Unfortunately, the internet is fraught with misinformation about what meltdowns are and how to prevent them. While meltdowns cannot be entirely prevented, you can reduce the number with intentional compassion and understanding. Here are some steps to reduce the number of meltdowns your autistic child experiences.
Minimize Sensory Overload
A frequent cause of meltdowns in autistic children (and adults) is sensory overload. Also called overstimulation, this sensation refers to the anxiety and frustration an autistic person feels when they get flooded with too much stimulation.
Some examples can include buzzing fans, strong smells, bright lights, high-pitched noises, loud voices, and traffic sounds, to name a few. These sensory inputs can quickly become overwhelming when they get layered over each other for an extended period. This is why environments like grocery stores are often very stressful for autistic individuals.
Children often don’t have the language or development necessary to communicate that they are getting overstimulated before they are already past their limit and having a meltdown. A good way to help minimize sensory overload in your kiddo is—when going to an environment like the grocery store—to pack sensory aids. Sunglasses, noise-canceling headphones, and stim toys can help make the experience easier.
Another major meltdown trigger is miscommunication. To understand this, you need to know two things. First—autistic people are very literal. They often do not pick up on or understand subtext. Most often, the words they say are the words that they mean. Because of this, they assume that the words you say are the words that you mean.
Second—many autistic children have a set of “rules” that they operate by. Many factors determine these rules, such as school guidelines and household instructions. To your child, these rules shape the framework of how the world works.
When this framework gets violated, it is incredibly disruptive and upsetting to your child. This will often cause a meltdown.
Here’s an example. A parent sees their autistic child’s room is messy and tells them to “pick up their clothes.” The child picks up the clothes and puts them away but neglects to put away the books and toys also on the floor. When the parent returns, they get angry with the child for not listening. The child will then very likely have a meltdown.
The disconnect here is two-fold. First, the child did exactly what you told them. You did not ask them to “clean their room.” You asked them to put away their clothes, and they did so. Second, their framework got broken. To them, they listened to their parent, and they got punished anyway.
When explained this way, it’s easy to see how miscommunication happens and why your child might have meltdowns. To prevent this from happening as often, do your best to speak directly and clearly to your child so that the two of you are on the same page.
Reduce Their Stress Levels
High levels of stress over long periods can make meltdowns more frequent. This can be extremely harmful to your child; we know that high levels of stress are harmful to the brain, and meltdowns on their own are very draining.
Reduce your child’s stress levels by making sure that your home and their bedroom are as relaxing as possible. Lowering lighting and sound levels can help with this. There are also fantastic therapies that can reduce stress in autistic kids. If you find one that works, it may help reduce meltdowns in your autistic child.