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Recognizing an Autism Meltdown and Supporting Our Son

Updated: Apr 14, 2023

By Beth Ann

We had two children prior to having Will so we had some experience with typical childhood tantrums. Unfortunately, typical childhood tantrums are not the same as autism meltdowns. Paired with the fact that Will didn’t get his autism diagnosis until he was almost 17, we were ill-equipped when it came to parent him let alone parent him through a meltdown. We did have an ADHD diagnosis, likely a misdiagnosis, which was in the neuroatypical family but there didn’t seem to be as much information available regarding the different brain functioning. Much of what we read and were coached through centered around a few specific strategies:

  • Keep the hyperactivity under control by keeping the child busy and providing aids like fidgets to help the child cope with his impulses

  • Allow the child to multi-task in certain situations. For example, let the child doodle while listening to lessons in class (this was included in our son’s early IEPs)

  • Break down required activities into bite-sized pieces to help him focus. So instead of telling him to clean his room, an overwhelming job, we would break it into steps e.g. first just gather all of the clothes from the floor and put them in a pile. Next, pick up all the papers and notebooks. We would provide breaks in between certain activities to keep him motivated.

You get the idea. When it came to challenging behaviors and discipline, there were themes like predictable consequences, positive attention, and redirection. The problem, however, is that some of the strategies and forms of consequences were inappropriate for a child on the spectrum. I’ll give you an example. Will would go to school of course. After 7-8 hours of school, he would come home. In an effort to keep him busy, we would immediately give him some things to do. What we didn’t know at the time was that Will spent those hours at school masking and being overstimulated by the noise, the requirements and expectations, the lessons to which he had to pay attention and sadly, the bullying he experienced. So, when he came home, the last thing he needed was immediate tasks and requirements. When we gave him a list of three things to do – even if it amounted to 15 minutes of work – he would meltdown. Then we would get frustrated, discipline him as we would discipline our non-autistic children and then experience the chaotic results.

So how is an autism meltdown different than a traditional tantrum or even an Oppositional Defiance Disorder episode? There is an element of intent with a tantrum. A tantrum is in response to something that isn’t going the way a child wants it to. They want to draw attention and express their dissatisfaction and anger. An autism meltdown is an involuntary response to stimuli and often a result of sensory overload. It can't be stopped. Once Will was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, so many things made more sense. His triggers could quite obviously be attributed to his autism:

  • Poor response to unexpected changes. Example: a lack of structure and being asked to do things he didn’t know he was going to have to do.

  • Sensory overload. Example: after a long day of the noise and requirements of school, he needed time in a quiet room to destress and recharge.

  • Food issues. Example: if Will ordered garlic bread at a restaurant and it arrived with anything green on it (parsley, oregano), he would become upset. Also, if asked to eat something that he could not handle from a sensory perspective (texture, smell, appearance), he would react.

  • Wet clothing, tags or being overheated. Example: One of his frequent meltdowns as a young child occurred during trips in his car seat. He would meltdown, crying, “My back is hot!”

So now we have a much greater ability to look ahead and predict what situations may cause him to meltdown. This enables us to prepare and mitigate. Not everything can be avoided so sometimes, he still has a meltdown. However, we have learned how to better respond although it took trial and error. In the past when he had a meltdown, I would try to talk with him. I would ask questions or try to tell him the issue wasn’t a big deal and essentially try to talk him out of the meltdown. Of course, this only made it worse. Forcing my son to try and process additional stimuli was ineffective. My lack of understanding his meltdowns and subsequently telling him the situation was no big deal was totally invalidating and useless. He was unable to stop the meltdown at that moment because it was involuntary. What I learned to do was sit quietly while the meltdown unfolded. At first, it was a difficult thing to do and frankly, counterintuitive. As a mother, I hated to see my son suffering. But I had to realize that nothing I said or did would halt the meltdown. It needed to play out. I sit with him quietly and maybe ask only if he wants a hug. Sometimes he says he does and sometimes not. Eventually, he regains his composure and will talk about it if he feels like it.

We have learned a great deal in the year following his diagnosis. I never stop reading, watching relevant videos, learning from other parents and listening to what Will has to say about his autism. I recently began looking into autism-centered treatment in our area. To my surprise, there are several practices within a reasonable distance. I have renewed hope as we continue to learn about Will's condition and as we watch him learn and mature. Where will he be in another year? I'm excited to find out!


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