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Meltdowns in Children on the Autism Spectrum: Crucial Strategies for Parents and Teachers

"Is there a difference between meltdowns and temper tantrums, and how can you tell the difference? Also, why do children with Aspergers have meltdowns, and what can parents do to prevent them?"

Aspergers (High-Functioning Autism, or Level 1 Autism) is a neurological condition. The brain is wired differently, making this disorder a lifelong condition. It affects communication, social interaction and sensory issues. Aspergers is often referred to as the "invisible syndrome" because of the internal struggles these kids have without outwardly demonstrating any real noticeable symptoms. Thus, difficultly assessing someone with Aspergers is even more impacted.

Kids with this disorder struggle with a problem and internalize their feelings until their emotions boil over, leading to a complete meltdown. These outbursts are not a typical temper tantrum. For children with Aspergers (and for their parents), these episodes are much worse.

Many Aspergers kids may appear under-receptive or over-receptive to sensory stimulation and therefore may be suspected of having vision or hearing problems. Therefore, it's not unusual for parents or teachers to recommend hearing and vision tests. Some kids may avoid gentle physical contact such as hugs, yet they react positively to rough-and-tumble games. Some Aspergers kids have a high pain tolerance, yet they may not like to walk barefoot in grass.

There are nine different types of temperaments in Aspergers children:
  1. Distractible temperament predisposes the child to pay more attention to his or her surroundings than to the caregiver.
  2. High intensity level temperament moves the child to yell, scream, or hit hard when feeling threatened.
  3. Hyperactive temperament predisposes the child to respond with fine- or gross-motor activity.
  4. Initial withdrawal temperament is found when children get clingy, shy, and unresponsive in new situations and around unfamiliar people.
  5. Irregular temperament moves the child to escape the source of stress by needing to eat, drink, sleep, or use the bathroom at irregular times when he or she does not really have the need.
  6. Low sensory threshold temperament is evident when the child complains about tight clothes and people staring and refuses to be touched by others.
  7. Negative mood temperament is found when children appear lethargic, sad, and lack the energy to perform a task.
  8. Negative persistent temperament is seen when the child seems stuck in his or her whining and complaining.
  9. Poor adaptability temperament shows itself when children resist, shut down, and become passive-aggressive when asked to change activities.

Some meltdowns are worse than others, but all leave both parent and kid exhausted. Meltdowns are not a pretty sight. They are somewhat like overblown temper tantrums, but unlike tantrums, meltdowns can last anywhere from ten minutes to over an hour. When it ends, both you and the Aspergers kid are totally exhausted. But… don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. At the least provocation, for the remainder of that day, and sometimes into the next, the meltdown can return full force.

Meltdowns are overwhelming emotions and quite common in Aspergers kids. What causes them? It can be anything from a very minor incident to something more traumatic. How long do they last? It’s anyone’s guess. They last until the kid is either completely exhausted, or he gains control of his emotions, which is not easy for him to do.

If your kid suffers from Aspergers, expect her to experience both minor and major meltdowns over incidents that are part of daily life. She may have a major meltdown over a very small incident, or may experience a minor meltdown over something that is major. There is no way of telling how she is going to react about certain situations. However, there are some ways to help your kid learn to control his emotions.

Aspergers sufferers don’t really have the knowledge to decipher when their actions are inappropriate. When your kid is calm and relaxed, talk to her about her meltdowns if she is of an age where she can reason and learn to work with you. This will probably not be until the kid is seven or eight years old. Then, tell her that sometimes she does things that are not appropriate. Have her talk to you about a sign you can give her to let her know when this happens.

All you can do is be patient with your kid while she is having a meltdown, though they are emotionally exhausting for you as well as he. Never punish her for experiencing a meltdown. Overwhelming emotions are part of the Aspergers traits, but if you work with your kid, she will eventually learn to control them somewhat.

Aspergers kids don’t like surprises and some don’t like to be touched. Never rush to your Aspergers kid and give her a hug. If you want to hug her, tell her exactly what you are going to do. A surprise hug can send her into an even worse meltdown than she is already experiencing.

Aspergers kids like to be left alone to cope with emotions. If your kid says something like, “I just want to be left alone,” respect her wishes for at least a while. You can always go back in ten minutes and ask if you can help. Do not be hurt if she refuses.

Work with your Aspergers kid as she grows older to help her learn to cope with daily life. Remember, she sees the world much differently than we do and needs help deciphering exactly how we see the world. While working with her on this, she will give you clues as to how she sees the world and a firmer bond will be established.

It is much easier to prevent meltdowns than it is to manage them once they have erupted. Here are some tips for preventing meltdowns and some things you can say:
  • Avoid boredom. Say, “You have been working for a long time. Let’s take a break and do something fun.”
  • Change environments, thus removing the child from the source of the meltdown. Say, “Let’s go for a walk.”
  • Choose your battles. Teach children how to make a request without a meltdown and then honor the request. Say, “Try asking for that toy nicely and I’ll get it for you.”
  • Create a safe environment that children can explore without getting into trouble. Childproof your home or classroom so children can explore safely.
  • Distract children by redirection to another activity when they begin to meltdown over something they should not do or cannot have. Say, “Let’s read a book together.”
  • Do not ask children to do something when they must do what you ask. Do not ask, “Would you like to eat now?” Say, “It’s suppertime now.”
  • Establish routines and traditions that add structure. For teachers, start class with a sharing time and opportunity for interaction.
  • Give children control over little things whenever possible by giving choices. A little bit of power given to the child can stave off the big power struggles later. “Which do you want to do first, brush your teeth or put on your pajamas?”
  • Increase your tolerance level. Are you available to meet the child’s reasonable needs? Evaluate how many times you say, “No.” Avoid fighting over minor things.
  • Keep a sense of humor to divert the child’s attention and surprise the child out of the meltdown.
  • Keep off-limit objects out of sight and therefore out of mind. In an art activity keep the scissors out of reach if children are not ready to use them safely.
  • Make sure that children are well rested and fed in situations in which a meltdown is a likely possibility. Say, “Supper is almost ready, here’s a cracker for now.”
  • Provide pre-academic, behavioral, and social challenges that are at the child’s developmental level so that the child does not become frustrated.
  • Reward children for positive attention rather than negative attention. During situations when they are prone to meltdowns, catch them when they are being good and say such things as, “Nice job sharing with your friend.”
  • Signal children before you reach the end of an activity so that they can get prepared for the transition. Say, “When the timer goes off 5 minutes from now it will be time to turn off the TV and go to bed.”
  • When visiting new places or unfamiliar people explain to the child beforehand what to expect. Say, “Stay with your assigned buddy in the museum.”


There are a number of ways to handle a meltdown once it has started. Strategies include the following:

  • When possible, hold the child who is out of control and is going to hurt himself or herself or someone else. Let the child know that you will let him or her go as soon as he or she calms down. Reassure the child that everything will be all right, and help the child calm down. Parents may need to hug their child who is crying, and say they will always love him or her no matter what, but that the behavior has to change. This reassurance can be comforting for a child who may be afraid because he or she lost control.
  • If the child has escalated the meltdown to the point where you are not able to intervene in the ways described above, then you may need to direct the child to time-away (not to punish, but to remove the child from the current environment!). If you are in a public place, carry your child outside or to the car. Tell the child that you will go home unless he or she calms down. In school, warn the child up to three times that it is necessary to calm down and give a reminder of the rule. If the child refuses to comply, then place him or her in time-away for no more than 1 minute for each year of age (again, not to punish, but to remove the child from the current environment).
  • Remain calm and do not argue with the child. Before you manage the child, you must manage your own behavior. Spanking or yelling at the child will make the meltdown worse.
  • Talk with the child after the child has calmed down. When the child stops crying, talk about the frustration the child has experienced. Try to help solve the problem if possible. For the future, teach the child new skills to help avoid meltdowns such as how to ask appropriately for help and how to signal a parent or teacher that the he or she knows they need to go to “time away” to “stop, think, and make a plan.” Teach the child how to try a more successful way of interacting with a peer or sibling, how to express his or her feelings with words and recognize the feelings of others without hitting and screaming.
  • Think before you act. Count to 10 and then think about the source of the child’s frustration, this child’s characteristic temperamental response to stress (e.g., hyperactivity, distractibility, moodiness), and the predictable steps in the escalation of the meltdown.
  • Try to intervene before the child is out of control. Get down at the child’s eye level and say, “You are starting to get revved up, slow down.” Now you have several choices of intervention.
  • Unlike a meltdown, you can ignore a tantrum if it is being thrown to get your attention. Once the child calms down, give the attention that is desired.
  • You can place the child in time away. Time away is a quiet place where the child goes to calm down, think about what he or she needs to do, and, with your help, make a plan to change the behavior.
  • You can positively distract the child by getting the child focused on something else that is an acceptable activity. For example, you might remove the unsafe item and replace with an age-appropriate toy.


Post-tantrum management:

  • Teach the child that anger is a feeling that we all have and then teach her ways to express anger constructively.
  • Never, under any circumstances, give-in to a temper tantrum. That response will only increase the number and frequency of the tantrums. Also, when an Asperger child has become accustomed to successfully manipulating parents with tantrums in the past -- but then doesn't get his way with today's tantrum -- it can often escalate into a meltdown. Now the parent has two distinctly different problems (that may look the same) to address.
  • Never let meltdowns interfere with your otherwise positive relationship with the child.
  • Explain to the child that there are better ways to get what he or she wants.
  • Do not reward the child after a meltdown for calming down. Some children will learn that a meltdown is a good way to get a treat later.

My Aspergers Child: Preventing Meltdowns


Anonymous said...

Oh we are having a meltdown this morning, sat down and read this. I love this support group!!!

Anonymous said...

I know we have had our share of these meltdowns! They make us feel as if we r breaking down, but in the end, they have made us stronger!!!!

Anonymous said...

I really know what it is. I've always been like that, always internalised things and then it became a big problem. I still try do deal with it.

Anonymous said...

‎"Initial withdrawal", "Low sensory threshold", "Negative persistent", "Poor adaptability", all these are "familiar" to me.

Anonymous said...

My son falls into the "High intensity level temperament moves the child to yell, scream, or hit hard when feeling threatened."

Anonymous said...

My son falls into the "High intensity level temperament moves the child to yell, scream, or hit hard when feeling threatened."

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this article!

Anonymous said...

Things have improved with time, though. This was a really good article. I appreciate it. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Great article...thank you!

Anonymous said...

I know what it is like to have meltdowns. For now I just keep it inside me. So not very good. Yet it is the only thing I can do since I am not being understood.

Anonymous said...

My son has meltdowns when he is having sensory issues. Yesterday was a prime example. All day every sound was too loud, the lights in the classroom were too bright so they turned them off, it was either too hot or too cold, his skin was either tickling or itching. Once they figured out he was having sensory issues, they got the weighted vest that each classroom is equipped with and put it on him. He seemed to be ok, if a bit agitated, for the rest of the day. However, last night it kind of come to a head, and I had to rush home from a meeting because he just blew up. Once I got home, he calmed down a bit, but I discovered he was on sensory overload - the laptop, TV and stereo were all going at the same time. I turned everything off, gave him his nighttime meds, and he was fairly calm by bedtime. It was quite a day.

Anonymous said...

I know with my son a meltdown is when he gets frustrated after trying so long, and a temper tantrum which as he has gotten older doesn't happen as often. But those would occur when like with any child he didn't get his way or couldn't understand something. The days his frustration levels are low. Aspergers kids have them cause they are taking in so much information I could see how they could have meltdowns. Parents just need to learn their child watch what sets them off. Be patient, let their child have their own space to do their cool down.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, with my son a meltdown happens when he's having sensory issues. Temper tantrums are just angry outburts. He didn't get his way, or is being argumentative. Just bratty stuff.

Anonymous said...

not sure if it's a meltdown or a tantrum but my guess is tantrum...this morning, eight year old son screamed over the fact that I wouldn't let him sit on me and bounce up and down. Now, he knows I have back problems, he also knows he can't get his way with me..but still had to scream about school in front of classmates.

Anonymous said...

"We just got this "official" diagnosis last week but so much stuff makes sense now with the sensory issues."

Anonymous said...

My son is 10 and has just been "officially" diagnosed with Aspergers...he has had meltdowns since about 6 years old and I've learned over the years that the best thing to do is to put him in his room with no sensory input (ie: TV or radio)...eventually he calms down enough for us to discuss...I have also made arrangements with his school for him to get 15 mins of "decompression" time every 2 hrs. We are hoping this helps stem any meltdowns that are building up throughout the day. I believe his meltdowns happen because of sensory overload over time...

Steve Borgman said...

I think the biggest challenge as parents is to be able to hold our children responsible while not reacting out of anger. It truly is an exhausting experience. Your suggestions are great! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

psychologist actually said it was a sensory issue. For whatever reason my son felt he needed to sit on me and wasn't happy when I said no. So just trying to get used to all of this now that we have a diagnosis.
10 hours ago · Like

Anonymous said...

My 6 year old son has never been formally diagnosed with Aspergers but his class teachers agree with me, that he is definitely on the spectrum. He causes no problems at school - he knows how he should behave and the boundaries. He has meltdowns at home but the last few days have been exceptionally hard for me to cope with. He has been telling us that he is rubbish and ugly and we should kill him as he is no good. The worse thing, he means it, you can see it in his eyes. I want to get help for him, but my husband is reluctant- he thinks social services will be involved and doesn't want this to happen.

Kristin O'Domes said...

wow. reading this article really opened my eyes to some things that over the years I have seen in my son, this will really help me to understand and help him.

Anonymous said...

What about the child that yells, cusses, hits and screams while having a meltdown. I tend to walk away and give them their space... any suggestions?

sonia beinroth said...

Restraining a child who has sensory issues (all autistic/aspergers kids have this) isnt the way forward.There is well documented evidence and alternatives as to why its ineffective and actually creates more problems in adulthood.It teaches the child he is powerless when he is already feeling powerless in a situation where he is feeling out of control.Also teaches im bigger than you so i can do what i like to you.Doesnt teach the child cooperation or to learn to regulate their behaviour over time.Teaching the child this is what will happen when you lose it sends the child the message this is what he can expect as an adult and if youve got a very strong tall 25yr old are you still going to be restraining him? And perhaps the worst thing about it is these children can begin to create ouit of control behaviour so someone restrains them as they begin to adapt to the feeling of being held and being unable to move...they start to crave the sensory aspect of restraining and then behave badly so they can be put in a restraint hold.There are plenty of alternatives to restraining-10 alternatives to restraining a schild with special needs.

Oltion Korini said...

Nice blog but I believe there are many misconceptions regarding aspergers people. I know because I am one of them. Let me state them below.
1. Aspergers condition affects the connection of the person to the outer world. It is not a personality or character problem. They are similar to a person that needs glasses to see better but will never have those glasses. In order to overcome this they need to learn by heart everything that surrounds them.
2. They are smarter than ordinary people. In order to fully express their abilities they need to fill up their brain with knowledge. Their brain is wired to slowly capture the reality but to quickly process and manipulate what they capture. Its not only my opinion that most of the worlds geniuses are aspergers people. They have extra ordinary ability to link phenomena and facts and produce new findings.
3. They are hard to cope as children. Aspergers are not doomed to yell and fight with the others forever. This is a problem of their parents. They should direct them to what is right and teach them to love others. The difference to ordinary people is that the teching process is much harder for them but certainly possible. Yes they should be restrained and stopped when they are violent so that they understand that behavior is unacceptable. I do not mean to beat them, or yell at them, NO. The best would be to lock them in a room until they are calm and to explain that their behavior should be better if they do not want to be locked there. Leaving them with no punishment will only make them worse like all spoiled children. All children (aspie or not) should understand that this world has rules and the sooner they learn that, the better is for them. If you leave them do as they wish it will be temporary because when they will face the outer world they will be punished even worse for not respecting ordinary life rules. The parent must show him love and respect and give him responsibilities and self confidence gradually. Aspies respond better when treated like adults not children. Have in mind that!

Oltion Korini said...

Part 2
4. Aspergers can have friends, wife and children. All those who do not, have others issues related to their family. Yes, they make social mistakes but they are smart enough not to repeat them. They are able to love the same and even more than normal people because they are deeply sincere in their feelings. They do not enjoy much social events but can learn to survive and to behave normally. They need a good example and a good teacher to follow. The best for them is to relate them to a good social friend that will help them and explain to them social cues. They need this kind of help until their 20. A very good idea is to give them books to read. Through a book aspies may understand many examples of social behavior. A parent has to choose the appropriate books for each stage of development for his asperger child.
5. They say restraining is bad for them. Yes but leaving them without it is even worse. They fail to understand the limits of their behavior and may put the whole family in difficulty when grown up. If a child does not change his behavior after restraining him, then he has issues of bonding with his parents. He needs more love by them so he learns to respect and understand their decisions. As I said in the beginning they need extra effort to understand the reality. As they grow up this is also messed up by other feelings like egoism and self esteem. Before taking the children to the psychologist, consider taking their parents too. They need to understand the aspergers are unlike other children and cannot be raised up like a normal child with some anxiety problems. In general you need much patience with them and only restrain them after you have warned them several times and you are sure they heard you. They have to control their feelings in order to survive in the outer world where there are no parents to support them. Yes they have to learn the hard way because many times this is the only that works. I believe they are destined to be anxious until they have learned enough for the outer world and are more prepared. The parents have to work hard until they are adults because afterwards there is not much they can do because the character is built. Although mine did not try so much I still am successful in my career and wife and kids and fully independent.

My child has been rejected by his peers, ridiculed and bullied !!!

Social rejection has devastating effects in many areas of functioning. Because the Aspergers child tends to internalize how others treat him, rejection damages self-esteem and often causes anxiety and depression. As the child feels worse about himself and becomes more anxious and depressed – he performs worse, socially and intellectually.

Click here to read the full article…

How to Prevent Meltdowns in Aspergers Children

Meltdowns are not a pretty sight. They are somewhat like overblown temper tantrums, but unlike tantrums, meltdowns can last anywhere from ten minutes to over an hour. When it starts, the Asperger's child is totally out-of-control. When it ends, both you and the Asperger’s child are totally exhausted. But... don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. At the least provocation, for the remainder of that day -- and sometimes into the next - the meltdown can return in full force.

Click here for the full article...

Parenting Defiant Aspergers Teens

Although Aspergers is at the milder end of the autism spectrum, the challenges parents face when disciplining a teenager with Aspergers are more difficult than they would be with an average teen. Complicated by defiant behavior, the Aspergers teen is at risk for even greater difficulties on multiple levels – unless the parents’ disciplinary techniques are tailored to their child's special needs.

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Aspergers Children “Block-Out” Their Emotions

Parenting children with Aspergers and HFA can be a daunting task. In layman’s terms, Aspergers is a developmental disability that affects the way children develop and understand the world around them, and is directly linked to their senses and sensory processing. This means they often use certain behaviors to block out their emotions or response to pain.

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Older Teens and Young Adult Children With Aspergers Still Living At Home

Your older teenager or young “adult child” isn’t sure what to do, and he is asking you for money every few days. How do you cut the purse strings and teach him to be independent? Parents of teens with Aspergers face many problems that other parents do not. Time is running out for teaching their adolescent how to become an independent adult. As one mother put it, "There's so little time, yet so much left to do."

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Living with an Aspergers Spouse/Partner

Research reveals that the divorce rate for people with Aspergers is around 80%. Why so high!? The answer may be found in how the symptoms of Aspergers affect intimate relationships. People with Aspergers often find it difficult to understand others and express themselves. They may seem to lose interest in people over time, appear aloof, and are often mistaken as self-centered, vain individuals.

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Online Parent Coaching for Parents of Asperger's Children

If you’re the parent of a child with Aspergers or High-Functioning Autism, you know it can be a struggle from time to time. Your child may be experiencing: obsessive routines; problems coping in social situations; intense tantrums and meltdowns; over-sensitivity to sounds, tastes, smells and sights; preoccupation with one subject of interest; and being overwhelmed by even the smallest of changes.

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Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

Parents, teachers, and the general public have a lot of misconceptions of Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism. Many myths abound, and the lack of knowledge is both disturbing and harmful to kids and teens who struggle with the disorder.

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Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism

Two traits often found in kids with High-Functioning Autism are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the youngster’s ability to empathize with peers. As a result, he or she may be perceived by adults and other children as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

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