By Fatima de Kwant on February 9, 2018
A tantrum is a strategy the child creates to gain control of the situation. A meltdown is the incapacity of a child to deal with a challenging situation she might face.
There is a difference between both. Parents have a difficult task anticipating situations that might trigger a meltdown. One big rule when dealing with a true meltdown: don’t punish the child’s behavior; it might increase their fear and aggravate the meltdown. Instead, choose to be patient, even though it is almost impossible not to give in to the emerging anxiety of the moment. It is, indeed, an unnerving situation.
It may take a while until parents find out what makes their children meltdown. It is important to observe that lack of sleep, sensory issues as well big changes in their routines, may cause meltdowns.
If you are an autism parent, you may well know that regardless all the care and anticipation, your kid still surprise you sometimes with an unexpected meltdown. If that happens, there are some tips that might help you to go through it:
1- Be patient – The meltdown will eventually pass. Accept that moment without losing your own control
2- Do whatever works for your child: hold her (if she responds to it); talk slowly and calmly to her (or not); take her (temporarily) out of the situation that triggered the meltdown in the first place.
3- Don’t focus on people who will judge you with their eyes; focus on your child; she is the one needing help. They don’t know you or your child; they don’t know what it is like to care for a child with autism. You may want to excuse your child’s behavior, though. Especially if during the meltdown she hurts someone by accident. In this way, you may tell them your child has autism and that it is not on purpose. Sometimes, telling people will not only lighten up the whole situation but educate them as well. Not everybody knows what autism is like on a daily basis.
Remember that in case you want to excuse your child you don’t lose focus and keep your calm, being there for her in the first place.
4- Don’t stop challenging her with the situation that made her meltdown, another time, when you think she is ready. For example: going to the grocery store may be a big challenge for a child with autism. Maybe she will have a meltdown for a couple of times until she won’t anymore. The child can – and eventually will – learn by experience. Not taking her with you anymore will not help her to practice. Take her with you to the store when you feel that you can handle the possibility of a meltdown. On time, this will pay off.
5- Visualize to the child what you are about to do, as much as possible. If she isn’t verbal yet, you may use photos of the place you’re going to take her. Try to compromise (if she is verbal), telling her, for instance, that you’re going to the store for x minutes, buying x number of products, and there will probably be a line at the checkout counter, etc. Be as specific as you can.
6- Whatever happens, don’t get scared by the meltdown. Play a role: act like a “machine” – you do what you know you have to do, letting the least of emotions get to you. Deep down you may “want to die”, but on the outside, act cool and in charge.
Handling a meltdown is probably one of the biggest challenges a parent of a child in the spectrum has to deal with. It often comes unexpected and demands a lot of emotional self-control from a parent.
Don’t get scared by it. Don’t feel like a failure if you don’t know how to handle it well. Remember you are not God. If you think you can’t handle this alone, look for professional help, a child psychologist or an autism coach. There is always a way to handle meltdowns.
*Fatima de Kwant is a Brazilian journalist living in the Netherlands. International Autism advocate, mother of an adult (21) with autism, autism coach specialized in Development and Communication.