Helping Your Child Avoid Autistic Meltdown
A disclaimer before I give you any tips on the matter at hand: Emmy* has always been good at self-regulating. Even at two years old, she would quietly remove herself from downstairs and go to her room to look at books alone if it was too noisy (a baby sister can be loud), too smelly (broiled salmon is a heavy smell in a small house), or just generally needed a break. But what I want to point out here, without sounding too self-congratulatory, is that I observed, and I allowed these self-regulatory behaviors to happen. As I became more cognizant of her regulatory needs, I also scaffolded responsibility with Emmy, and try very hard to remain calm.
Let’s talk about that first part: Observing. Chewing your nails, twirling with your hair, and deep breathing are all things people do to self-soothe. Some are unconscious, some are clearly preferable to others. Your kid is probably already doing something that helps with sensory regulation, it might just need some tweaking. But the first step is to notice what is going on.
Let me tell you about Emmy’s loveys as an example. Sometimes the simplest things can go unnoticed because they become so ubiquitous in our daily lives. Emmy always had a lovey with her. Pretty typical little kid behavior. One day, my mom and I took a not-quite-two-year-old Emmy on a Target run. She had her Elmo lovey in the car, but I didn’t grab it as we collected carts, purses, returns, and Emmy. I honestly just forgot it. Emmy didn’t seem upset about it at first, in fact, I thought nothing of it until later. But halfway through our Target run Emmy started to fidget and whine. She was mostly non-speaking at this point, and had no way of telling us what was wrong. We assumed she was hungry and handed her a chocolate cookie. She held it with both hands, close to her chest, without taking a single bite the rest of the time we were in the store. She mostly calmed down, but seemed kind of sad. Mom and I encouraged her to eat it, as the chocolate was melting into her palms and the front of her dress, but she refused.
We got out to the car, discarded the cookie and wiped her down. Once in her car seat I handed her Elmo. As soon as Emmy had that Elmo she reached for my cookie that I was holding between my teeth.
“You didn’t want this cookie, silly goose!” I told her as I finished buckling her in. She began to cry and I gave it to her, assuming she’d just hold onto it like the other one. But, to my surprise, she devoured it and indicated she wanted another.
What we figured out was Emmy’s need for tactile comfort over-rode her hunger, and having that lovey was an important part of her being able to function in the world. She wanted to eat that cookie, but she couldn’t until her other sensory needs were being met, so she held it as she would Elmo or any other lovey. But it took that incident with the cookie for me to truly observe exactly how important those loveys were.
What things are you observing in your child? Do they like to bury themselves in pillows or wrap themselves in blankets? Do they like to tap on things? Are they constantly chewing something (or anything they can get their hands on)? Do they seem distressed if they don’t have a certain type of clothing on? Even if they aren’t talking, these are all clues to the type of supports that they might need to help them feel and function better in the wider world.
From that day at Target on, I allowed Emmy’s loveys in all situations. Elmo and others went to the playground, in and out of puddles, to church, and even into the bath…and into the washer, many, many nights. When Emmy started pre-K, I talked to the teachers about it, because sometimes places like that won’t allow outside toys — it’s a lot to keep track of! But the preschool was fine with it, and I think having that lovey really helped Emmy stay regulated throughout her day as a toddler.
Fast forward five years, and Emmy still likes to carry something around with her. She has mostly transitioned from loveys to figurines: right now her favorites are a little plastic cat named Caramel and her Paw Patrol figures. I couldn’t tell you what, exactly, about having something in hand makes Emmy so much happier, but that reason behind it doesn’t matter so much as the result: her being more able to fully function and participate in the wider world.
Other things we have observed and allowed over the years include: spinning, wearing hoodies with the hood up non-stop even in hot weather (we just made sure they were paired with shorts), taking breaks in quiet rooms or generally away from the crowd during parties and family reunions, echolalia (repetitive words or phrases, as long as they are appropriate), and chewelry. Have people noticed some of these non-typical behaviors? Sometimes. But by and large it’s just a curious glance. An occasional genuine question. Most of the time it goes unnoticed and unremarked, Emmy is just a kid being a kid. And you know what this mild regulatory behavior keeps away? The much more embarrassing, noticeable meltdowns!
Scaffolding Responsibility: Advocacy Language and Natural Consequences
Setting arbitrary (to Emmy) limits would surely lead to more meltdowns. I started asking myself, time and time again, “is this really hurting anyone?” And almost all the time, the answer was no. So the loveys came with us, everywhere, the hoodies got worn to church under the church dress, the chewelry was in her mouth while she was talking, and we excused ourselves for many, many breaks. And together we learned how to scaffold Emmy’s responsibility for her own comfort and needs.
A big part of this was giving Emmy the language to advocate for herself. Even before she was talking, I would talk to her about these sensory supports:
“Hey, I got you this chew necklace because I know you like owls and it can give your mouth something to do when you’re feeling nervous. Sometimes that helps.”
“It looks like you’re getting a little tired and hungry. I’ve got snacks and we can go sit on this quiet bench over here so we can focus on eating them.”
“That AC is really loud and cold! Cover your ears and we’re going to zoom past it really fast, ready…one, two, three!”
When Emmy started talking a bit more around four years old, I would often ask if she wanted to take a “reset” in her room when she seemed to be getting frustrated. Our family joked that it was a “pre-time-out,” basically a time-out that happened before the trouble did. But it worked wonders! Emmy got to the point where she would tell us she was “going to reset,” and then huff off to her room for ten or twenty minutes. She may not have been able to tell me about her day at school, but she could recognize her growing feelings of frustration and had the ability and wherewithal to deal with them appropriately, before they got out of hand.
Also, checking for loveys, and later figurines, became a part of our leave-the-house routine. After shoes were on and before we went out the door I would ask, “which lovey are you taking today?” so often that again, she started telling me without any prompting, sometimes running back upstairs to get whichever toy she had forgotten. This scaffolded responsibility helped her, I believe, feel safe and autonomous at the same time.
In addition to giving her language to advocate for herself, I relied heavily on natural consequences to help Emmy see the benefits and setbacks of different actions. Those loveys, for example: I encouraged certain loveys over others. Elmo became a favorite because of his size and portability, and I tried to keep the blankets in bedrooms as much as possible. But sometimes, kids just need to see for themselves.
One day shortly after the Target run, Emmy came down the stairs carrying a pink rabbit half as large as she was, a smaller lamb, Elmo, Peter Rabbit, and three dogs of various sizes.
“If you try to take all seven of those loveys to the playground you’re not going to be able to climb up the ladder to go down the slide,” I let Emmy know. The seven stuffed animals came anyway, and sure enough she couldn’t go down the slide. Next time, when I reminded her one lovey was enough for the playground, she pulled out her lamb and let the others drop. She learned, through trial and error, that some stuffed animals were too large to fit comfortably in the car, sometimes the blanket would make her too hot, and sometimes an armload of stuffed animals can keep you from participating in the activities you really want to do.
Full disclosure: sometimes these lessons are harder than others. Emmy wanted to take all six Paw Patrols outside one day not too long ago.
“That’s a lot to hold, Emmy, and I know you’re going to want to play. I’m worried something as tiny as your Paw Patrols can easily get lost in the woods,” I told her.
But she insisted. Sure enough, Rubble, the yellow bulldog, was lost. We both looked hard and perhaps both of us cried, too. But even this upsetting episode falls within the normal realms of childhood learning: this is how we take care of our toys, and this is why certain toys aren’t allowed certain places. Emmy was very upset, but it was a normal upset and she understood, very remorsefully, her role in Rubble being lost. Had I flat out told her “no Paw Patrols outside,” we might still have Rubble, but we also would have risked a meltdown and certainly wouldn’t have learned this important lesson through natural consequences.
The last element in avoiding meltdowns is remaining calm. I do not get flustered when Emmy starts laughing and yelling in a store, church, or doctor’s office. Remember that “is this hurting anyone?” question? If the answer is no, then let it go. Emmy (and your child, and any other Autistic individual) has every right to be in those places listed above and more. Honestly, I don’t see Emmy’s actions as all that different from other seven year olds: Autistic or not I have seen kids act out, giggle inappropriately, or be too loud from time to time. The only consistent modifier I try to impose is making sure Emmy is cognizant of the people around her, so she doesn’t bump into someone or accidentally hit someone with a flailing limb. Like I said, we sometimes get quizzical looks: especially on eighty degree days when she wants to walk to the pool wrapped head to toe in a fuzzy blanket. But the more this behavior is normalized, the less suppressed our Autistic loved ones will be and the fewer meltdowns everyone will have to endure.
The hardest part is remaining calm when Emmy is actively upset. The biggest lesson, for me, was to simply stop talking. I think this might look cruel, sometimes, from the outside: When Emmy is upset we just power through as fast as possible with as little speaking as possible, almost as if she’s just an extra appendage. When she is very upset, she is incapable of making even simple decisions like turning left or right or stopping at the end of a sidewalk, so I am literally steering her, wordlessly and firmly, to where we need to go. What people don’t see is how much verbal communication would add to her stress in those situations if I did start it, and I’m not going to talk to my already upset child just to appease passers by. They also don’t see how we talk about situations later, when we are calm and removed from the stressor.
An example: We recently went somewhere with an elevator for the first time in a long time. I had to help Emmy into it and once inside she was very upset. My mom, with the best of intentions, grabbed her close and squeezed her tight, rubbing her back too fast while saying, “Come here! It’s OK! It’s OK! It’s OK! You don’t have to cry!” in a voice that was clearly not OK.
“Mom,” I said calmly, “Calm down, please,” and I placed my hands gently but firmly on Emmy’s shoulders and didn’t say anything else. After we got off the elevator Emmy immediately calmed down.
“Wow!” I exclaimed, ‘that was short! That was just two floors! It was kind of noisy but next time we can cover our ears and watch the numbers light up.” When it was time to get on the elevator again, I reminded Emmy of the numbers. She was still a little hesitant getting on it, but by the third elevator ride, it was a non-issue. Acknowledging her stress without getting stressed myself has been key to getting through some very anxious moments.
What about the “Bad” Stims?
I have a feeling there are some desperate parents reading this right now: parents of children who hit themselves or bang their heads on the wall, parents of kids who have destroyed property and hurt loved ones because they are so, so dysregulated. Emmy does not have many of those tendencies, and I can only imagine how hard, heartbreaking, and even scary it can be to live through that on a regular basis. The advice I offer to you is: try to look past the upsetting and destructive behavior to the need that it satisfies, and see if you can’t help your child redirect.
Chewing seems to be a common one: kids want to chew on all sorts of inappropriate stuff. Trying out some chewelry, buying a cheap pack of pens and removing the ink insert, or keeping carrot sticks around may be all the redirection they need. You may also want to consider looking beyond the chewing: Is it really the sensation of chewing that they need or is it the taste they are after? Or the pressure in the temples that is achieved when they bite down hard on something? If the former, see if there’s something that has a similar taste that is appropriate for chewing. If it’s the latter, perhaps snug headbands or even some cranial massage might ease up the chewing. Detective work is key.
Also, some of the more destructive behaviors might decrease if their regulatory needs are being met in other ways. And as much as you want it to go away right now, know that this is a process and it may take some trial and error. Perhaps just encouraging keeping a lovey or stress ball in their hand all the time will reduce anxiety, and therefore reduce self-harming behavior. Same to switching to more comfortable, insulating clothing or even weighted vests to help with regulatory input. Same with allowing for more breaks, more movement, and more vocalization.
Emmy’s meltdowns are few and far between. Part of this is because she has a lot of support: I’ve homeschooled her the past two years and can attend to her every need, so her day-to-day environmental stress is low. But she returns to public school this fall, and I have high hopes for her being able to rely upon the foundation that we have built. I feel confident in her ability to know what she needs and advocate for herself. She will still have me as a backup, observing what is working and what isn’t, allowing her regulatory practices (and advocating for them when someone doesn’t listen), helping her scaffold responsibility to ever more mature levels, and remaining calm, so she can remain calm, too.
*Names have been changed.
Annie Newman is a stay-at-home mom educating two children: one neurotypical and one autistic. You can join her Patreon for access to custom-made learning and therapy tools, a growing picky-eater cookbook, and early access to articles. You can also follow her day-to-day learning on Instagram.