sensory meltdown

Tantrum or Sensory Meltdown? Fort Myers ABA Therapists Explain

When working with kids who have varying sensory struggles, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a tantrum or a sensory meltdown. Our Fort Myers ABA therapists recognize that it often takes some detective work to differentiate. But determining which is which is important when formulating the most effective response.

A sensory meltdown can be especially tough to identify because a child’s sensory thresholds can vary from day-to-day or even hour-to-hour.

Some behaviors that may be present in BOTH:

  • Screaming
  • Kicking
  • Name-calling
  • Hitting
  • Crying
  • Hiding or avoidance

Tantrums, however are typically a response to a child not receiving something they want or an anticipated outcome. Sensory meltdowns, meanwhile, stem from sensory overload, with reactions being to the big feelings that the overload can cause.

In the case of a meltdown due to sensory issues, parents may need to formulate a strategy that plans ahead, rather than simply react to the meltdown when it happens. That means meeting their sensory needs through a sensory diet (unique to each child) that can help them avoid feeling completely overloaded and overwhelmed.

We need to look carefully at the sorts of things that can trigger a sensory meltdown. Some possible meltdown triggers can include:

  • Being overly tired or hungry.
  • Generally not feeling well. (This can stem from illness, food sensitivity, overheating, etc.)
  • Being expected to “hold it together” for long periods of time, such as going to summer camp, school, or on play dates.
  • An abrupt change in routine – anything outside of the ordinary – can set off sensory overload.

Because the overload may not be immediate, it can sometimes appear like a meltdown “came out of nowhere.” But there is almost always a source when we look very carefully at the “antecedents,” or events that occurred prior to the meltdown. You may even have to go back a few days to pinpoint the cause.

Toddlers and preschoolers may be especially prone to tantrums because they do not have the motor, language, or problem-solving skills to work through some of their frustrations on their own. They may have an emerging desire to be independent, without having the skills to actually BE independent. They might have emerging language skills, and thus are unable to communicate what they actually want or need. They may have big feelings, but lack the prefrontal cortex development to emotionally regulate. They may have a growing understanding of the world around them, but also a lot of anxiety about how to move through it.

Tantrums usually only end when a child gets what they want or when they’re rewarded for better behavior.

Meltdowns, on the other hand, only end when the child tires out or the sensory input is altered. They stem from what we sometimes refer to as a “physiological traffic jam” in the central nervous system. There is too much overstimulation and feeling limited in your ability to “exit.” This can trigger a “fight or flight” response.

As parents, therapists, teachers, and caregivers, it’s important to recognize that the behaviors we’re seeing are not controllable behavioral reactions. Rather, they are physiological responses. This is why our Fort Myers ABA therapists and occupational therapists put such emphasis on identifying which is which so that you can appropriately respond.

With tantrums, you need to recognize the motivation or purpose, reinforce positive behavior, and build skills for success.

Meltdowns, however, can sometimes be avoided when we use visual schedules, social stories, and checklists to help kids know what is expected. There are no surprises or question marks. Reducing the unexpected changes in routine is going to reduce the overall stress that can trigger a meltdown.

We also recommend routine sensory diet activities, like scheduling quiet time or offering them breaks for sensory input.

Parents and teachers should also be able to recognize signs of a child’s distress. This could be covering their ears or rocking back-and-forth or humming or bolting from the room. Once you are able to quickly recognize the signs of overstimulation, you can respond to help them regulate before reaching the meltdown stage.

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

Additional Resources:

Expert Ways to Help Tame Tantrums and Manage Meltdowns, June 18, 2021, By Alescia Ford-Lanza, MS, OTR/L, ATP, Autism Parenting Magazine

More Blog Entries:

Study: Less than 1/2 Kids With Autism Undergo Early Intervention Therapy, July 30, 2022, FOCUS ABA Therapy Blog

FOCUS Therapy sensory gym

Our Favorite Sensory Gym Equipment for Kids With Disabilities & Delays

A sensory gym can be summed up in a single phrase: “Putting the FUN in FUNctional!”

If your child is beginning pediatric therapy (speech, occupational, physical, or ABA) at one of our two Fort Myers clinics, you’ve probably noticed some areas decorated with bright walls and packed with an array of Some of the equipment you see might look a lot like what you’ll observe in a playground or actual gym.

Although it may look like a bit of a free-for-all, a sensory gym is strategically designed to provide a structured environment to help children with delays and disabilities work on their sensory, motor, and communication skills.

ABA therapy

How Behavior Chaining Works in ABA Therapy

ABA therapy, short for applied behavior analysis or behavior therapy, focuses on studying behaviors – understanding them – and then incorporating techniques that promote expected behaviors and modify unexpected behaviors. One of the strategies our Fort Myers ABA therapy team employs is called “chaining.”

Chaining is a type of evidence-based technique that we can use to teach kids basic skills like handwashing or waiting their turn to more independent life skills.

The basic idea is that you’re breaking down each task into a series of mini-tasks. Many of us take for granted that skills like using the restroom or engaging in a conversation require numerous steps. We don’t give a second thought to every single step needed to complete everyday tasks – but there are, in fact, many. It takes some kids with developmental delays and disorders lots of practice to master each individual step.

Let’s take handwashing, for instance. It’s considered a single, simple task. But in ABA therapy, we recognize that there are many smaller steps to it. We break it down into little, teachable bits. These include:

  • Turning on the sink.
  • Adjusting the water temperature.
  • Getting your hands wet.
  • Pressing the soap dispenser (or grabbing the soap).
  • Moving the soap around in your hands.
  • Scrubbing your hands.
  • Rinsing off the soap.
  • Turning off the water.
  • Drying your hands.

We teach this series of tasks as one “behavior chain.” Once they have the first step down, we move onto the next step in the behavior chain. As the child gets comfortable with each “mini-task,” we add or “chain” new behaviors/tasks that are linked to it, so that it all becomes synched. The child learns what is expected – and what is not expected – as they move through the steps of each task.

ABA therapy Fort Myers kids

The Importance of Pairing in ABA Therapy

Those trained to provide ABA Therapy will understand well the concept of “pairing.” Play and pairing is the foundation of instructional control in any behavioral therapy session. Simply put, pairing is a way for ABA therapists and technicians to help build a rapport with a child by finding out what interests them and then linking whoever is working with the child to that interest/activity/object so that we can facilitate positive reinforcements in each session. It’s a means of letting the child guide us to what motivates them. When we know what that is, we use it as a positive reinforcer for expected behaviors.

So for example, a child who is new to ABA therapy will begin with a few “pairing” sessions with their ABA therapist/RBT (registered behavior technician). This is a time when we simply play together, we’ll let the child lead, allowing free access to toys, games, songs, and other stimuli. It may look like we’re just “playing,” but remember two things:

  • Play is how kids learn.
  • By discovering what they love to play with, we can help motivate them to learn important skills and promote helpful behaviors.

Let’s say the child falls in love with a toy train set. We then restrict play with that train set to only our sessions. The child earns play with the trains as a positive reinforcer for expected behaviors.

Speech therapy uses a similar technique in motivating kids to talk. Such toys are so-called “communication temptations,” something we’ve written about extensively in prior speech therapy blog posts.

Pairing is also important because it lets the child and therapist establish a positive, trusting relationship where they come to understand that even when learning can be challenging at times, it’s also fun and ultimately benefits them (by giving them what they want). Parent input during pairing is very important too! We will spend time interviewing caregivers about what their child is really into, and we can then build on those ideas.

From there, we’ll work on trying to teach mands/requests. (Think of a mand as short for “demand.” It’s how a person requests something. For example, we may hold a piece of that toy trainset or car until he/she asks for it or a turn with it.

FOCUS ABA Therapy Talks

FOCUS Therapy ABA Talks: Hosted by Our ABA Team!

FOCUS Therapy ABA Talks

At FOCUS Therapy, we offer speech, occupational, physical, and ABA therapy. For that last one, "ABA" stands for "Applied Behavioral Analysis." It also sometimes goes by the name, "behavior therapy." It involves the study of behavior and ways it is reinforced. ABA therapy is considered the gold standard for treatment of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other conditions that make it difficult to communicate and behave in ways that are expected.

The concept of what ABA therapy is and how it works is often unfamiliar to families who first seek our services on the basis of a physician referral. In an effort to help parents and families better understand ABA and how it works, Dr. Dean Funk, M.D./B.S. Biological Science and the rest of our FOCUS Therapy ABA team have created a series of in-depth videos we hope will better explain it all.

Insight is provided by invaluable members of our FOCUS Therapy ABA team, including Ignacio Fernandez, BCBA.

Watch the videos below!

telling your child he has autism

My Son Has Autism… When – and How – Should I Tell Him?

Your child has autism. You know it. The rest of the family knows it. His teachers and therapists know it. Maybe even a few of his classmates know it. But when should HE know it? And how should you tell him?

It’s something many of our FOCUS Therapy families grapple with at some point, and answers really depend on the individual. Some parents opt to tell their child when they’re very young, hoping an early understanding of why they struggle more with certain things might make it all less confusing. Other parents wait until their child becomes aware of their differences and starts asking questions. A few parents wait until their child is older with a better ability to fully grasp what their diagnosis means. Our FOCUS speech, occupational and ABA therapists know there isn’t a singular right answer, but we’re here to support our patients and help guide families in these discussions.

Recently, a patient’s mother asked about the best way to handle some of the questions her 7-year-old son on the spectrum was asking. Christie Lawrence, a registered behavior technician (RBT) with our Fort Myers ABA therapy team and herself the mother of a teenager with autism, offered her thoughts.

“I would say the most important part of informing your child of their autism diagnosis is to empower them,” Lawrence said. “Autism can bring many gifts, and it’s so important to teach our children to find and focus on their strengths and build confidence from their success.”

Fort Myers ABA therapy

Finding the Function of Behavior: ABA Therapy Insight

In the field of behavior science, we commonly use the phrase “function of behavior.” As behavior analysts at the Fort Myers ABA therapy team at FOCUS, figuring out the “function” of a child’s behavior is hands-down one of the most mission critical parts of the job.

As parents or caretakers, it will be so helpful for you and your child too if you’re able to determine why a behavior occurs. When we don’t know what truly causes a behavior and respond reactively, we may be unintentionally reinforcing that behavior. Why is my child facedown on the floor screaming when I told him we were eating tacos tonight? Why is he nonstop kicking the back of his sister’s car seat even though I’ve begged, cajoled and yelled at him to stop?

All behavior has a reason. A function. If you’re looking for a different outcome or response, it’s imperative to find out why it’s happening in the first place. And understand that, for example, if the answer is attention (a common incentive), yelling or having an otherwise big response to it may be having the opposite effect.

ABA therapy

Benefits of Clinic-Based ABA Therapy vs. In-Home Treatment

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA therapy) is considered the most effective, early-intervention treatment for kids on the autism spectrum. It can take place in several settings: Clinic, home or some combination of the two. At FOCUS, we have chosen the clinic-based model for a number of reasons that benefit our patients.

One of the primary reasons is that we believe children benefit from being in a multi-disciplinary setting. It’s not just that it’s convenient for parents of children who need multiple therapies to have a single, physical location for all of them. (Families in Southwest Florida may find it very difficult to arrange all of the therapies their child needs in a home-based setting.) It’s the fact that in a clinic-based setting, supervisors are more available to provide additional direct observation and guidance compared to in-home services.

This point was underscored in a recent study published by the National Institute of Health. In that analysis, researchers controlled for individual differences by comparing and contrasting at-home and clinic-based ABA therapy treatment for the same kids. What they found was that kids demonstrated far higher rates of learning during treatment provided in-clinic compared to in the patient’s home. In fact, they mastered 100 percent more skills per hour while receiving in-clinic treatment compared to home-based treatment.

FOCUS Offers ABA Therapy at Our Fort Myers Clinic

Our clinic-based ABA therapy at FOCUS is designed to optimize your child’s growth in numerous areas of development, including:

  • Social interactions.
  • Play skills.
  • Adaptive skills.
  • Communication.
Fort Myers occupational therapy

Teaching Kids to Fail: Self-Regulation a Key Goal in Occupational Therapy

In occupational therapy, we tend to see our mission as helping children succeed. However, we also recognize that it’s equally important to teach kids how to fail.

That may seem strange, but the reality is failure is an inevitable outcome for everyone at some point or another. The size of the failure may vary, but knowing how to better tolerate will reduce meltdowns, anxiety and social difficulties (which can exacerbate the initial problem). Perhaps even more importantly, kids who know it’s Ok to fail sometimes are less likely to give up – and more likely to try new things! Ultimately, knowing how to self-regulate and cope with failure sets your child up for success in the long-term.

This point was underscored several times by NBA great Michael Jordan, who throughout his career spoke about the importance of losing. Resilience and perseverance in the face of challenges are a huge part of what has much him a winner, he’s said.

“If you’re trying to achieve, there will be roadblocks. I’ve had them; everybody has had them. But obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”

Helping kids figure out ways to climb it, go through it and work around it are a huge part of what our FOCUS occupational therapy team does every day. Self-regulation is a big piece of that puzzle, particularly with children who are diagnosed with delays, disabilities and other challenges.

Fort Myers ABA Therapy

Study: Social Skills Genes Heritable, But Influence Shifts as Children Age

A new study has found that some social behaviors and reciprocal social skills associated with autism are inherited. But as children get older, their environment takes on a growing influence in how the child develops, researchers concluded.

This reinforces something our Fort Myers ABA therapy team has known for some time: The minds of children are incredibly resilient, and with appropriate early intervention, new neuropathways can be forged to help them overcome many of the deficits they face.