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Meltdowns and Punishment: Tips for Parents of Kids on the Autism Spectrum

"I know parents shouldn't punish a child for having a meltdown, but how do I know when it's a meltdown versus flat out bad attitude?"

One of the most important things for parents to realize is that a meltdown is a trait of High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger's. Because meltdowns can often look like tantrums, it's sometimes difficult to know what course of action to take.

To make matters worse, a particular behavior may be meltdown-related on one occasion, but a simple tantrum on another occasion (e.g., the child may have a tantrum over a certain food item because it tastes "yucky," yet he or she acts-out in the same way over another food item due to a gustatory (i.e., taste) sensitivity.

Children on the autism spectrum can avoid tantrums - but not meltdowns. The best parents can do is try to reduce the damage. Punishing a 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 that "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 child may not be able to fully communicate the problem.

A meltdown is a condition where the HFA or Asperger's child temporarily loses control due to emotional responses to environmental factors (e.g., sensory sensitivities, anxiety, social frustration, etc.). It generally appears that the 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 that kids on the autism spectrum are known to have.

In addition, the problems may seem hidden due to the following:
  • Kids on the autism spectrum don't tend to give a lot of clues that they are irritated.
  • Often times, the child's grievances are aired as part of his or her normal conversation and may be interpreted by parents as part of his or her standard whining.
  • Some things that annoy HFA and Asperger's kids would not be considered annoying to other kids, which makes parents less likely to pick up on a potential problem.
  • Their facial expressions very often will not convey frustration.
  • Their vocal tones will often remain flat - even when they are highly agitated.

Some children on the spectrum 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 child may strike out, particularly if the instigator is nearby or if the HFA child is taunted during a meltdown.

Sometimes, depression is the only outward visible sign of a meltdown. At other times, depression results when the child leaves his or her meltdown-state and confronts the results of the meltdown. The depression is a result of guilt over abusive or violent behavior, which may result in a shutdown (e.g., the child curls up into a fetal position and hides from the world).

Sometimes, the best thing that parents can do is to train themselves to recognize the triggers to a meltdown before the meltdown happens - and take steps to avoid it. Once the child reaches an age where he or she can understand "meltdown triggers," parents can work on explaining the situation.

One way to do this is to discreetly videotape a meltdown and allow the child to watch it after he or she has calmed down (kids on the spectrum are very visual and learn best from images and videos). You could then discuss the incident, explain why it isn't socially acceptable, and give the child some alternatives.

More resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

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