It’s a situation nearly every parent of a child on the autism spectrum can relate to.
You’ve got everything all planned out. You made sure your child got enough sleep. You fed them a good breakfast. You’re looking forward to the day –
Meltdown. Tantrum. Panic attack. Seemingly out of the blue, for no reason at all.
Your child is special, unique, and has a brain all their own. You can’t be sure just what kind of an input just happened. It could be something you were wholly unaware of. A sound you didn’t hear. A sight. But now the reaction has begun and it’s time to handle it.
Start by making sure your child can’t hurt themselves. That’s always the top priority. If there are breakable items around, move them or the child. Give them floor space to sprawl on.
Next, do a quick check to see if you can identify the source. If your child absolutely hates orange juice, and there’s a glass of orange juice on the table, move it. Minimizing triggers can be quite useful. If they hate bright light, and the shade popped up, pull it down.
Don’t spend too long on that, though. The key focus should be on the child.
Get down to their level. Be wholly and fully present for them. Breathe slowly and deeply. You are modeling behavior for them. Quick, fast breaths, which they are probably doing right now, build stress levels and fight-or-flight response. It’s built into our evolution. Conversely, long, slow breaths trigger a relaxation response. So take long, slow breaths.
Acknowledge their emotion. Say, calmly, “I know you feel angry. I know you feel upset. ” Strive to use the word “feel”. You want to create that difference in their mind between them *being* angry (or mad or upset) vs just *feeling* those emotions temporarily. The emotion is not them. It is something they are temporarily feeling.
Avoid saying you’re “sorry” they feel upset. It makes it sound like it’s a bad or wrong emotion. Simply accept that they feel this way, that it’s what they feel, and together you will find your way to calm.
So many times, just knowing your emotion is recognized and understood is a key. Few people like to have their feelings minimized or seem unimportant. If a parent says, “calm down” it can make it sound as if what they’re feeling is wrong. Start by acknowledging. Be there for them. Be present. Be with them in their moment. Say “I’m here.”
Now model the calming behavior. “We’re going to breathe superhero breaths” (or Childsname-Breaths or Unicorn Breaths or whatever you want to call them). Breathe in long and deep, breathe out long and deep. It’s OK if your child doesn’t join in at first. They are in their own emotional journey right now. But you are right there for them. You are not stressed. You are calming and calm. You are deep breathing. The world is still around you.
Keep the deep breathing. Occasionally let them know you’re there. That you love them. That you know they feel angry or sad or whatever. There’s no stress. There’s no rush.
Maintain your inner calm. This situation will pass. The world will regain calm. Draw your child into your calm.
At some point your child will calm if only though sheer exhaustion. Tell them you love them. Ask them how they feel. Talk about the feelings as things which move through you. They are like weather clouds. Has the angry feeling left, or is it still lingering?
I’ll make a separate post about building the child’s skill with deep breathing. That is a good thing to work on during calmer moments. That way the skill is easier to get to during the meltdown moments. But during a meltdown, just focus on being present. On being mindful. On not judging or reacting. Just be present and breathe. Be there for your child, a rock, a foundation who can always be relied on.
The best of luck to you.
Here’s an article discussing how a tantrum and a sensory overload differ, to help you further figure out solutions to these situations.