Tantrums & Meltdowns: Prevention, Intervention & Post-Meltdown Management


I'm so frustrated! My 4 year old son was diagnosed with high-functioning autism last year, and for the year prior to that I was dealing with his overwhelming emotions. Now it seems like even if he's happy, he's too much for me. When he's not happy, he throws things, slams doors, screams, climbs furniture etc. So basically I have the same behaviors no matter how he's feeling. I fear the thought of going out anywhere with him. I have 4 other children, and he has drained everything I have inside me. I just don't know how to cope with him anymore. He is aggressive to the baby… I have to fight with him to change his clothes. I just feel like I've done all I can and now I'm back at square one again without the ability to do it again. Any advice on how to get through to him and calm him some?


For children with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger's, tantrums and meltdowns look similar in the behavioral sense, but have different causes (click here for more information on tantrums versus meltdowns). In any event, it's much easier to prevent both of these than it is to manage them once they have erupted.

Here are some tips for preventing these behaviors and some things you can say:

Prevention Methods—

• 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 youngster from the source of the meltdown. Say, “Let’s go for a walk.”

• Choose your battles. Teach kids 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 kids can explore without getting into trouble. Childproof your home or classroom so kids can explore safely.

• Distract kids by redirection to another activity when they meltdown over something they should not do or cannot have. Say, “Let’s read a book together.”

• Do not ask kids 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 kids control over little things whenever possible by giving choices. A little bit of power given to the youngster 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 youngster’s reasonable needs? Evaluate how many times you say, “No.” Avoid fighting over minor things.

• Keep a sense of humor to divert the youngster’s attention and surprise the youngster 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 kids are not ready to use them safely.

• Make sure that kids 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 youngster’s developmental level so that the youngster does not become frustrated.

• Reward kids 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 kids 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 youngster beforehand what to expect. Say, “Stay with your assigned buddy in the museum.”

Intervention Methods—

There are a number of ways to handle a meltdown. Strategies include the following:

• Hold the youngster who is out of control and is going to hurt himself or herself or someone else. Let the youngster know that you will let him or her go as soon as he or she calms down. Reassure the youngster that everything will be all right, and help the youngster calm down. Moms and dads may need to hug their youngster 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 youngster who may be afraid because he or she lost control.

• If the youngster 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 youngster to time-out. If you are in a public place, carry your youngster outside or to the car. Tell the youngster that you will go home unless he or she calms down. In school, warn the youngster up to three times that it is necessary to calm down and give a reminder of the rule. If the youngster refuses to comply, then place him or her in time-out for no more than 1 minute for each year of age.

• Remain calm and do not argue with the youngster. Before you manage the youngster, you must manage your own behavior. Spanking or yelling at the youngster will make the meltdown worse.

• Talk with the youngster after the youngster has calmed down. When the youngster stops crying, talk about the frustration the youngster has experienced. Try to help solve the problem if possible. For the future, teach the youngster 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 youngster 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 youngster’s frustration, this youngster’s characteristic temperamental response to stress (hyperactivity, distractibility, moodiness), and the predictable steps in the escalation of the meltdown.

• Try to intervene before the youngster is out of control. Get down at the youngster’s eye level and say, “You are starting to get revved up, slow down.” Now you have several choices of intervention.

• You can ignore the meltdown if it is being thrown to get your attention. Once the youngster calms down, give the attention that is desired.

• You can place the youngster in time away. Time away is a quiet place where the youngster 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 youngster by getting the youngster 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-Meltdown Management—

• Do not reward the youngster after a meltdown for calming down. Some kids will learn that a meltdown is a good way to get a treat later.

• Explain to the youngster that there are better ways to get what he or she wants.

• Never let the meltdown interfere with your otherwise positive relationship with the youngster.

• Never, under any circumstances, give in to a meltdown. That response will only increase the number and frequency of the meltdowns.

• Teach the youngster that anger is a feeling that we all have and then teach her ways to express anger constructively.

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


•    Anonymous said… Bossy can be a trait of aspie, I had to take control back of my son instead of him controlling me with his less than manageable behaviour. As our special educator said, bossy boys become bossy men. So it's very important things are done on your terms not his. Lastly, is he sleeping? If not, look into it. My boy was so overtired nothing was ever going to settle until that was sorted. Diagnosis is overwhelming too. Be gentle and kind to yourself.
•    Anonymous said… Heavy work activities work well too. Have him help you carry or go up and down the stairs for stuff.
•    Anonymous said… I found that my Aspie daughter (when she was young) would act out when she was emotionally overwhelmed. Happy or sad it was too much sensory input for her. I would get her to let me hold her and put my hands over her ears. Don't know why but the closeness and lack of hearing was calming for her emotions. She is 18 now and when she is very upset, she still wants me to hold her ears. Can't hurt to try it?
•    Anonymous said… I would look for another diagnosis. My son didn't have anger issues or jealousy issues. We did not coddle him nor did we excuse his behavior. He received the same discipline as his sister. He is 32 now and has two college degrees. I suggest you nip this behavior in the bud. Oh and Aspies do not respond to punitive punishment. You have to use logic. Reasoning and bargaining does not word either.
•    Anonymous said… ive looked into essential oils to help my daughter, she is 6 years old, we have been using Doterra 100% pure CPTG oils. Balance, serenity (diffuse in the house and apply to her feet) and ive just bought Intune (rollerball) on really bad days i put a few drops in her bath. we have found they really helped with her sleep and calming her.
•    Anonymous said… My little one is having a lot of success with primitive reflex integration therapy. I don't know if this is helpful for all Aspie's, but it is definitely worth looking into. I agree that the 1, 2, 3 Magic was very helpful. I also agree that amount of sleep makes a huge impact. I know my Aspie needs more sleep than her age peers, and it can be challenging to figure out what the best sleep schedule is for any child.
•    Anonymous said… My mother always said if I was at my end to cope Just give him love , give him rescue drops or pills and camel mild tea
•    Anonymous said… OT for sensory issues will help a ton! He needs lots of physical activity!
•    Anonymous said… Setting very clear boundaries, and exiting the situation (grocery store, birthday party, park day) and going home let her know that I was serious.
•    Anonymous said… Talk to your pediatrician about autism support. Your state probably has some things in place. Also ask for information about parent support groups and play groups. Find a friend or neighbor who would be willing to take him for an hour or two when you are at your wit's end.

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