At some point in your life, whether you’ve realized or not, you’ve witnessed a child have a meltdown. You’ve seen the tears and the anger, the inconsolable frustration and sadness. You quite possibly chalked it up to another childhood tantrum. We all have.
However, these intense displays of emotions aren’t always a classic toddler temper tantrum. Instead, they are actually a meltdown…something much much different.
The Difference Between Meltdowns and Tantrums
Tantrums and meltdowns can look almost identical and without knowing the cause, it can be almost impossible to tell the difference. However, once the cause is known, it is quite easy.
As I discuss in another article, tantrums occur when a child is denied access to something they want or they are trying to escape something they don’t want. They require another person to be involved.
A meltdown, on the other hand, doesn’t require anyone else to be involved, or even present. The child is not being bad or trying to get their way, they are simply so overwhelmed that they no longer have the ability to calmly handle the situation.
Meltdowns are often seen in people with Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Unlike tantrums, which occur because the child does not have a more functional way to say what they need to say, meltdowns may be a lifelong struggle.
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It is common or people with Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder to be overly sensitive to some stimuli and under sensitive to others. This can easily create a tailor-made meltdown environment.
Loud noises, strong smells, bright lights, fast or erratic movement, and uncomfortable textures are all sensations that can trigger a meltdown in a child. Anywhere that might seem a little bit overwhelming to you can be absolute torture to them.
Change in Routine
Many people with autism are very routine-oriented and if there is a deviation from the routine, a meltdown can ensue. Having a routine creates predictability in a world that is very overwhelming and unpredictable for them, so deviating can create immense feelings of confusion, frustration, and anger.
Imagine how frustrating it would be to try to communicate with someone who just isn’t understanding what you’re trying to get across. For many non-verbal or minimally-verbal people, they cannot simply tell you what they need or what is bothering them. This, too, can lead to meltdowns.
What to do During a Meltdown
Minimize sensory issues
If you can safely move the individual to a quiet area with minimal stimulation, do so. If the person cannot, or will not, move, do everything you can to minimize the sensory overload already occurring.
Dim the lights. Turn off loud sounds. Open windows to get rid of smells. Tell people to remain still or shield the person from seeing the moving objects. Do anything you can to create a calm environment.
Let Them Stim
If you’re unfamiliar with the term “stimming,” it refers to repetitive motions or sounds emitted by the individual as a way to regain emotional and sensory regulation. It is imperative that you allow a person having a meltdown to stim, as long as they are not hurting themselves or others.
Allow them to flap their hands, rock back-and-forth, jump up and down, or do whatever it is they feel the need to do. These movements may seem odd to you, but, as I said, they help restore emotional and sensory homeostasis to the individual.
Stimming could be the key to them calming down faster and easier.
Make Sure the Person is Safe
If the person is in an unsafe place, do your best to move whatever is making them unsafe. If the person is willing to move, then have them move to a safer area; however, if the person is not willing, do not force them. This will just create more issues and prolong the meltdown. Do everything you can to minimize the issues in the area and monitor the person.
If the person’s stim is harmful to themselves or others, do your best to redirect them to a stim that isn’t harmful. This will not always work as people having meltdowns cannot always be reasoned with. Try to the best of your ability without causing harm to yourself or the individual.
Don’t Say “Calm Down”
The person is trying with all of their might to do exactly that. I know it can be almost reflexive to say “calm down” to a person in distress, but it can actually call more attention to their distress and prolong it.
Meltdowns can take time to pass. You need to be patient and help the person in any way you can. It can be exhausting trying to be there for someone having a meltdown, but it is a thousand times more exhausting to have one.
Stick with it and be ready to help them when they’ve come through to the other side.
What to do After a Meltdown
Make sure they person stays calm and relaxes after a meltdown. It can be a physically and mentally exhausting ordeal for the person.
Allow them to remove themselves from the situation to sit or lay in a quiet room to recover.
Go back to the beginning of the meltdown and do your best to identify what started it. If you can identify the trigger, you can be ready to avoid it next time.
This can also help the person understand what happened and make better sense of it.
This is one of the most important steps. Make sure the person knows that they’re not in trouble and that you’re not angry. Thinking that they’ve done something wrong can make it ten times harder to move past what happened. Talk to them and tell them you love them and that they did nothing wrong. Help them understand what happened and talk about ways to make it better for next time.
The best way to learn is by asking questions. Please feel free to ask away by leaving me a comment below.