Parents of autistic children often wonder why their child’s tantrums are so frequent or extreme. Autistic people experience something called an autistic meltdown, which is different from tantrums.
- What are autistic meltdowns?
- What a meltdown feels like
- Tantrums vs. meltdowns
- Symptoms of autistic meltdowns
- Stages of a meltdown
- How long do meltdowns last?
- Tips to prevent future autistic meltdowns
- 1. Develop a plan together.
- 2. Meet their needs.
- 3. Teach them how to communicate their needs.
- 4. Get an emotional support animal (ESA) or service dog
- 5. Be kind to yourself.
- 6. Reduce triggers
- Frequently asked questions
What are autistic meltdowns?
An autistic meltdown is the result of extreme overwhelm or an inability to cope with or process increased stress. This stress can be caused by anything, including change in routine, being told no, or negative sensory overload.
Meltdowns are part of autism, and there is no avoiding them. During a meltdown, all rational thinking and emotional control is thrown out the window.
Melt downs are a vulnerable experience for autistic people and may trigger their fight, flight or freeze response. All we can do is feel it.
What a meltdown feels like
Despite autistic culture frowning on autism cures, meltdowns are the worst part of an autistic person’s experience. It feels like the entire world is crashing down on them, all senses are heightened, and there is knowledge that you cannot escaping this feeling.
No autistic person wants to be seen this way. The best thing a parent or caregiver can do during autism meltdowns is provide a safe, shame-free environment.
Shame and fear of punishment is only going to worsen the meltdown. Moreover, punishment is not discipline, but an exertion of power; it teaches absolutely nothing.
I have costochondritis, which literally feels like a heart attack. Autistic meltdowns feel the same, in slightly different ways with similar pain/pressure. Meltdowns are not a choice.
Tantrums vs. meltdowns
Contrary to everything you’ve heard, tantrums don’t exist. If they do, they’re one of two things or both:
- Bouts of unregulated emotions, as emotional regulation is taught
- Lack of attuned parent and secure child-parent attachment
Symptoms of a tantrum are the exact same as emotional dysregulation, which is an inability to regulate emotions in the presence of triggering stimuli.
Signs of an autistic meltdown include:
- Throwing objects
- Stomping feet
Tantrums are defined as an uncontrolled outburst of anger and frustration, which, again, is emotional dysregulation.
Ultimately, punishing a child for their tantrums invalidates their feelings, not to mention that punishment is not discipline.
All of this is to say…please consider looking at situations from your child’s level and approach events that challenge your patience with grace.
An autistic meltdown is not emotional dysregulation, because the meltdown cannot be regulated.
- Tantrums happen after a child doesn’t get their way.
- Meltdowns happen due to external stimuli, sensory overload, unpredictability, and disrupted routines.
Symptoms of autistic meltdowns
The actual explosion is the second stage of an autistic meltdown. It may involve any of the following:
- Throwing hands everywhere
- Increased stimming
It is necessary to note that while these symptoms might frustrated you, they might hurt your child more. If you punish them for melting down, they will learn to punish themselves.
Punishment isn’t discipline, and neither have a place in autistic meltdowns because they are not things we can control. No autistic person chooses to have a meltdown.
Stages of a meltdown
Autism meltdowns are different for everyone, but here is a general idea of what you’re working with:
1. Signs of distress
This is the buildup due to the inability to self-regulate. Signs of autistic distress look like:
- child recognizes threat and attempts to self-regulate more than usual
- increased stimming and fidgeting
- facial tics
- may appear worried/paranoid
- heavy/rapid breathing
- aggression (anger, short-temperedness)
- self-harm as aggressive self-regulatory behaviors (biting self, hitting hand on hard surface, scratching their skin)
- rapid breathing
- panic symptoms
- stimming more quickly (flapping hands/wrists rapidly instead of slowly)
- difficulty speaking (fumbling words, stuttering more, easily frustrated with own spoken worlds)
- poor dexterity (dropping everything, struggling to hold objects)
- may have certain stims that only present themselves during approaching meltdown
- cues appear more obvious
This is the meltdown and shutdown phase. This looks like:
- coping skills not working
- point of no return
- crying and/or screaming may be involved
- all above symptoms may be present
3. Cool down
This is when the meltdown begins to calm down. Traits of this phase include:
- sensitive make-or-break moment before next stage
- feels numb, blank and empty, but also peaceful
- quiet, or whimpering
- mostly still
- sudden noise or trying to return to normal too quickly after can trigger another meltdown
Alas, the meltdown has passed! But the autistic person needs space and grace now because meltdowns take out a lot of energy. Traits of the recovery phase include:
- shame and guilt set in
- may try to pretend nothing happened, retreat or apologize
How long do meltdowns last?
Autistic meltdowns can last anywhere from a few minutes to several weeks. All behavior is communication, so please keep this in mind. Meltdowns are never on purpose.
If meltdowns continue to return, this may be a problem of autism burnout or a sign of a medical issue the neurodivergent person doesn’t have the resources to communicate.
Potential non-regression issues include:
- Allergies, environmental or food
- Anxiety, e.g. panic attacks
- Communication difficulties, especially if lacking proper autonomy, e.g. being ignored or talked over, unclear directions, not having tools to communicate needs (can be a trigger)
- Coping skills are not working, especially in the case of teaching autistic person to fit in with their non-autistic peers instead of embracing their neurodiversity (masking)
- Pain, such as a headache, itching, or from a more serious injury; common in neurodiverse individuals with a history of ABA therapy – check for bruises, scars, bloody clothes, etc.
Tips to prevent future autistic meltdowns
No prevention tactic is perfect, but is can help.
1. Develop a plan together.
Work with your child to develop a plan on how to cool their autism meltdowns.
Use hand signals or a special phrase to help your child communicate with you when they feel a meltdown coming on. I had a coworker I could just look at, and she’d know.
2. Meet their needs.
Stimming is an autistic need. Your autistic child cannot survive without stimming and will find more dangerous ways to do it as they get older if you punish them for healthy stims.
Emphasize healthy stimming and redirect harmful self-regulatory behaviors. Biting oneself means they need to fulfill their chewing sensory need; wearable chew jewelry (chewelry) will allow them to always have something safe to bite.
If you’re in a pinch or don’t know where to start, get them a pacifier or chew toy from the baby section of the store. Opt for one that doesn’t have things inside of it. Some of the baby chew toys are stronger than they look.
3. Teach them how to communicate their needs.
Cooling meltdowns is something every autistic individual needs to learn, so they can eventually do it on their own.
They need to be taught how to communicate needs, even if it’s a simple phrase like, “I need a moment to myself. Excuse me.”
4. Get an emotional support animal (ESA) or service dog
Spending time with pets releases feel-good chemicals in the brain and may help reduce meltdowns and aggression in autism. Pets can help autistic people with regressive behaviors, but should be removed when the animals are in danger.
Some service dogs are trained to redirect self-harming behaviors and provide safe comfort during meltdowns.
5. Be kind to yourself.
Before any of this, use the recovery phase after the meltdown to take care of yourself. Delegate child care to a spouse or trusted caregiver so you can relax and recover as well.
Autism meltdowns are stressful for everyone involved, especially if you know how you feel during the moment. By taking of yourself, you exemplify the importance of self-care and boundaries, two more crucial life skills for neurodivergent individuals.
6. Reduce triggers
Recognizing autistic meltdown triggers is difficult but not impossible. Triggers may include:
Change in routines create unpredictable situations, which causes anxiety in the autistic person. Likewise, saying “no” to something you usually say “yes” to is unexpected.
Autistic people tend to rehearse conversations in their heads, a form of autistic scripting. Although we tend to consider several possible outcomes, the ones we least expected throws us off. We don’t know how to process.
Your autistic child learns how to interact with you based on the patterns of your behavior. I consider this akin to mathematical equations or PHP (computer programming).
A non-autistic person may better understand through if/then statements. Unless you are entirely unpredictable, your behaviors create patterns (then). Potential conversations rehearsed beforehand are the “ifs”.
Children whose parents are unpredictable tend not to form secure attachments to them, because there is no security in unpredictability. In the workplace, unpredictability is associated with liability and poor performance.
Unpredictable situations cause anxiety in autistic people, but also prevent us from properly coping. When an environment or person is too unpredictable, we cannot feel safe and dive straight into survival mode.
Examples of needs associated with predictability:
- I need to know what will happen and when, so I can mentally prepare for it. Do not throw me a surprise party, because I hate surprises. (My 26th birthday was ruined by this.)
- I need to feel safe in my living environment. My boundaries need to be respected, or else I will regress into the scared, abused child I was and live in survival mode.
- I need whoever I am around to behave predictably, not be someone whose mood changes on a whim or a person who spontaneously combust into critical fumes.
If you previously always did something and one day suddenly do not, it’s going to throw me off. My brain is incapable of processing that.
I know it looks like a tantrum to people who don’t get it. Imagine being a 30-year-old adult having a meltdown because a friend suddenly decided not to video chat. You lose the friend, because it turns out they don’t like that kind of autism.
Pain penetrates every ounce of you if it becomes so unbearable that you can’t even think straight.
Before I started unmasking my autism, I could do all of these things without changing my flat facial expression:
- Stump my toe on the doorframe or piece of furniture.
- Walk past something that cut into my skin and made me bleed.
- Struggle to breathe with intense chest pain even though I didn’t know if my next breath would be my last.
When I was in fifth grade, a fall in my bedroom closet resulted in a scratch from my thigh to my kneecap. I ran to the bathroom to stop the bleeding and cried with my hands over my mouth because my biological mother was not attuned to my needs.
The scratch developed into a purple bruise, then green and yellow. It healed about three months later. My guardians didn’t know until it was green.
ABA also encourages insecure attachment styles, as the autistic child is conditioned to ignore their needs so they receive love. Love becomes synonymous with assimilation, which makes it conditional.
I didn’t share that I got hurt because I was scared I would get into trouble for what was literally an accident. Don’t be surprised if your child did the same. Check your emotions before you take them out on your child.
Pain adds to sensory overload, a common meltdown trigger. Even if your autistic child looks like they’re not in pain, they could be. Never assume you know how they truly feel, even if you ask.
Meltdowns can happen as the result of interpersonal relationships going south.
If boundaries are not respected, or worse, not permitted — a common dynamic in autistic people’s relationships — this leads to pent up emotions.
Unpredictable people cause interpersonal conflict when the autistic person refrains from communicating their issues in the way they know how because they feel unsafe even thinking about it.
The most unfortunate truths about being autistic in a family that doesn’t understand autism are:
- Expressing emotions is perceived as aggression and/or a psychiatric disorder
- Meltdowns are perceived as tantrums/mental breakdowns
- Involuntary hospitalization is highly likely, which will only increase conflict
- Emotional abuse is ever present, and the autistic learns to invalidate themselves
- These are traits of an abusive environment, which can literally make someone develop psychiatric issues when they previous had none
Autistic people who live with people who don’t understand autism, and don’t care to, are not safe because the autistic family member is often punished or medicated for autistic traits and emotionally abused.
It is obvious to me when an autistic child is reportedly aggressive with family who has “tried everything” that they are living in unpredictable environments struggling with interpersonal conflict.
So much of this could be prevented if the autistic person was allowed to communicate in the ways natural to them and have boundaries (autonomy), and was surrounded by people who truly understood autism.
Parents who don’t embrace autism
Not embracing your child’s autism leads to interpersonal conflict. You cannot separate autism from the person. You can’t love your child and hate their autism.
Parents of autistic children who prefer listening to non-autistic people over autistic people or support organizations that actively harm autistic people care more about their own comfort than the well-being of their child.
I know what that statement means, and I know you are eager to jump into the comments to tell me I’m wrong, but listen.
Autism information by autistic people is out there, but anti-autism propaganda is more common because anti-autism companies (like ABA proponents) and organizations (like the one with the blue puzzle piece) pay for ads on search engines and social media under autistic/autism search terms and hashtags to shut us down.
Non-autistic parents of autistic children choose not to listen because they devalue autistic people.
Even if this is a learned behavior, it is still an active choice to ignore autistic voices. Your child is autistic, and you are dismissing the voices of other autistic people. Sit with that for as long as you need to.
Moreover, demanding autistic people communicate with you in a way that validates your abuse infantilizes autistic people.
Long-term effects of Interpersonal conflict
Healthy interpersonal relationships are crucial to a healthy life. Humans need socialization of some sort to survive.
Interpersonal conflict is associated with negative mental health, like depression with suicidal tendencies.
Modern thinking blames neurotic and psychotic behavior on internal emotional substrates, but interpersonal conflict is a common precursor to these behaviors.
Other meltdown triggers
Pinpointing autistic meltdown triggers means looking for a needle in a haystack.
In the classroom, it could be anything — writing on the chalkboard, visual noise (posters, dry erase board, etc.), vision problems and migraines, or even the teacher’s voice.
Some voices are the worst sensory input for people, and it’s not about the person that voice belongs to. People speak on different frequencies, and those frequencies play a part in sensory overload.
Autistic children often do better when homeschooled, because the education system is unfit for neurodivergent minds. This is true only if they are deschooled as well.
Frequently asked questions
What if they’re doing it for attention?
What’s wrong with attention? Children need to feel seen and heard to feel validated. Adults do, too.
Children need positive attention or else they will settle for negative attention. It’s not about rewarding those attention-seeking behaviors, but fulfilling the need for positive attention instead of dismissing/ignoring it.
Can you relate to these autism meltdown descriptions? Share about it in the comments below.
If you have any questions or comments about this post, feel free to contact us at [email protected] or leave a comment below.
Click here for a free PDF printable checklist of the 7 steps to take when your child needs residential treatment.
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