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Why are children on the autism spectrum prone to "meltdowns"?

Children with ASD level 1 or High Functioning Autism (HFA) are prone to meltdowns when they find themselves trapped in a situation that is difficult to cope with, especially those which involve frustration, sensory overload, pain or confusion. These situations tend to happen more frequently for children who have one or more of the following characteristics:
  • Communication delays or challenges
  • Difficulty identifying and controlling emotions 
  • Difficulty understanding cause and effect 
  • Difficulty with social comprehension
  • Executive functioning disruption 
  • Hypersensitivity to sensory input
  • Low frustration threshold
  • Low frustration tolerance
  • Resistance to change
  • Rigid or inflexible thinking
  • Sensory integration dysfunctions

Think of meltdowns as an “escape mechanism.” If the HFA child has the means to get himself out of a stressful situation before it becomes overwhelming, the cognitive and emotional pressure subsides. Without these means of escape, the stress will escalate, and the child’s body will begin to panic, setting him on a course towards neurological meltdown.

Escape routes are such things as:
  • Autonomy (the freedom to make their own decisions)
  • Coping and calming mechanisms (being able to soothe themselves under stress)
  • Independence (the ability to act on decisions)
  • Language and comprehension (understanding others and making themselves understood)
  • Motor and social skills (the ability to prevent or remove themselves from uncomfortable situations)

“Typical” children without autism have a functional set of escape routes. For example, they:
  • Can calm themselves down relatively quickly in most cases
  • Can communicate their needs and emotions
  • Can regulate the extra sensory input
  • Have the freedom to leave when a stressful situation becomes too much to handle
  • Know what it feels like when they are getting upset
  • Understand that most people don't deliberately try to hurt them

 ==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism

In short, “typical” children have coping strategies that allow emotional and cognitive stress to defuse. But, this is not the case with HFA children. When these “special needs” kids find themselves in a stressful situation from which they can’t easily escape, their brain becomes flooded with emotional, sensory or cognitive input, which jams the circuits and initiates a “fight-or-flight” response associated with panic.

Executive functions (e.g., memory, planning, reasoning, decision-making) start to short-circuit, which makes it even more difficult for these kids to find a way out of the painful situation. Eventually, the neurological pressure builds to the point where it is released externally as an outburst of physical energy (e.g., yelling, hitting, throwing things, etc.). Although this explosive reaction resembles a temper tantrum and often seems to come from nowhere, it's just one part of the meltdown cycle.

Meltdowns and temper tantrums can often look the same on the outside, but that’s where the similarity ends. A temper tantrum is a voluntary “battle of wills” to try and gain control over a situation. It’s designed to draw attention for the sole purpose of satisfying a want (e.g., having more time to play video games) or avoiding something that is unwanted (e.g., shutting off the computer and getting ready for bed), so once that goal has been met, the outburst quickly resolves itself.

Conversely, meltdowns are almost the complete opposite. A meltdown is an involuntary physical and emotional reaction to being placed in an overwhelming situation from which there is no easy escape. The child isn’t in control or trying to get attention, in fact he is often unaware of things happening around him.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD

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