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Meltdowns in High-Functioning Autistic Kids: Crucial Strategies for Parents and Teachers

"How does one tell the difference between meltdowns and temper tantrums in a high functioning child? I certainly do not want to punish my son for something he cannot control." 

High-Functioning Autism (HFA), also referred to as 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. HFA 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 HFA 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 on the autism spectrum (and for their parents), these episodes are much worse.

Many HFA 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 kids on the spectrum have a high pain tolerance, yet they may not like to walk barefoot in grass.





There are nine different types of temperaments in HFA 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 HFA 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 kids on the spectrum. 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 youngster has to find ways to cope with the disorder, 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.

HFA children 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 traits associated with the disorder, but if you work with your kid, she will eventually learn to control them somewhat.

HFA kids don’t like surprises and some don’t like to be touched. Never rush to your youngster 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.


HFA 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 youngster 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

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