All About Autistic Meltdowns


What is a meltdown, why do they happen and how to support and recover from them. Meltdown seems to be a word that is often associated with autism.  I have two autistic boys and we very rarely have meltdowns. In fact my 5 year old has never had a meltdown, not all autistics have them.

My 7 year old has had a few (maybe 3 or 4) mostly when he was younger and I had less understanding of his needs. Having said that for some a meltdown can be daily so I have asked for a little help from some friends and gathered up helpful information on meltdowns.

What is a meltdown?

This is a really hard question to answer because a meltdown will look very different for each individual. Some will have shutdowns instead of a meltdown.  We often use the word meltdown to describe people getting angry / upset or a child’s tantrum. However what I want to focus on is an autistic meltdown. An autistic meltdown is an intense response to overwhelm. This can be a triggered response or a build up over time like with the coke bottle effect.

The Coke bottle effect

What is the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum?

My 5 year old is great at having a tantrum and was an expert at it when he was 3 years old! A tantrum is usually a response to a child not getting what they want.  My niece was excellent at screaming and crying when she was told no! When a child is having a tantrum there is a very easy way to stop it by giving them what they want.  Now as parents we may not want to give in and therefore we may experience a prolonged and challenging tantrum.

An autistic meltdown may be triggered by not getting what they want but is usually related to being overwhelmed and they are not in control of their emotions.  A tantrum is an effective response to get something and expressing emotions, a meltdown is a loss of the ability to control emotions and total overwhelm. It can be hard to tell the difference at first particularly in younger children. Mummy Est. 2014 has a very helpful post – Is it a tantrum or a meltdown?

Why do meltdowns happen?

Remember that all behaviour has a reason. You may not know that reason at the time but when you start to understand why a meltdown happens for your child it is much easier to support them and /or avoid meltdowns in the future.  The common reasons for autistic meltdowns will be sensory overwhelm, response to change, communication challenges and high levels of anxiety.

It is really important to understand sensory processing, all autistics will have different sensory challenges but becoming overwhelmed by sensory issues is a common trigger for meltdowns.

autism and nature

Amythest Schaber explains what a meltdown is and how it feels over at her channel Ask an Autistic.

Unexpected change is a big trigger for my son and he really struggles with changes to routines. Jane at Our Little Escapades talks about a meltdown at the zoo following an unexpected change.

Triggers will be very different for each person but when you can easily identify a trigger you are in a good place to support them.

Strategies to support and or avoid a meltdown

The best strategies are around avoiding getting to the point of meltdown when possible.  Usually a person will be exhibiting signs of distress before a meltdown.  If you can identify the trigger to this distress you may be able to rectify the issue or distract them from it in order to avoid the meltdown happening.

However that is not always possible so what do you do when a child is in meltdown.

  • Firstly stay calm, you need to provide support and be a calming influence
  • Keep them safe, they are unlikely to be in control of themselves and will likely need support to keep themselves and others safe.
  • If the current environment is the issue then move them away.
  • Give them time
  • Give them space

Jo from OJO’s World has shared about her son’s meltdown’s and how she supports him.

My sons meltdowns are more emotional, not how most people think of them. He will cry, stim and withdraw verbally. The way we deal with it is with gentle comfort (he doesn’t always want cuddles), I try to remove him from the situation that’s upsetting him and, the most important one, distraction.

Kate from the Passable Parent highlights the importance of focusing on your child not on what others might be thinking.  

‘When you stop paying attention to what everyone else is doing and make your child your sole focus, you handle things better. Your child is calmer, feels safer and your relationship improves. You feel more confident in your abilities and your judgement.’

She also points out the importance of being flexible, often traditional parenting methods won’t be the right answer.

Martha Smith Parent Advocate writes about meltdowns and the impact from how other people respond.

Calming Strategies for autistic children

Recovery from Meltdowns

Meltdowns are emotionally exhausting and very stressful for everyone involved so it is important to consider meltdown recovery.

Kate from Bristol Autism Support shares her advice to parents and carers on management and recovery of meltdowns.

Luke Alyward shares his advice on supporting recovery for autistic people.

I hope you have found something helpful here and do share your meltdown triggers and tips in the comments below.

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1 Comment

  1. 16th December 2020 / 5:19 pm

    Cracking post Jade x

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