How to Deal with Autistic Children's Meltdowns

Three Methods:Calming the Child Down During the MeltdownPreventing MeltdownsUnderstanding the Causes of Meltdowns

Meltdowns are common in children with autism and Asperger's. They occur when the child becomes stressed out, upset or overstimulated. Meltdowns can be dangerous for the child and frightening for the parents, therefore it is important to develop an effective way of dealing with them and minimizing their occurrence.

Method 1
Calming the Child Down During the Meltdown

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    Act in a calm and reassuring manner. During a meltdown, the child may feel confused, agitated, frustrated, overwhelmed, or scared—i.e. experiencing all sorts of negative emotions.
    • Therefore, shouting, yelling, or hitting them will do nothing to help in this situation. It is far more likely to aggravate the situation.
    • During a meltdown, a child most needs the opportunity to relax. Thus, you should respond patiently and compassionately.
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    Offer a hug. A tight hug provides deep pressure, which helps them feel calm and secure. A long bear hug may help them feel better.
    • Do not force a hug on the child or hold them down. This is incredibly distressing, especially if the child is already feeling overwhelmed. The child may panic and lash out at you.
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    Let the child leave the situation. Going outside, retreating to their calming down corner, or going to their room are all good ways to help an autistic person calm down.
    • A good portion of meltdowns are due to sensory overload, a phenomenon that happens when there are too many stimuli and a person becomes overwhelmed. Leaving the situation removes them from the distressing stimuli and allows them to rebalance.
    • The duration of the quiet time depends on the severity of the distress and the needs of the child. A milder meltdown might require only a few minutes of quiet time, while greater distress might require 15 minutes or more of recovery.
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    Learn to tell the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum. A meltdown is an involuntary reaction to stress or needs not being met, and the autistic person will often feel ashamed and apologetic afterwards.[1] A tantrum is thrown deliberately, with a goal in mind (such as more dessert or a later bedtime).
    • What could your child achieve? If there's a clear "want" answer, then it is a tantrum. If it is a need (e.g. leaving an overwhelming grocery store), it's the release of built-up stress, or you can't identify a motivation, it's a meltdown, and your child is not throwing it on purpose.
    • Is the child performing for an audience? A child throwing a tantrum will check to make sure that the parent/caregiver is still watching; a child melting down has little control and may feel embarrassed about melting down in front of others.
    • Is the child at risk of getting hurt? A child throwing a tantrum will be careful not to hurt themselves. A child melting down may lack the self-control to protect themselves.
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    Be prepared for future meltdowns. While you can reduce the number of meltdowns, you cannot eliminate them, so it is good to always be prepared.
    • Have an action plan for getting the child to leave an overwhelming situation. Where can she go to feel safe?
    • Make sure the telephone is near you and working in case you need to call someone for help.
    • Have things the child can use for self-calming: earplugs, headphones, beanbags for deep pressure, sunglasses, vibrating stuffed animals, comfort items, or whatever they usually need.
    • If your child has a history of violence, keep all potentially dangerous items out of immediate reach.
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    Get help if need be. If you don't know how to handle a meltdown, or if you start feeling too stressed to respond compassionately to the child, bring someone who can deal with it. Get a parent, older sibling, friend, or therapist—someone whom the child trusts and loves. Call them, or ask someone nearby to go bring them. Avoid leaving the distressed child alone while you get help, as this may worsen their anxiety.
    • Avoid calling the police unless there is a severe and immediate safety threat. Police may use excessive force and traumatize or kill the child—it has happened before.[2][3]

Method 2
Preventing Meltdowns

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    Keep an eye on the child's body language. Before a meltdown, the child will usually appear stressed or agitated. If she is experiencing sensory overload, she may shut her eyes, cover her ears, or curl into a ball. Upset stimming, or difficulty performing skills they can usually handle, may also occur. Agitated autistic children may withdraw or act out, depending on the individual.
    • Ask the child if something is wrong.
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    Remove the child from stressful situations. Note both sensory and other types of input. It may help to ask the child's siblings to take their noisy play outside, or to remove the child from a loud kitchen.
    • Try engaging them in a physical activity that helps them to expel energy, such as a walk, gardening, or anything that refreshes them mentally.
    • Try bringing the child outdoors or into a quiet room where they can take some time to calm down. Bedrooms, calming down corners, and even bathrooms can do in a pinch.
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    Don't blame the child for their meltdown. Meltdowns are incredibly difficult to control, and chances are your child already feels upset about melting down. Don't yell at them, accuse them of being intentionally difficult, or record their behavior to teach them how "naughty" they are. This will only make them feel ashamed.
    • If your child does unacceptable things during the meltdown (e.g. hitting or yelling at people who are trying to help), tell them that you are upset about these specific actions. For example, "We are not a violent family"[4] or "I understand that you were upset, but it was not okay to yell at the waitress like that. It made her feel sad. Next time, please give me the signal when you start to feel upset, so I can take you outside right away."
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    Set aside plenty of time for fun. This helps the child feel relaxed, and be ready to deal with difficult transitions or stimuli.
    • Give them outdoor time. Let them explore nature, swim, play basketball, run around, swing, and do whatever they enjoy. This will help them feel calm, and increase their tolerance to sensory input.
    • Set aside free time for them. They might read, play with toys, run around in circles, or do whatever they like. Fun time, where they don't need to work on a particular project or learn new skills, allows them to unwind. It also keeps them occupied so that you can have some time to yourself.
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    Brainstorm coping methods together. Your child doesn't enjoy melting down, and would probably like to know how to manage her stress. Here are some sample things to suggest to your child:
    • Counting (forwards, backwards, by twos, by tens, by sevens—depending on your child's math mastery)
    • Deep breathing
    • Saying "I'm feeling upset and I need a break" and then leaving
    • Coming up with a sign to indicate that the child needs to leave (especially if the child becomes nonverbal during meltdowns)
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    Use positive reinforcement. When the child uses good coping mechanisms, give them genuine praise for their efforts. Tell them how proud their good behavior and effort has made you. Try to place more emphasis on highlighting good behaviors than punishing the bad.
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    Use a star chart. Make a star chart to hang in the kitchen or the child's room. Use green stars for every successful implementation of coping mechanisms, and blue stars for every attempt to defuse a meltdown (even if it fails). Use a red star for every uncontrolled tantrum or meltdown. Encourage the child to turn their red stars into blue stars and their blue stars into green ones.
    • Never shame a child for failing to control a meltdown. Chances are, they already feel embarrassed about being unable to handle their feelings. Explain that meltdowns are unavoidable to a degree, so the goal is to do better, not to be perfect.
    • If the child seems very anxious about getting a red or blue star, take down the chart (especially if the child is diagnosed with an anxiety disorder). This is a sign of a perfectionistic attitude, which can become very harmful.

Method 3
Understanding the Causes of Meltdowns

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    Watch out for overstimulating or distressing environments. An autistic child is ill-equipped to handle environments and activities that are intensive and overly stimulating.
    • Too much of activity or too much noise in the child’s environment can overwhelm the child.
    • The child then finds it difficult to handle the excessive stimulation, triggering a meltdown.
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    Be aware of communication issues. Autistic children may struggle to communicate well, or struggle to communicate in ways that others can understand. This can feel incredibly frustrating.
    • The child, finding no other way to handle the bottled-up emotions, finally loses control.
    • Honor all forms of communication—spoken words, written words, body language, and behavior. Children are more likely to melt down if they think it is the only way that you will listen to them.[5]
    • Try to avoid overwhelming a child with information (especially spoken information). The child may be unable to process so many words, panic, and melt down. It is best to give pauses, break things into steps, or use visual aids (e.g. lists) to help them keep track of things.
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    Teach the child to communicate their thoughts and feelings to others. This will help them voice their needs, and prevent emotions from bottling up so much. Listening carefully to the child's communication will tell them that you care about what they have to say, and it will encourage them to talk to you more.
    • Consider developing a "secret signal" for the child to use when feeling stressed or overwhelmed. At the signal, you will help your child disengage from the situation.
    • Praise them when they exhibit good communication skills: asking for help, asserting their needs, setting boundaries, et cetera.
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    Listen to your child on a regular basis. Ask questions such as "How are you doing?" and "How did you feel about that?" Seek first to understand, and worry about judgment later. This will help your child trust you and feel that they can seek you out whenever they feel upset.
    • To teach them that no means no, listen when they tell you no. If a child knows that "concerts scare me" is a valid reason not to go to a concert, they are more likely to think that "you wandering off scares Daddy" is a valid reason not to wander off.
    • If you can't honor a no, try to compromise, and offer a clear explanation. For example, if your son doesn't like his carseat, find out why, and if there's a way to fix it (e.g. letting him sit on a pillow to make the car seat's bottom more comfortable). Offer an explanation of why something must be done—carseats are necessary for safety. This tells them that no means no unless there is a very good reason otherwise.
    • Never punish them for coming to you with a problem, even if they did something bad. (Instead, help them fix it, and explain what they could have done instead. If reparations must be made, ask them what they think would be fair.) This makes it clear that they can talk to you no matter what.
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    Avoid straying too far from the child's normal routine. Autistic children rely on routines to give them a sense of security and stability. Changing a routine feels like upsetting the order of the universe to them, and they may become confused and panic.
    • When there is a change in routine, it helps to explain it as early as possible. For example, if you are going to the airport tomorrow to pick up his aunt, tell him the day before, the morning before, and before you get into the car. This gives him a chance to emotionally prepare.
    • Try using daily and weekly schedules. Laminate them so you can write changes with a dry-erase marker. Illustrate them if need be. This helps the child visualize what will happen.
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    Be careful about intervening unnecessarily. Sometimes certain kinds or amounts of involvement which the child does not expect or appreciate can cause a meltdown. This can be especially true when it involves their food.They expect people around them to respect their need to be independent and do things on their own.
    • For example: your daughter might want to apply butter to her bread by herself. If you take the knife from her hands, she may feel that you are undermining her, and begin to cry.
    • Outwardly, it might look a trivial issue, but it holds enormous significance for the child. It might start as a tantrum and lead to a meltdown. Therefore, the best thing would be to let the child try it themselves.
    • Many parents find it useful to let the child try to do a specific task, and ask "Would you like help?" if the child appears to be struggling. This allows the child to choose for themselves, and learn how to ask for help when they need it.


  • Autism is not an excuse for rudeness or aggression. If your child yells at others, or acts aggressively, tell them firmly that that is not acceptable. Tell them what they can do instead—punch couch cushions or mattresses if they need to punch, and take deep breaths and leave instead of staying and screaming at people.
  • Self-injurious stimming often comes from a feeling of numbness. Chances are, your child doesn't actually want to hurt themselves, so you can offer ways to prevent harm. For example, offer to place a pillow on their thighs to prevent bruising, or let them bang against their head against the back of a rocking chair so it won't hurt them too badly.
    • See if the child needs to feel pain at all. For example, a girl who bites her arms might do so only because she needs to bite, and her arms are the only available thing. See if an alternative stim would work, such as biting chewy bracelets.
  • If you want a child not to do something, talk with them about what they can do instead. Knowing a replacement behavior helps them understand how to cope with their feelings in a non-harmful way.


  • Don't physically restrain a frightened or distressed child. This can worsen sensory overload, deepen panic, and cause them to lash out in an attempt to free themselves.
  • Never try to stop a child from stimming during a meltdown. Stimming is a very useful coping mechanism that helps with self control and makes the meltdown less bad.

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Categories: Interacting with Autistic People | Coaching Autistic People