Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders

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Meltdowns and Punishment

One of the most important things to realize is that meltdowns are part of the Aspergers (high functioning autism) condition. Children on the autism spectrum can't avoid them. The best parents can do is try to reduce the damage. Punishing an Aspergers child for a meltdown is like punishing someone for swearing when they hit their thumb with a hammer. It won't do any good whatsoever and can only serve to increase the distance between you and your child.

In addition, meltdowns aren't wholly caused by the current scenario, but are usually the result of an overwhelming number of other issues. The one which "causes" the meltdown is the "straw that breaks the camel’s back". Unless you're a mind reader, you won't necessarily know what the other factors are and your Aspergers child may not be able to fully communicate the problem.

What is a Meltdown?

A meltdown is a condition where the Aspergers child temporarily loses control due to emotional responses to environmental factors. It generally appears that the Aspergers child has lost control over a single and specific issue; however, this is very rarely the case. Usually, the problem is an accumulation of a number of irritations which could span a fairly long period of time, particularly given the strong long-term memory facilities of the Aspergers child.

Why the Problems Seem Hidden?
  1. Aspergers kids don't tend to give a lot of clues that they are very irritated.
  2. Often times, Aspergers child grievances are aired as part of their normal conversation and may even be interpreted by parents as part of their standard whining.
  3. Some things which annoy Aspergers children would not be considered annoying to others. This makes parents less likely to pick up on a potential problem.
  4. Their facial expressions very often will not convey the irritation.
  5. Their vocal tones will often remain flat even when they are fairly annoyed.

What happens during a Meltdown?

The meltdown appears to most kids as a temper tantrum. There are marked differences between adults and children. Children tend to flop onto the ground and shout, scream or cry. Quite often, they will display violent behavior such as hitting or kicking.

In adults, due to social pressures, violent behavior in public is less common. Shouting outbursts or emotional displays can occur, however. More often though, it leads to depression and the Aspergers child simply retreats into himself and abandons social contact.

Some Aspergers children describe the meltdown as a red or grey band across the eyes. There is a loss of control and a feeling of being a powerless observer outside the body. This can be dangerous as the Aspergers child may strike out, particularly if the instigator is nearby or if they are taunted during a meltdown.


Sometimes, depression is the only outward visible sign of a meltdown. At other times, depression results when the Aspergers child leaves their meltdown state and confronts the results of the meltdown. The depression is a result of guilt over abusive, shouting or violent behavior.

Dealing with Meltdowns in Children—

There's not a great deal of that you can do when a meltdown occurs in a very young child. Probably the very best thing that you can do at their youngest ages is to train yourself to recognize a meltdown before it happens and take steps to avoid it.

Once the child reaches an age where they can understand, probably around seven years give or take a few. You can work on explaining the situation. One way you could do this would be to discreetly videotape a meltdown and allow them to watch it at a later date. You could then discuss the incident, explain why it isn't socially acceptable and give them some alternatives.

My Aspergers Child: Preventing Meltdowns and Tantrums


Anonymous said...

I have absolutely loves reading your newsletters and have passed them on to so many families I work with!!! Thank you for given our children as well as ourselves a voice!!!

I was wondering if you have written anything that may address the difficulties of encountering people, teachers, etc who seem to only identify autism as someone who looks like Rainman, lower functioning, Etc? I'm constantly finding myself having to defend the diagnosis we received from Duke with professionals who "don't see the Autism" because of the subtleties of my daughter's symptoms (at least for them - it's glaringly obvious to the private therapists who work with her). I've been trying to convey to them to look at the LACK OF BEHAVIORS, as they seem to be looking for meltdowns, aggression and constantly telling us, "but she's so smart".

Thank you for all of your amazing articles!!!

Anonymous said...

I don`t. I can tell if it is a meltdown or him just being bold and the meltdowns are not his fault...all i can do is cry :o(

Monica said...

This article describes my daughter to a T. She is 8, and you can see how a meltdown escalates easily, and rarely has anything to do with what starts it. She retreats after, feeling upset for what damage she caused. We realize she cannot help it, and that she is becoming more aware of it. Sort of lije you said, an out of body experience.

Anonymous said...

I use to before I knew his I don't..I know he just needs his time to calm down on his own..always works out better for us both for me to just let him vent and then its all okay

Anonymous said...

I don't punish mine for the meltdown but we let the meltdown subside and then talk about his behavior. Unless he's becoming overly aggressive towards another person then we correct that behavior as it's happening.

Anonymous said...

No. There is a big difference between an Asperger's related meltdown and misbehavior. Seek to help the child cycle back to a calm state and discuss it, but never punish.

Anonymous said...

I walked in on a full blown meltdown when a teacher's aide was trying to RESTRAIN my son to keep him from leaving the classroom as I went to pick him up at the end of the day. I walked in looked him in the face told him to do his breathing, wrapped my arms around him and held him. I told all 3 of the adults who were getting on to him to back off Meltdown was done immediately and my son was back to his old self. The situation was immediately addressed with the principal to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Anonymous said...

What about when the meltdown involves physical harm to a sibling? Shouldn't he be taught that that behavior (meltdown or not) is completely unacceptable?

Anonymous said...

I have found that while my daughter is in the middle of a melt down, you can't get through to her at all. I don't feel punishing her behavior is something acceptable because she literally cannot control herself. Her therapist agrees. The problem is- as Brenda pointed out above me, that if it involves hard to a sibling... unfortunately I just have to do my best to recognize the signs before that happens. You can't punish something that they literally cannot control. When the kids are that out of control the only thing you can do is try to calm them, or just let them go off in a "safe" space until they are calmed enough to reason with them. You can do what you can to teach that behavior is unacceptable, but when they are that out of control, I just don't think that we can teach them that being who they are is wrong. Part of them being who they are is the meltdowns and the self injury, and the sensory overload, etc. The best thing we can do is teach siblings how to react to them, how to be with them, and how to recognize the signs, just as much as we have to be able to recognize the signs. Siblings to some extent, need to be supervised together because there is always the possibility of harm to the other child. I have taught my daughter to come downstairs when her sister starts to get out of control, or to come get help. I have also taught her appropriate ways to deal with situations (to help avoid the melt down before it results in injury to herself). Proactive behavior helps tremendously.

Anonymous said...

A lot of the times after my daughter is done melting down she is legitimately sorry for her behavior... and she apologizes. Her self esteem is so affected by how she reacts, and how she cannot control herself during that time that I can't punish her. She cries when she regains control of her emotions and outbursts and tells everyone how sorry she is and that she is bad... I just don't see how a punishment would be effective to helping her build self esteem and build her back up enough to be effective. My main goal is to assure her that we love her no matter what, no matter what happens, no matter what she does during a melt down, we love her anyway.

Anonymous said...

No, never. Contain, control and calm- never punish, it achieves nothing!

Anonymous said...

I don't punish for a meltdown because it wouldn't get through to her at that point anyway . And as someone else said afterward she always says sorry but her typical is what I didn't do anything .

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree a little. At some point (mines 9) they have to start taking responsibility to notice themselves escalating too and take steps to de-escalate. Secondly, my job is to raise him to hopefully live in society without me someday and if he learns his meltdowns are free for alls with no consequences, then he's not going to make it.
I obviously wait until the meltdown is over and explain why he is responsible for his actions. I also consider all information when choosing a consequence...but he does have a consequence.

Anonymous said...

Punishing a child with aspergers who has a meltdown is like punishing a child with epilepsy that has a seizure. Any parent or carer knows that once that child is in that "zone" that they are totally unable to control themselves and CANNOT be reasoned with or assess and modify their own behaviour. If your child had epilepsy, had a seizure and managed to knock over and smash something would you punish that child?.. Yes you can teach them as much as you can to try and avoid or de-escalate a meltdown. BUT... if does occur it is not naughty behaviour. Any imbocile that punishes a child with aspergers for having a meltdown is totally misinformed and needs to educate oneself more on aspergers syndrome. Punishing the child and trying to "give them a consequence" will only decrease the childs self esteem. Gold help your child Brenda.

Anonymous said...

We can agree to disagree. I feel the these children without consequences for their actions, aspergers or not, are making terrible adults. I do not feel it is the same as an epileptic.
Here's some more logic for you...if an alcholic (a disease where the person has no control over their drinking), drinks and drives and harms someone, should they have consequenses? They didn't really CHOSE to drink and drive because their disease doesn't allow them control, right? a behavioral symptom is not the same as a seizure. You can use behavioral modification to modify behavioral symptoms of aspergers, you can not however use the same type of modifications for a seizure.

Anonymous said...

I can see each side of everyone's opinion but with my son I am going the path Brenda is speaking about because I can't always be with him to offset a meltdown or go through it with him. I don't see it consequences as punishment as much as the realization that the world doesn't revolve around their behavior. Last year my son was having so many meltdowns at school that they came up with a plan to evacuate his classroom to keep himself and classmates safe. It only took one time for that to happen for him to see that this wasn't okay anymore. No more meltdowns in class. I believe he was maniuplating his teachers with meltdowns but it stopped. If he strikes out at any person at home or anywhere, he is removed to a safe place to work it out until he calms down. After the storm, we talk it out and try to find a way to deal the next time.

Anonymous said...

This may cause some arguments but : If you think that punishment for a *Sincere* meltdown is ok then you have not seen a *true* meltdown. just sayin.

Anonymous said...

House rules .....its acceptable to exspress yourself . Not acceptable to hurt, damage or take moods out on others or their belongings . So remove yourself to room, garden ect till you calm down or receive appropriate punishment for inappropriate behaviour. While sympathy to my children and their aspergers they still need to learn to live in the very real cruel world where very few are going to understand or tolerate their meltdowns, ect so life skills and rules need to be taught and inforced. A hug and chat after meltdown to reinforce my love and understanding as well.

Justina Bradley said...

I'm one of those affected by autism. I really hate my parents publishing me for meltdowns.
I have to hide them.

But I can't make them go away. They end up as bouts of depression (interior meltdown's). They'll go away- but instead of feeling sleepy- I think I get so emotionally sick that's it ain't fun.

My meltdown have never left. They just attack me from the inside.
Now I can't do anything about them.

A certain book said that meltdowns were similar to throwing up. If you were grounded for throwing up- and held it in- what would happen? Probably intense stomach cramps- my guess. Very intense.

5twinks said...

Hi, are schools allowed to punish children for their autistic meltdowns???

Suzybaby said...

I didn't know there were such a thing, you've just educated me. Thank you. I thought my son was having melt downs over his fear of going to school but your article describes his behaviour perfectly. I just didn't know. Many thanks x

mich said...

This is ridiculous. They will become narcissist. They can not attack people and damage property and get no consequences!

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