Does your autistic child have autism meltdowns at random? Good news: Meltdowns are never for no reason. Autism meltdown triggers are difficult to recognize, but these five tips will help increase your awareness.
How to recognize autism meltdown triggers
Autism meltdowns never happen for no reason or out of nowhere. There are always warning signs before eruption — typically in the form of excessive stimming or twitching. Here’s how to pinpoint your child’s triggers.
1. Consider environmental causes of autistic meltdowns
Has their environment changed recently? Autistic people do not habituate, which means they will not get used to something easily over time.
For example, if a classroom seating arrangement has changed from the typical desk rows, an autistic student is likely to struggle more than their non-autistic peers for the duration of that seating arrangement. This will be obvious when they walk in and take more than a second to find their seat or trip on the way to their seat. Their grades might even drop.
If their environment has not changed significantly, consider more subtle reasons. Non-autistic people do habituate, so they are likely to not notice the teeniest of changes — a lamp, a new noise, etc.
- Are there any new noises or potential distractions? Is a child at school making an annoying noise? Did you add a new item to your home that requires electricity (plug or battery)?
Autistic people can often hear frequencies non-autistic people cannot, like electricity. Noise is a common meltdown trigger.
- Did you change laundry detergents? The new one could be making them itchy or uncomfortable, whether due to skin sensitivity or the scent.
- Have they been around more people lately? Increased social interaction can deplete their energy more quickly, thus making them tired. When tired, the ability to accept sensory input and self-regulate is diminished. Simply put, their battery is drained.
Environmental triggers are the most difficult triggers to pinpoint. Unless you are your autistic child, or they know how to put into words their feelings, you might not ever know the environmental trigger.
Even if the meltdowns only happen at school, they could still be caused by something from home and vice versa.
When I cannot pinpoint what triggered a meltdown for me specifically, I label it an environmental cause and isolate myself if I can. I’m lucky to now be self-employed, so I don’t get penalized at a job. All my obligations have to be reduced for a few days.
I was once followed by loss prevention because of my autistic behaviors. This is common for autistic and similarly neurodivergent individuals when we go shopping. After that, I had meltdowns nearly every week when I had to pick up something else from that store. This continued for a month before I recognized the pattern.
Have patience and search for the patterns. Keep a log for yourself and write down every activity your child does if you have to. Make sure you dispose of any paper logs so your child can’t find it — physically take out the trash right then and there if you have to.
2. Look for signs of sensory overwhelm
Sensory overwhelm is one of the easiest autistic triggers to recognize. Your child will stim, or fidget, more than usual.
Autistic stimming is not to be confused with facial tics (Tourette’s) or facial seizures. If they look like an internet modem blinking rapidly to process information, that is not excessive stimming.
Sensory overload can be a mix of direct sensory input and environmental causes. Sensory input includes what you hear, see, feel, smell, and taste.
3. Don’t try to solve autistic meltdown triggers in a day.
Finding meltdown triggers takes time. Stressing yourself out isn’t going to help you pinpoint the meltdown trigger.
- Yes, your autistic child had a meltdown.
- Yes, autistic meltdowns are episodes of emotional distress.
- Yes, your child suffers during them.
No one wants to have an autistic meltdown, but sometimes they can be good. Meltdowns help reset emotions after everything has piled up. There is a feeling of numbness after a meltdown that is cathartic.
Provide a safe space for them where they don’t feel shame after a meltdown, while you analyze their behavior for a cause.
Talk to them about their meltdowns, asking them questions like:
- What did you feel before you had a meltdown?
- Why do you think you had a meltdown?
- What is something you can do in the future to communicate that you are about to have a meltdown?
While some autistic people may be able to recognize they are about to have a meltdown, they might not be able to stop it. Do not expect your child to do both.
4. Assume a tantrum is always a meltdown, until it is not.
Treat every tantrum like a meltdown.
- Every autistic meltdown looks like a tantrum on the outside.
- Tantrums are caused by the inability to regulate one’s emotions when something doesn’t go their way.
- Autistic meltdowns are a state of pure emotional distress.
A tantrum can turn into an autistic meltdown at any time.
If you handle a meltdown like a tantrum, it’s going to increase and last longer. If you handle a tantrum like an autistic meltdown, it will quickly defuse.
A tantrum is not a tantrum if it starts after:
- a schedule change
- a broken promise/deal
- communication error
- they feel misunderstood
- something broke
- they don’t feel heard
- they’re being talked over
- not getting something they’ve set their mind to right now or being able to do something right now
- attempts to placate, especially with platitudes and soft voices (this is perceived as a form of manipulation)
- illusion of choice (e.g. giving two fake choices as an attempt to empower the child, which is a form of reverse psychology and perceived as manipulation)
5. Be honest with your autistic child.
A common autistic meltdown trigger often stems from an autistic child not permitted to have or do something right now.
Delayed gratification is a learned skill, but it’s more than that: Non-autistic people are wired to love something more that they had to wait for. Autistic people don’t experience this.
If anything, waiting a long time for something is frustrating and results in lost interest. Autistic people do not often have hobbies; we have special interests. We become less interested in a special interest if we cannot do it right now.
You don’t know your child’s inherent needs, and your child deserves autonomy. You don’t think your child needs something, but who has a right to tell you that you don’t need something? It works both ways.
Non-autistic people seek compliance by default. It’s how their brains function. They don’t ask as many questions because they don’t think to.
Autistic brains do not function based on compliance. Telling your child they don’t need that toy because you don’t think they need that toy ignores them identifying their needs. Children don’t understand the difference between needs and wants by default, but they don’t learn by being told their needs by someone else.
That toy could be a visual stim for them because it’s so satisfying to look at and helps them feel calm. It could also be a tactile stim because of how soft it is. To be told they don’t need it is to be told that they don’t need to feel that way.
Non-autistic people create context from reading between the lines, or filling in the blanks by answering questions from their own experience.
Autistic people seek context first from precise language and then by reviewing past experiences with each word or phrase in a sentence. They never presume by answering questions; instead, those questions haunt them because they don’t always know the context.
It’s considered rude to ask those questions to non-autistic people, so autistic people have learned not to.
Instead of saying your child doesn’t “need” the toy, tell them why you won’t get it for them. “I don’t have the money for that right now” is a valid reason and an adequate answer, even if you feel uncomfortable saying it.
Little white lies and presumptions add up which result in a loss of trust. Build a good relationship with your autistic child through honesty and transparency. Talk about your feelings and experiences, because autistic people connect best through anecdotes.
This will help you teach your child how to identify what they need in the moment and why they need it. It will help them learn how to identify their autistic meltdown triggers themselves. Most of all, it will help them feel safe discussing those triggers with you.
Do you deal with autism meltdowns in your home? What are your child’s triggers? Share in the comments below.