If you’re raising a child on the autism spectrum, chances are you have encountered a meltdown. Meltdowns are categorized as an intense response to overwhelming environmental or situational simulations, eliciting an uncontrolled behavior. Meltdowns can occur for several reasons, but usually, they happen because a child is not equipped with the right tools, language, communication, or otherwise, to constructively express their emotions about a particular situation or challenge.

Temper tantrums vs meltdowns

No, they’re not the same thing. Here’s why: Temper tantrums for neurotypical kids are often remedied by an adult helping the child develop coping mechanisms or communication skills to convey their frustrations, and likely subside when an adult is not giving the child the attention that the child wants. Meltdowns, on the other hand, are a response to overstimulation (in many of its forms) and are not an exhibited behavior, but rather a response to sensory input.

What is going on in the brain?

In an article from Amy ArnstenCarolyn M. Mazure, and Rajita Sinha fittingly named “This Is Your Brain In Meltdown,” there’s a great graphic that sums up what the brain is doing normally, as compared to what is happening in a meltdown.

When the brain is stressed during a meltdown,

“The amygdala, an evolutionarily ancient brain area, commands the production of excess norepineprine and dopamine under stressful conditions. That, in turn, shuts down the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, but strengthens activity in the striatum and the amygdala. High levels of norephinephrine and dopamine in the prefrontal cortex switch on receptors that open channels that disconnect the links between prefrontal neurons, weakening that area’s role in controlling emotions and impulses.”

If you want to read their whole article about the brain in a meltdown, click here.


The warning signs

Before they happen, meltdowns can sometimes have warning signs. Some kids may exhibit apparent signs of anxiety as a way of indicating an impending meltdown. This can look different from one kid to the next, depending on their anxious tendencies. Some children may cover their ears, exhibit repetitive behaviors, or engage in slightly destructive behaviors before a meltdown. Repetitive behaviors that stimulate their senses, like pacing, rocking, or chewing can be indicators of an impending meltdown. Less visible signs that a kiddo is reaching a breaking point is a change in behavior, indicating that they’re not entirely “themselves” for a time. Reading atypical behavior can be a vital skill in helping to minimize or prevent meltdowns.

How can I help my child with meltdowns?

Keep track of when the meltdowns happen, and the situations that trigger them. If these meltdowns happen, for instance, with intense frequency in August, near the start of the school year and around Christmas near the time of a break, it might be a good indicator that the individual has anxiety about transitioning from one environment to the next. Knowing what environmental or situational triggers might be causing these meltdowns is a good way of helping avoid those particular things. In the case of the individual who has meltdowns while transitioning to and from school environments, giving them verbal cues and eliminating stressful elements may help minimize the meltdowns. Click here if you need more information and tips on easing transitions for kids with ASD.

There are also a lot of parents who use sensory products or a travel sensory kit. For individuals with autism, proprioceptive feedback and sensory input can help them calm down and process their environments.