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How To Communicate With A Nonverbal Child Having A Meltdown

Understanding and Supporting Children With Autism During Meltdowns

When a child has a public meltdown, it is natural for parents to feel distressed and want to stop the tears. Parents may be coping with multiple meltdowns a day over seemingly small things like an itchy tag on a shirt, loud noises, or changes in routines.

Louise Bedrossian defines meltdowns as “an involuntary physical and emotional reaction to a situation from which there is no perceived escape.”

Crying is a way to release tension and emotions, often from feeling overwhelmed by sensory stimulations. Children with autism have different ways of interacting with the world, and what may seem small to you could feel much larger to them.

To support children effectively during these meltdowns, parents can follow the following steps:

1. Be Patient and Focus on Your Child

It can be hard, especially if your child has had a really bad day but be patient.

Avoid getting visibly upset or angered at your child – or any judgmental bystanders – focus on your child’s needs. Don’t beat yourself up, and remember that the person struggling and who needs your support is your child.

Be reassuring and avoid any form of punishment. Punishments can make children feel shame, anxiety, fear, and even resentment. Children with ASD can’t control their meltdowns and shouldn’t be punished for it.

Do not have your child seclude themselves and tell them they can only come out when they’ve calmed down. This sends the wrong message and can make your child feel that they don’t deserve to be around those they love when they’re having a hard time.

Instead, allow them the space to cry and release their emotions with you present. Take them somewhere else if you must but stay with them.

2. Be Empathetic

Have your child express how they are feeling and why. Listen intently and acknowledge their struggle without any judgment.

It is completely normal and even healthy to express our emotions, even if it is overwhelmingly so. Crying is completely normal and a healthy way to release tension and stress. It’s important to give children the ability to feel free to express themselves – permitting it doesn’t cause harm to themselves or others.

Everyone wants to feel heard, especially someone who may frequently feel misunderstood. When empathizing with someone, you validate their experiences, and they feel heard.

3. Do Not Cause More Overstimulation

Keep the 1-to-1 rule in mind, meaning only one person – whether it’s a parent, sibling, therapist or whoever your child trusts – speak with them directly without any other parties. It’s important not to have too many people surrounding the child and speaking over one another.

The child may not even want to communicate; they can be so overwhelmed by their feelings that they can’t hear us or want to speak. Instead, simply sit with them and let them know that they’re safe, supported, and loved.

4. Keep Sensory Toys on Hand

Sensory toys can be helpful for calming a child with autism during a meltdown by providing a physical outlet for emotional and sensory overload.

The sensory input the toy provides can help regulate your child’s emotions and behavior.

Kids have different favorites, and there are a lot of options, but some common sensory tools include:

  • Weighted lap pads or blankets

  • Stress balls

  • Pop-Its

  • Noise-cancelling headphones

  • Fidget spinners

  • Kinetic sand

  • Or even DIY crafts like these (link to the DIY Sensory crafts blog)

Don’t force these on your child when they’re melting down, but if they choose to use them, these products can often help them calm down.

5. Teach Them Coping Mechanisms

There isn’t much more that can be done to turn around a meltdown as it’s happening, but teaching ways of regulating our emotions can be done before and after experiencing an episode.

These coping strategies can ease stress and calm down emotions — perhaps before a meltdown — even when you aren’t around. Try:

  • Nature walks

  • Reading

  • Coloring

  • Listening to music

  • Deep breathing

  • Isometric exercises

Some Extra Tricks

Isometric Exercise

Isometric exercise involves contracting a muscle without moving a joint, which is used as a relaxation technique.

Stop for a moment, squeeze your hands into a tight fist, then release them.  As you let go of the tension, you should notice your muscles become more relaxed than before you made a tight fist.

Here are some simple isometric exercises:

  • Making a fist and squeezing

  • Pushing your hands together

  • Pushing your knees together

  • Raising and lowering the shoulders

  • Pushing your back and shoulder blades against a wall

For children diagnosed with autism, isometric exercises can be particularly helpful for relieving stress.

Functional Communication

Model the behavior for properly communicating your needs and excusing yourself before or during a meltdown by addressing the issue calmly and directly to your child.
Saying something along the lines of “It is too loud for me, so I am going to move to another room” or “I am feeling frustrated I need to take a break”. Doing so will show them the appropriate behavior and encourage them to act the same.

Teaching functional communication is a major part of behavior replacement goals for children with autism. It helps decrease the non-functional behavior, help your child speak on their needs, and allows for your child to access reinforcement before having a meltdown.

In Summary

Parents should view their child’s behavior as a form of communication and focus on the root cause of their actions, not the meltdown itself.

By showing compassion, parents can effectively support their children through meltdowns.

At first, meltdowns may seem random or not have a direct cause, but if you pay attention, you may notice a pattern with identifiable triggers. Try to keep notes, even just mentally, of what happened before, during, and after each episode. Once you have a clearer idea, you can work on minimizing the triggers by creating a low-arousal environment or using sensory tools that work for your child.

With some patience, understanding, and proactive planning, you can help your child with autism feel more comfortable and secure during meltdowns.

Sources Cited:

Bedrossian, L. Understand autism meltdowns and share strategies to minimize, manage occurrences.

Ryan, S. ‘Meltdowns,’ surveillance and managing emotions; going out with children with autism.

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