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Aspergers Children: Guidelines for Meltdown Management

How should you handle meltdowns in your Aspergers (high functioning autistic) child?

With an Aspergers child, a certain situation is fraught with frustration, and potential anger. For example, the stress and strain of school days – which are so long and arduous – are like a compressed spring. It's compressed, and compressed, and compressed, and when they get home, there's an explosion (the Jeckyl and Hyde moment). After school, it may be a time for going for a run or a walk, watching TV, etc., to get it out of their system, to debrief or to get rid of that tension.

There are ways that moms and dads may pick up the signs that a meltdown is brewing (e.g., rigid thinking, being intolerant of imperfection, holding his head). Often times, there are warning signs that the Aspergers child is starting to get agitated. So, the circumstances and warning signs may be a clue.

Sometimes the meltdown comes out of the blue when you have no expectation that it's going to occur, that it's out of proportion to the situation. It takes everybody by surprise. Often what occurs is that it's very intense, but brief. What you have to go through is a program on emotions and anger management for that child so that they can telegraph their anger before hand in more constructive ways.

I use what I call “constructive destruction” or “recycling”. One child I worked with had major problems with his mood swings, which seemed to go up and down quite phenomenally and included periods of severe anger. But when he was coming up to those periods of anger, he had cans to crush, telephone directories to tear up, and all sorts of things that he “recycled” because he was fascinated by the environment, geography and recycling. He was able to be channeled to do that and feel better, having done that sort of “emotional vomit” to get it out of his system.

Anger is a serious issue because kids can get expelled from school for it. They may be okay with their schoolwork, they may be reasonably coping with their social life, but if you have one or two periods of anger, especially if somebody is hurt, then you're often excluded from school. And there are a number of Aspergers children that, due to one or two episodes where they were teased or bullied, the anger and the intensity of it gets everybody frightened about the situation. So there are areas in anger-management that need to be gone through, but really it requires someone with expertise in both Aspergers and emotions.

Children with Aspergers often exhibit different forms of challenging behavior. It is crucial that these behaviors are not seen as willful or malicious; rather, they should be viewed as connected to the child’s disability and treated as such by means of thoughtful, therapeutic, and educational strategies, rather than by simplistic and inconsistent punishment or other disciplinary measures that imply the assumption of deliberate misconduct.

Specific problem-solving strategies, usually following a verbal rule, may be taught for handling the requirements of frequently occurring, troublesome situations (e.g., involving novelty, intense social demands, or frustration). Training is usually necessary for recognizing situations as troublesome and for selecting the best available learned strategy to use in such situations.

Here are two very important suggestions on how to approach behavioral management in children with Aspergers:

1. Helping the Aspergers child make choices—

There should not be an assumption that the Aspergers child makes informed decisions based on his own set of elaborate likes and dislikes. Rather he should be helped to consider alternatives of action or choices, as well as their consequences (e.g., rewards and displeasure) and associated feelings. The need for such a set of guidelines is a result of the child’s typical poor intuition and knowledge of self.

2. Setting limits—

A list of frequent problematic behaviors such a preservations, obsessions, interrupting, or any other disruptive behaviors should be made and specific guidelines devised to deal with them whenever the behaviors arise. It is often helpful that these guidelines are discussed with the child in an explicit, rule-governed fashion, so that clear expectations are set and consistency across adults, settings and situations is maintained. These explicit rules should be not unlike curriculum guidelines.

An effort should be made to establish guidelines for limit setting so that parents do not need to improvise on the spur of the moment, thus possibly triggering the child’s oppositionality. When listing the problematic behaviors, it is important that these are specified in a hierarchy of priorities so that the parent and the child can concentrate on a small number of truly disruptive behaviors.

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