with a place they frequent often until they have to do what I ask of them in this next section, then they draw blanks. And that’s okay. I once didn’t know this stuff either.
So, visit any and all places that you often visit as a family (or want to visit as a family), alone. This is easier for you to make note of any areas within this public space that are good for you to retreat to should you start to see a meltdown come on. A lot of times we can tell, and there are times when we cannot. Knowing where you can “escape,” helps. So you might be familiar with your favorite department store, but do you know of all the areas you can go to keep your son safe and away from others? These would be areas tucked away from the crowd but not too boxed in. Somewhere where you can give your child the space they need but not let them out of your sight. You do this with places that you aren’t too familiar with either, if you are able. Sometimes, Hammy or myself, will do a quick walk-through of a space and jot down any areas that look ideal for us to go should a meltdown occur, then we head back to the car and help unload the kids…and go in. This isn’t ideal, but it’s better than nothing. Rule of thumb, the more time you have to research a location, the better.
While in public, if you are able to get to the safe space. You are better able to help your child through the meltdown. Lots of times you have to let them run its course, keep them safe in that space, and from harming themselves and others. This is incredibly challenging and taxing on your emotional and mental energy (and sometimes physical, if you absolutely have to hold them to keep them from hurting themselves).
Finding a safe space in your home is important as well, so make sure you have a few spots around your home that serve well for this purpose.
Okay, you’re wondering, what’s next? They are in their safe space, whether it’s at home or in public…what do you do next?
Behavior is communication. You know how you often hear this? It’s true. It will help if you look at the meltdown as a form of communication and not defiance. This will help you to see that your child is struggling. You are looking at the root of the meltdown not the meltdown itself.
Be empathetic. Listen and acknowledge their struggle. You are validating their experience. You will gently guide your child and give them the tools they need to make it through this. If I am able, I will sit down a safe distance from my child and I will listen. They don’t often use words in these instances, I listen to their screams. I listen to their hands…what are they doing with them? Are they flapping? Are they pounding into the ground? Are they just flying about? I listen to their body? Are they sitting up? Are they standing? Are they trying to run away? Everything they do has a purpose and a meaning. And over time, as you learn more about their triggers and behaviors (from your log) you will begin to know what they mean simply by what they do with their bodies.
Make them feel safe and loved. You aren’t talking your child out of a meltdown. You aren’t trying to calm them down. That’s often a waste of time. Your child isn’t hearing you. Stay as close to them as they will allow you to. Don’t scold or tell them they cannot leave any secluded space until they calm down. This makes your child feel as though they don’t deserve to be around people. Just stay as close as they will allow.
Do not punish your child. This isn’t the time for that. And it’s nonsensical. You’re punishing a child for big feelings they cannot contain, overwhelm, and sensory pain (a lot of the time meltdowns are triggered because our senses are overwhelmed by the environment that we are in). Allow them the space and freedom to let it out knowing you are there nearby to provide support.
Focus on your child, and nothing else. No one else. This is hard, especially in public, but ignore the distractions and focus on your child. He is the one that matters.
Keep a log (I recommend a different one than the mood/behavior log) that will keep track of any sensory items and toys your child gravitates towards and loves the most. Consider purchasing multiples of these items to keep in various places. Especially your car, smaller items in your purse or bag. These can include weighted items, headphones, sunglasses, fidgets, etc. During a meltdown, don’t force them on him, but have them available should they want them. These can be used prior to a meltdown occurring as they often help keep one at bay, but if they are already experiencing the meltdown, don’t offer or force these on him, just keep them nearby.
Now sometimes a meltdown can be so severe that you might have to hold him. If this is the case make sure you get some input from someone who is trained in holds.
When they are calm, this is when we teach them some coping strategies. We can work on emotional regulation. My kids love to be in nature, as do I. We take walks often among the trees. I hear yoga for kids is good too. We haven’t tried it yet, but we will. Teaching them coping strategies when they are not in a meltdown can help them when they do have one and even help stop one from occurring.
Do not wait until your child is mid-meltdown to want to work on and/or teach coping strategies. You are working on this every single day and while they are not in crisis.
When your child has started to relax you can start engaging with them again.
Speak in a calm soft voice. (I learned this one the hard way, definitely do not yell or sound angry).
Normally I speak to my children the way I speak with everyone else, but in these instances I slow my speech down because we (my boys and I) process things a bit slower when coming out of a meltdown. If your child is the same, don’t speak too much and when you do, say it slower…pause more between sentences.
This next bit of advice I read somewhere years ago and it just stuck with me.
Give your child some choices when the meltdown has passed. Offer some water. Maybe they would like to clean themselves up some. Give them options. Don’t talk about the meltdown. Definitely not now.
If the meltdown resulted in a room being trashed, make sure your child is completely out of the meltdown before they are tasked with cleaning the room. If you start to give instructions to pick up the room too soon, this might trigger another meltdown.
Reassure them that everything is okay. Your family is still the same, your life is still the same, your child is still loved, and everyone will be okay. Your child doesn’t want to feel as though they are the cause of distress in your family’s life. They don’t want to feel as though they are breaking up the family. Don’t make them feel that way, especially when you know that isn’t the case.
When the dust has settled, everything is cleaned up, and you have a moment to yourself. Make a note of the meltdown in your log (the mood/behavior one). What triggered it? What happened? Just anything you can think of.
Then take a break yourself.
I told y’all this was a long one, and I could have written a lot more. This is the result of years of doing the wrong things, years of doing the right things, and research and consultation with others on similar journeys. I hope that it helps you some.