After a challenging few days with Alex, who has had several verbal meltdowns this week, I have been introspective about what sets off this behavior in him. On Monday, I spent about an hour talking him down from his upset over the game Monopoly Junior, which annoys him because it is a low-scoring game. Despite my best attempts to remind him gently hat he hasn’t played the game in years and that he never has to play it again, he wanted to obsess over how boring the game is. [What’s more boring than Monopoly Junior? Listening to a teenager with autism talking about it endlessly!] As I calmly reassured him, he would settle down, only to arise again in frustration repeatedly, as though we were living our version of the movie Groundhog Day. When I’m in situations like that, I always half-jokingly wonder if I’m on Candid Camera and that someone is getting a real laugh out of watching me reason on a topic that is simply unreasonable. Despite two more rounds of Monopoly Junior mania, we all survived the day, ready for the next arrival of verbal sparring.
Once a meltdown has subsided, I always go into scientist mode, analyzing what might have aggravated Alex. Was it something he ate? Do his supplements or medications need tweaking? Is he not feeling well? Did I say something to annoy him? Is the pollen count high? Is there a change in air pressure? Most of the time, we have no definitive answers about what upsets Alex, but through experience over the years, we have become pretty adept at handling him when he is agitated. If any good can come of these recent meltdowns, perhaps I can share our first-hand experience in hopes that parents, teachers, or others who deal with children with autism can benefit from what we’ve learned. Since I like to organize information in a way that is easy to remember, I’ve decided to share my top ten autism meltdown management tips using alphabetical clues.
A-ANXIETY: I’m convinced that meltdowns are anxiety attacks in which the child reverts to fight-or-flight behavior. Alex takes the fight route, primarily in the form of verbal aggression, but he can be physically aggressive, as well. The shaking of his hands indicates excess adrenaline to me, and since I have often dealt with the flight form in my own anxiety attacks, I know that the anxiety can be overwhelming.
B-BEHAVIOR: The child is not deliberately being bad or defiant; he/she truly can’t help his/her actions. Therefore, punishment is not appropriate. Alleviating the source of the anxiety should be the only objective for the adult who is caring for the child.
C-CALM: The more upset the child is, the more important it is for the adult to remain calm. When the child is yelling or physically attacking, keeping one’s composure is not easy. However, the adult must not add to the child’s anxiety by yelling back.
D-DON’T ARGUE: No matter what ridiculous things the child says, do not try to convince him/her of how wrong those words are. In fact, it’s best to say as little as possible and allow the child to relieve stress by verbalizing any concerns. If the adult must talk, only help and positive comments should be offered.
E-ELIMINATE: If possible, eliminate any triggers that are upsetting the child. For example, if the child is mad about a puzzle he/she can’t solve, remove it from his/her sight until the storm has passed. If the child is bothered by sensory issues, such as the humming of an air vent or the noise of a computer printer, move him/her away from these distractions.
F-FRUSTRATION: Frustration often leads to anxiety, which leads to meltdowns. If the child seems overwhelmed, give him/her a break or encouragement. Sometimes perfectionism will make the child be too hard on himself/herself; other times pushing the child too hard can be overwhelming. Watch for signs that the child is being pushed too hard, either from internal or external sources.
G-GIVE SPACE: If the child is upset, don’t stand over him/her, which may cause more agitation. Also, for one’s own safety, keep out of striking or kicking range.
H-HANDS OFF: Once the child is in meltdown mode, do not touch or restrain the child unless for safety reasons because touch can escalate the anxiety. Children who are sensory defensive often become upset, rather than calmed by being touched.
I-ISOLATE: If the meltdown is happening in a public place, such as a classroom or a store, try to get the child away from other people by taking him/her out of the crowded place. The confusion of having people around only makes matters worse, and the child doesn’t need any extra witnesses to the meltdown.
J-JUST BREATHE: As upsetting as watching a child having meltdowns can be, the good news is that they rarely last that long. Remaining calm will help the child regain composure, and the anxiety will pass.
Hopefully, these suggestions can help others dealing with autism meltdowns. As we wait for Alex to get over his irritation regarding Monopoly Junior and hope that he doesn’t come up with a new source of annoyance, I pray for patience for Ed and me and peace for Alex so that we no longer need to use these tactics to calm him.
“For the Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With His love, He will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.” Zephaniah 3:17