Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders


Avoiding Meltdowns and Tantrums While Shopping

All parents with Aspergers children have experienced it: the dreaded meltdown in a public place. Your child is screaming at the top of his lungs while an assortment of disapproving eyes are all focused on you. The pressure is on! What can you do? Fear not, you are not alone.

Below are some tips to preventing meltdowns while shopping:

1. Anything that reduces uncertainty will help to reduce meltdowns. Give your Aspergers youngster a visual list of where you are going and the places you will be visiting. Make cards with pictures of the places you are going to, or cut out pictures from a magazine. Let your youngster help you make the list and arrange the order of places where you are going. In this way, he will be able to anticipate where you are going and what will happen next. Take your list along, and every time you have finished one errand, remove the card from the list and ask your youngster to tell you where you are going next. Once all the cards have been removed from the list, you can take him for a treat (if there were no meltdowns).

2. Set expectations. Before leaving the house, set out clear rules so your Aspie knows what to expect. Explain you are going for only the items on your list – and nothing else (e.g., say to your youngster “we are not buying a toy today” and ask him to repeat this statement back to you). If your youngster knows what to expect before leaving, there is less chance of him having a meltdown when you say “no.”

3. During meltdown, put your Aspergers youngster's needs first. It is tempting to worry about “what everyone else is thinking,” but make eye-contact with your youngster and let him know you are "present" to the situation. Stay cool. The last thing your screaming Aspie needs is to be confronted with a screaming mother or father telling him to “stop it” and threatening to take away all of his favorite toys when you get home. Stay calm and talk to your youngster. Verbal aggression is fueled by lack of communication. When parent and child are shouting at each other, this breaks down the communication even more.

4. Avoid a physical struggle when possible. If a meltdown does happen, you may have to physically restrain your youngster to prevent him from harming himself or others, but generally a physical struggle makes things worse. If your Aspie finds comfort in being held, he will see this as a reward for his meltdown, especially in public. As a result, you may see him having more – not fewer – outbursts.

5. Avoid verbal examinations. Although it is a good idea to talk with your youngster when you are shopping, avoid creating the impression that outings are verbal examinations. Sometimes, well-meaning moms and dads present their youngster with a rapid-fire series of questions (e.g., "What color is that balloon?" … "What shape is that?" … "Point to the clown") as they navigate through their shopping trip. Aspergers kids have speech-processing delays. Because they are already distracted by everything they see during an outing, asking them a series of questions can create additional cognitive demands, and in some cases trigger meltdowns. Allow your youngster's interests to guide occasional questions from you (e.g., if your youngster is staring intently at a poster of a popular kid's book character in a store window, you might ask him the name of the character he sees).

6. Don't make jokes. This is not the time to try and cajole him back to a calm state. If he is shrieking and thrashing around on the floor, put your shopping cart in reverse, tell the check-out lady you will return another time, and physically walk out of the store with your Aspie in tow. Sometimes a different environment is all it takes to calm an Aspergers youngster down. If he doesn't calm down, leave …quickly.

7. Be realistic. Aspergers kids can only be “stimulated” for so long. Be considerate and remind yourself how you feel when something over-stimulates you (e.g., the sound of loud screeching brakes). No child is going to sit quietly as you visit seven shoe stores and try on every pair you like. Cut shopping strips down to one hour (two at the most!). Also, consider browsing websites to find the items you want before going in order to cut down on shopping time.

8. Build in opportunities for choices along the way so that your Aspergers youngster feels he has some control. For example, if you are going to take a break in mid-morning during a shopping spree, you might include a choice of snacks on your youngster's schedule so that he can choose between a fruit smoothie or some chocolate milk. On the visual schedule, the item that comes after the visit to the shoe store can show two images side by side – a fruit smoothie or a container of chocolate milk – from which your youngster can choose.

9. Apologize to bystanders while you attempt to gingerly make your way out the door. You need not gush, simply say, "I'm sorry, we are having a difficult morning."

10. Diffuse the problem ahead of time. If you see a meltdown brewing, try to gently diffuse it by stopping, bending down to your youngster, and speaking softly and gently to “nip it in the bud” before it escalates. Explain the expectations that the two of you agreed upon earlier - and that you both promised “no screaming or shouting” - and give him something to look forward to (e.g., trip to the park on the way home, lunch at McDonald’s, etc.).

11. Use distraction. Only a mother or father can recognize and understand the benefit of using the technique called “distraction.” When that bottom lip starts wobbling, you’ll do whatever it takes to prevent a screaming session. To the uneducated eye, it may appear you are spinning around on one foot, singing “Row Row Row Your Boat” while clapping your hands, but in all actuality, over your years of parenting, you have mastered distraction.

12. For younger children, don’t go out before naps. When possible, have your Aspie take a good hour nap before leaving for a shopping trip. If he is tired, he will be quick to explode if he becomes over-stimulated.

13. Don’t go out hungry. A hungry kid is a grouchy kid. Go shopping – especially food shopping – only after a snack or meal.

14. Ignore the minor tantrums. It can be easy to crumble with embarrassment and feel you must reprimand your child as other shoppers look on. By allowing yourself to get angry and raise your voice, you will simply add fuel to the fire. Tantrums are attempts to get your attention so that your youngster can get what he wants. Ignore the milder form of tantrums, and he will tire-out eventually or forget what he was complaining about. (Note: There is a difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. Tantrums are voluntary – meltdowns are not!)

15. Refrain from trying to act like a full-blown, major meltdown isn't happening. Nothing is more maddening to bystanders than witnessing a mother or father attempting – and tragically failing – to ignore her youngster's “totally out-of-control” behavior. It’s a "lose-lose" situation for all concerned to pretend that high-voltage behavior is not taking place.

With the right techniques, you can avoid public meltdowns and tantrums completely, but this takes time, patience, determination – and sometimes, just plain guts!

My Aspergers Child: Preventing Meltdowns and Tantrums


Heather said...

My aspie used to go with me when I shopped at thrift stores for costumes for plays that I was working on. We would spend literally hours shopping. He would settle into the cart, make himself a nest and find something that entertained him. Once when we were checking out he announced the number of ceiling tiles in the building... he had been counting while I was shopping. And he still - at 17 - still breaks into a cold sweat if we have to go shoe shopping. HE HATES it!

Anonymous said...

yes I do love it when people pretend they're not looking but they are. Sometimes it annoys me but then people judge before even knowing someones circumstances.

Anonymous said...

Good reminders, but it also important to know that maybe the best strategy is to go shopping without the child. For now, while our son is small, we made a promise to our family that the default is that we won't shop with him. It is too much for him, especially with his sensory concerns. I'd rather see him succeed than set him up for another failure.

Anonymous said...

hi to all www.myaspergerschild.comers this is my first post and thought i would say hi -
thank yous speak soon
garry moore

Anonymous said...

we are careful when we go out in public but somehow somewhere that day there will be some kind of problem. i ignore the looks what gets me is when someone comes up and offers advice like " i would just spank his but" and other parenting info when they have no clue as to what is happening. we have gotten good at the shopping we have a little one on the spectrum and my oldest who has aspergers and we always shop with two of us if we have more than one kiddo... makes it easier for one of us to duck out to the car for a calm down period if needed. my oldest does better but my youngest usually has to have a time out to calm down.

Anonymous said...

I could cry out of happiness that I found this group. My son isn't officially diagnosed but have been suspecting it for awhile... His guys if rage lately convince me even more. At his bday party today my friend who has a daughter with Aspergers aasutee me my gut feeling is right. Later on I told my grandma what she said and she said my sister said the same thing. I'm new at this and a single parent..I'm very scared at how I'm going to do this alone.

Anonymous said...

I am happy I found this sight. It makes me feel good to know that I am not alone. I have a question that o Pray I will get honest responses from it. I have 2 children a daughter 12 & son 13. My daughter's diagnosis is borderline ADHD & Aspergers, where my son's is moderate to severe Aspergers & ADHD. My question is am I wrong for spanking them if after talking to them several times and they are still not doing what they are told or they are yelling at me and/or their Dad? I do not care to spank them until they push me to the limit and I am embaressed for even asking, but I am at my witsend and could use some advice on how to handle the disobedients and back talking in any other way. Thank you for any input.

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