ABA therapists

ABA Therapists Talk Major Meltdown Management

Parents of children with autism are acutely familiar with “meltdowns.” Over time, they grow attuned to them, gain a better sense of what and when to expect them and become increasingly adept at avoiding the most obvious triggers, reducing frequency and minimizing the effects.

FOCUS Fort Myers ABA therapists know that to outsiders, meltdowns and tantrums can seem analogous. The reality is they are very different. It’s not the result of a child or person who is trying to be difficult or disruptive (though many autism parents are familiar with the looks and judgments of people who assume so). Meltdowns occur when a child is utterly overwhelmed and often unable to express that in a way that is appropriate or easily understood.

Further, ABA therapists recognize meltdowns aren’t the only way someone with autism might express these intense feelings. It might also manifest with the person withdrawing from or avoiding a situation or interaction. It’s unique for every person, and often, recognizing these other indicators can signal to parents, teachers and caregivers when it’s time to intervene or remove someone from a situation.

What Causes Autism Meltdowns

Although the exact triggers can be widely disparate from person-to-person (some totally catching parents off-guard), it often has to do with sensory overload.

Many parents are told to expect improvements when a child’s expressive and receptive communication improves. To some extent, this is true. However, it’s not the only piece of the puzzle.

One study published last year in the Journal of Development and Physical Disabilities, revealed meltdowns among preschoolers with autism who objectively had the intelligence and speech and language skills to communicate their needs and frustrations still had meltdowns at the same rate and intensity as those who did not. 

Said the lead researcher: “We should stop telling parents of children with autism that their child’s behavior will get better once they start talking or their language improves, because we know have enough studies to show that that is unlikely to happen without additional help.”

So what does that “additional help” look like? Although researchers theorized that mood and low tolerance for frustration were the most common catalysts (saying more study is necessary to pinpoint exact causes), they all agreed that applied behavior analysis – as offered by well-trained and certified ABA therapists – makes a huge positive difference for children with autism in managing meltdowns. Specifically, it helps these children to become more flexible, giving them socially acceptable tools to use so they can get their needs met without using these behaviors (or further making those behaviors an impediment to having their needs met).

Minimizing a Meltdown

As many parents of children with autism know, meltdowns are often preceded with signs of distress. This can take the form of:

  • Pacing
  • Reassurance seeking through repetitive questioning
  • Physical indicators (becoming very still or rocking)

If you can catch it while still in this stage, you have a decent shot at being able to avoid the meltdown altogether. ABA therapists recommend strategies that involve some type of diversion and distraction or helping the child calm, maybe by listening to music, handling certain toys and removing whatever the triggers are. It’s also important at all times to remain as calm as you can yourself.

If you are going to be encountering a situation you think will be stressful, considering the following tips:

  • Take a virtual tour. Go to the location’s website or consider taking your own cell phone pictures or videos. Review those images with your child so they know exactly what to expect.
  • Prepare a schedule. Many children and adults on the autism spectrum benefit a lot from having a daily schedule. Visual schedules can be especially useful. Use the pictures and then talk to your child about it. Perhaps you can even schedule one of your child’s favorite activities or foods immediately following the new event. (This could even be just bringing your child’s favorite game or toy to offer afterward.)
  • Get enough rest. This is critical because if your child (or you) don’t get enough rest, tolerance is going to be in short supply all around.
  • Prepare with the right tools. You know your child’s triggers. Pay attention and be ready to employ the diversion, distraction and removal if necessary. But also have the tools you need. If you know it’s going to be noisy, perhaps bring headphones. If you know the lights will be glaring, offer your child a baseball cap or sunglasses.

If you have specific questions about an upcoming outing and how best to prepare to reduce the chance of a meltdown, our Fort Myers ABA therapists are happy to offer insight.

FOCUS offers pediatric ABA therapy in Fort Myers and throughout Southwest Florida. Call (239) 313.5049 or Contact Us online.

Additional Resources:

Tantrums are Not Associated with Speech or Language Deficits in Preschool Children with Autism, August 2017, Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities 

More Blog Entries:

Back-to-School Blues: Helping Children With Autism Tackle the Tough Routine Change, Aug. 12, 2018, Fort Myers ABA Therapists Blog

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