What Do Signs of a Meltdown Look Like?

For a child with autism, a meltdown can look like a major temper tantrum, but the child’s needs run far deeper than those of a child throwing a tantrum. Meltdowns are far more complex than tantrums and can be more challenging to settle. The signs of a meltdown can also be part of an accurate diagnosis of autism, but parents must know how to spot them. Here is a breakdown of what a meltdown is and the common signs.

What Is a Meltdown?

Before looking at the signs of a meltdown, let’s first look at what a meltdown is. Meltdowns occur when someone is overwhelmed or overstimulated by outside stimuli. Both neurotypical and neurodiverse people can have meltdowns, but they are more common in people on the autism spectrum. 

A tantrum, on the other hand, is connected to a goal. A child might throw a tantrum because they want a particular toy or snack, and if you give it to them, the tantrum stops. Someone throwing a tantrum wants something, whereas someone having a meltdown is overwhelmed and overstimulated.

Common Signs of a Meltdown

So how can you identify an autistic meltdown? Here are some signs of a meltdown to watch for:

1. Signs of Distress

Before the full meltdown starts, the child will start showing signs of distress. They may have more stimming behaviors, or they may develop facial tics. Breathing rates may increase, and they might have feelings of paranoia. Self-harming behaviors may start, and they may begin to have poor dexterity and more challenges with verbal communication. Some children with autism have specific stims that occur only when they are about to have a meltdown.

2. Physical Signs

Once the meltdown starts, you may notice your child biting, kicking, throwing their hands, and stomping or jumping. No amount of correction from you will stop these behaviors. While these symptoms are distressing, remember that a meltdown is not a behavioral issue, it is a neurological issue, and discipline is not what your child needs.

3. Vocal Signs

Screaming, yelling, and crying are common during a meltdown. These can be quite intense and distressing for you and the child, but again, you must remember that they are normal.

4. Cool Down

After the meltdown has run its course, your child will start to cool down. They will begin to feel numb or empty, and the vocal and physical symptoms will settle down. Crying turns to whimpering, and the body becomes still.

5. Recovery

When the meltdown is over, you may notice your child exhibiting a sense of shame or guilt. Sometimes they will pretend like nothing happened, and sometimes they will feel relieved.

6. Does Not Stop Until It Runs Its Course

A key difference between a meltdown and a tantrum, according to Autism Parenting Magazine, is that a meltdown does not stop until it has run its course. You cannot placate your child by giving them what they seem to want or providing the comfort of a child. There is no reasoning with a child in a meltdown.

How to Handle Signs of a Meltdown

The best way to handle the signs of a meltdown is to recognize your child’s triggers and notice that one may be building up. This can help prevent some meltdowns by dealing with issues before they arise. ABA therapy can help give your child better communication skills, so they can communicate the triggers that are leading to sensory overwhelm.

If you suspect that a meltdown may be coming, work to redirect your child’s attention with an object or toy that they typically enjoy. Make sure there are not any physical discomfort issues, such as hunger or pain, that you can resolve. Try to limit sensory stimuli as much as you can by providing a sensory-safe place to go when a meltdown is brewing.

Even with the best therapy and parenting skills, you cannot stop all meltdowns. When one occurs, the most important thing you can do is work to keep your child safe. Calming devices can help lessen the time of the meltdown. These include fidget toys, noise-canceling headphones, weighted blankets, and similar sensory items. Take your child to a safe place where they are less likely to injure themselves or others and be close by, without touching your child, until they are ready for you. Do not try to reason with your child; do what you can to stay calm so you don’t react negatively to your child’s meltdown.

An autism toolkit can be a lifesaver in these situations. The toolkit will have sensory items, toys, and activities that you know help calm your child. When you notice signs of a meltdown starting, you can pull out the toolkit to help calm your child before a full-blown meltdown is underway.

Navigating life with a child who has autism requires careful planning and care. Thankfully, there are helpful tools that can assist you with the challenges autism brings. Through strategies like learning about autism, investing in ABA therapy, and building that autism toolkit, you can be prepared to handle a meltdown and keep your child as safe and comfortable as possible. Here at Opal Autism Centers, we have the tools to help.

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