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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

“False Dilemma”: A Thinking Error in Children on the Autism Spectrum

Would you, as a parent, say your youngster with Asperger’s (AS) or High Functioning Autism (HFA) does any of the following:
  • Judges himself as strong or weak, smart or stupid?
  • Looks for too much certainty in a world full of uncertainty?
  • Over-monitors his decisions as right or wrong, good or bad?
  • Reacts emotionally when things don't look right?
  • Thinks in terms of extremes (i.e., all or nothing, black or white)?

If so, then your child may be experiencing a “false dilemma." In other words, she believes she is stuck in an awful predicament, when in reality, she is not. When AS and HFA children fall victim to a false dilemma, they have mistakenly reduced an entire spectrum of possibilities down to the two most extreme options, each the polar opposite of the other without any shades of grey in between. Often, those categories are of their own creation, and they are attempting to force the world to conform to their preconceptions about what it should look like.

A false dilemma means seeing the world only in terms of extremes. If things aren't "perfect," then they must be "horrible." If your youngster isn't "brilliant," then he thinks he must be "stupid." In real-life, situations are almost always shades of gray – not black or white. Falling victim to a false dilemma tends to exacerbate depression, anxiety, and a host of other everyday problems.

Unfortunately, under duress, AS and HFA children often regress to a primitive way of thinking. They are most prone to regressing to primitive thinking when they are having a hard time and feel overwhelmed by their own emotions. A “regression” is a backsliding from age-appropriate functioning/thinking to more immature ways of functioning/thinking. For that one moment, when the child starts relying on the words "always" or "never" and views the world in black and white terms, she is slipping back to the way she saw the world as a toddler.

Problems associated with false dilemmas:
  • A false dilemma often creates “artificial needs” in the child’s life that lead to disappointment and depression. This is his tendency to think that he “must” have something, or he “must” do something, or life “must” be a certain way – otherwise it will be unbearable. The false dilemma doesn’t open him up to the possibility that, even if life doesn’t work out exactly the way he thinks it should, he can still be happy.
  • When the child only see things in black and white, she misses out on alternative ways of viewing the world. These other perspectives may be just as good if not better than her current perspective. A false dilemma often creates a false choice between “A” and “B,” when “C” is the more accurate and helpful view. Unfortunately, if the child only thinks in black and white terms, then she is unlikely to even consider “C” a possibility in the first place.
  • A false dilemma makes AS and HFA children less adaptive to their surroundings. This hinders their development. It’s also what keeps them stuck in old habits and thought patterns. 
  • A false dilemma doesn’t just hurt the child, but also the relationships he tries to build with others. When he views the world in strict and over-simplistic terms, he is less likely to compromise and cooperate with others to meet common interests. This is because he doesn’t see the grey areas in life (which is a mind-blindness issue that most kids on the spectrum experience). He believes everything needs to be a specific way, and he isn’t willing to deviate from this narrow view of the world. This makes him stubborn and frustrating to live with.

Most AS and HFA children simply do not have the vocabulary to describe the middle ground. For example, the child either considers someone to be a friend or not. The concept of different levels of friendship and the gradual building of trust may be unknown.

Perhaps worst of all for children on the autism spectrum is the perfectionism pursuant to a false dilemma – and the self-condemnation which may follow. Many AS and HFA children often think they should be doing everything “right,” because if it’s not right (i.e., perfect), it’s certainly wrong. In this way, the false dilemma may underlie some of the “refusals” and “difficulty initiating” that parents and teachers often see in these children. So, learning (which involves, first, not knowing things and gradually learning them while making mistakes along the way) can be an excruciating process. Starting a writing assignment, for example, can be overwhelming to the point of paralysis.

How parents and teachers can help the AS or HFA child who experiences frequent false dilemmas:

AS and HFA children need to be taught two important concepts: (1) gradual change and (2) the vocabulary fitting specific situations.

1. First is to help the child perceive the concept of a graduated scale, levels, steps, processes, etc. There are numerous ways to make the concept concrete and establish a metaphor for reference. For example:
  • a glass filling with water (empty gradually, changing to full)
  • day versus night (view the in-between, dawn or sunset)
  • downstairs versus upstairs (take the stairs, stop partway)
  • speedometer (you can’t go from 1 to 100 in a quantum leap)
  • an actual grayscale in Photoshop could be used for those children who are into graphics or photography

Choose a metaphor to which your youngster may easily relate, and may fit the situation you first want to address. Depending on the age of the child and cognitive level, you can use the real items, drawings, or just conversation to develop the “graduated levels” concept.

2. Never try to “reason with” a child on the autism spectrum. Logic, reasoning, and explanation unfortunately results in the youngster becoming angry and more insistent on his viewpoint. It is better to let him have his viewpoint. When you catch yourself feeling frustrated that he simply won’t listen to reason, you need to recognize that he is stuck in a false dilemma and end the conversation. At a later point in time, when he is calm, you can bring up the topic and together make a list of all the possible ways to view the situation or all the possible solutions.

Write down all possible ideas regardless of how good they are, and do not make negative comments; otherwise, your youngster will become resistant. Write the pros and cons of each one and then discuss which idea looks the best. Through this technique, you are teaching your youngster how to look at situations from another perspective. He may still rigidly hold to his original idea, but at least you are teaching him how to consider other options. Also, you can encourage him to think about what someone else would do if they were in his situation. He may also be responsive to a suggestion that he ask others what they would do.


•    Anonymous said... I have Asperger Syndrome, and I also have trouble understanding where grey areas lie. Here are some things you can try that might help your child (or the child you work with) who is on the Autism Spectrum understand more about grey areas. Next time you have your child in the car with you, show him/her a traffic light, and explain what each of the lights mean. The red light means stop, the green light means go/keep going, and the yellow light means slow down and be ready to stop if you need to. If the traffic light has an arrow, this means it's only safe/unsafe to go in this direction. The yellow light and the arrow may be used as grey areas between stop and go. Also, have your child observe the light changing colors. Another thing you can do is while your child (or the child you work with) is waiting for his/her school bus, explain what the school bus lights and other signals mean. When the yellow lights turn on, this means that it's going to be time for your child to get on/off the bus soon, and that all other vehicles on the road should be ready to stop if needed. When the red lights turn on and the stop sign comes out, this means it's time for your child to get on/off the bus, and all other vehicles on the road NEED TO STOP, and may not go again until the stop sign closes and the red lights turn off.
•    Anonymous said... Many thanks for writing this blog. As a 50-something adult on the spectrum, I am giving the tips my energy and will endeavor to continue toward a place of grayer thinking. "My Aspergers Child" stuff often works for we elders, too. Great insight, I truly appreciate and will share (giving you credit, of course). Best! Liane Holliday Willey, EdD
•    Anonymous said... This is a great post, and would be really helpful in a video-type format, as my son's Aspie Dad has real issues with this, and would benefit from this info. Alas, he finds wordy posts like this make him tune out. On the other hand, it is a helpful read for me, so thank you!

Post your comment below…

The Traits of High-Functioning Autism: Fact Sheet

Is there a detailed list of traits associated with high functioning autism that we can use as a gauge to see whether or not to have our child assessed?

A child with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) or Asperger's often has many of the following traits:
  1. Has a different form of introspection and self-consciousness
  2. Has a fascination with a topic that is unusual in intensity or focus
  3. Takes longer to process social information due to using intelligence rather than intuition
  4. Needs assistance with some self-help and organizational skills
  5. Enjoys a very brief and low intensity expression of affection, and becomes confused or overwhelmed when greater levels of expression are experienced or expected
  6. Collects facts and figures about a specific topic
  7. Has a tendency to be considered disrespectful and rude by others
  8. Has a tendency to make a literal interpretation of what someone says
  9. Has an unusual profile of learning abilities
  10. Teachers often identify problems with organizational abilities, especially with homework assignments and essays
  11. Teachers soon recognize that the child has a distinctive learning style, being talented in understanding the logical and physical world, noticing details, and remembering and arranging facts in a systematic fashion
  12. Often has levels of anxiety, depression or anger that indicate a secondary mood disorder
  13. Can be easily distracted, especially in the classroom
  14. When problem solving, the child appears to have a one-track mind and a fear of failure
  15. Has a different, but not defective, way of thinking
  16. Is clumsy in terms of gait and coordination
  17. Has a delay in the development of the art of persuasion, compromise and conflict resolution
  18. Has delayed social maturity and social reasoning
  19. Has difficulty reading the messages in someone’s eyes
  20. Has difficulty making friends
  21. Is often teased by peers due to his/her “odd” mannerisms
  22. Has difficulty with the communication and control of emotions
  23. If the child with HFA is not successful socially at school, then academic success becomes more important as the primary motivation to attend school and for the development of self-esteem
  24. In adolescence, the interests can evolve to include electronics and computers, fantasy literature, science fiction, and a fascination with a particular person
  25. Much of the knowledge associated with the child's special interest is self-directed and self-taught
  26. Is vulnerable to feeling depressed, with about 1 in 3 HFA children having clinical depression
  27. Experiences physical and emotional exhaustion from socializing
  28. Has problems knowing when something may cause embarrassment to others
  29. Is remarkably honesty
  30. Has sensitivities to specific sounds, aromas, sights, tastes and touch 
  31. Can be immature in the development of the ability to catch, throw or kick a ball
  32. HFA girls often develop a special interest in fiction rather than facts 
  33. Often has academic abilities above his/her grade level
  34. Sometimes the special interest is a particular animal, and can be so intense that the child acts like the animal
  35. Has difficulties with handwriting
  36. Becomes hypervigilant, tense and distractible in sensory stimulating environments (e.g., in the classroom), unsure when the next painful sensory experience will occur
  37. The emotion management can be conceptualized as a problem with "energy management," specifically an excessive amount of emotional energy, and difficulty controlling and releasing the energy constructively
  38. Emotional maturity is usually at least three years behind that of his/her peers
  39. The special interest can be a source of enjoyment, knowledge, self-identity and self-esteem that can be constructively used by parents, teachers and therapists
  40. The most common sensory sensitivity is to very specific sounds
  41. There can be an under- or over- reaction to the experience of pain and discomfort
  42. The sense of balance, movement perception, and body orientation can be unusual
  43. May have a fixation on something neither human nor toy, or a fascination with a specific category of objects and the acquisition of as many examples as possible
  44. The child’s overriding priority may be to solve a problem rather than satisfy the social or emotional needs of others
  45. The child is usually renowned for being direct, speaking his/her mind and being determined and having a strong sense of social justice
  46. The child may actively seek and enjoy solitude, be a loyal friend, and have a distinct sense of humor
  47. The child usually has a strong desire to seek knowledge, truth and perfection with a different set of priorities than would be expected with "typical" children 
  48. The child values being creative rather than co-operative
  49. Can have difficulty with the management and expression of emotions
  50. May perceive errors that are not apparent to others, giving considerable attention to detail rather than noticing the “big picture”
  51. The child's special interest has several functions: to (a) create a sense of identity, (b) create an alternative world, (c) ensure greater predictability and certainty in life, (d) facilitate conversation and indicate intellectual ability, (e) help understand the physical world, (f) overcome anxiety, (g) provide pleasure, and (h) provide relaxation
  52. There seems to be two main categories of special interest: collections, and the acquisition of knowledge on a specific topic or concept
  53. Has a limited vocabulary to describe emotions, and a lack of subtlety and variety in emotional expression
  54. Tends to have a different perception of situations and sensory experiences
  55. May have problems expressing the degree of love and affection expected by others
  56. Unusual language abilities that include advanced vocabulary and syntax, but delayed conversation skills, unusual prosody, and a tendency to be pedantic
  57. Unusual or special interests can develop as early as age 2 to 3 years and may commence with a preoccupation with parts of objects (e.g., spinning the wheels of toy cars) or manipulating electrical switches
  58. HFA traits are more conspicuous in early childhood and gradually diminish during adolescence, but some traits remain throughout adulthood
  59. When one considers the attributes associated with the special interests, it is important to consider not only the benefits to the HFA child, but also the benefits to society
  60. The child’s coordination can be immature. and he/she may have a strange, sometimes idiosyncratic gait that lacks fluency and efficiency

If most of the traits above characterize your child, then an assessment by a qualified professional would be in order.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

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

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

My child has been rejected by his peers, ridiculed and bullied !!!

Social rejection has devastating effects in many areas of functioning. Because the ASD child tends to internalize how others treat him, rejection damages self-esteem and often causes anxiety and depression. As the child feels worse about himself and becomes more anxious and depressed – he performs worse, socially and intellectually.

Click here to read the full article…

How to Prevent Meltdowns in Children on the Spectrum

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 starts, the Asperger's or HFA child is totally out-of-control. When it ends, both you and your child 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 in full force.

Click here for the full article...

Parenting Defiant Teens on the Spectrum

Although Aspergers [high-functioning autism] is at the milder end of the autism spectrum, the challenges parents face when disciplining a teenager on the spectrum are more difficult than they would be with an average teen. Complicated by defiant behavior, the teen is at risk for even greater difficulties on multiple levels – unless the parents’ disciplinary techniques are tailored to their child's special needs.

Click here to read the full article…

Older Teens and Young Adult Children with ASD Still Living At Home

Your older teenager or young “adult child” isn’t sure what to do, and he is asking you for money every few days. How do you cut the purse strings and teach him to be independent? Parents of teens with ASD face many problems that other parents do not. Time is running out for teaching their adolescent how to become an independent adult. As one mother put it, "There's so little time, yet so much left to do."

Click here to read the full article…

Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism

Two traits often found in kids with High-Functioning Autism are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the youngster’s ability to empathize with peers. As a result, he or she may be perceived by adults and other children as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

Click here
to read the full article...

Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and HFA

Become an expert in helping your child cope with his or her “out-of-control” emotions, inability to make and keep friends, stress, anger, thinking errors, and resistance to change.

Click here for the full article...