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As a parent of an autistic child, one of the things that you’re likely going to deal with on a daily basis are meltdowns and tantrums. But, do you know the difference between an autism meltdown or a tantrum? For that matter, would you know what an autism shutdown looks like? Learning to tell the difference and learning strategies are just the tip of the iceberg. But this is such an important thing for parents to know when it comes to understanding their autistic child.

Autism meltdown or autism tantrum or autism shutdown?

First, let’s get a good understanding of what these things are (and what they aren’t) so we can know how to proceed.

Autism MeltdownAutism TantrumAutism Shutdown
In summary
During a meltdown, a person may show extreme behaviors. Some of those behaviors include shouting, self-harm, and aggressive behaviors. During a meltdown, there may be a risk of harm to the individual or to those around them.A tantrum is also also an emotional outburst, similar to a meltdown. However, with a tantrum- the key difference is that the individual is fully aware of what’s going on. During a tantrum, an individual is very much in control of what’s going on. In essence, a tantrum is a method to get or gain attention.During a shutdown, a person may either be partially or complete withdrawn from the world around them. They may not respond or communicate. Shutdowns have a tendency to be more discreet than meltdowns and may sometimes go unnoticed.

For purposes of this post, however, we want to focus more on autism meltdowns.

Implement calming strategies with ease when you use the Calming Strategies cards in the Autism Family Guide.

What triggers autism meltdowns?

Honestly, this could be any number of things but here are the top three.

Sensory Overload

Sensory overload can be caused by noises, smells, textures, or lights. Any number of those things individually or combined can lead to too much sensory input. For example, a weekend camping trip with the family, could cause sensory overload because of the unfamiliar environment.

Social challenges

Without the ability to properly regulate and process different situations, an individual with autism could become easily overwhelmed.

Long term stress

When you combine the long term stressors of overload and social challenges, it’s really not surprising when a meltdown comes on “suddenly”.

how do you calm down an autistic child

Before the meltdown:

  • Watch for and take note of your child’s behavior patterns. This ties in with identifying your child’s triggers (which are mentioned below)
  • Look for the signs (some more recognizable than others) that your child is having difficulty coping. More common or obvious warning signs include: difficulty thinking clearly, refusing to follow directions, trying to shut out or avoid sensory input, increased movement

If you are in the moment with the meltdown:

  • Prevent triggers- easier said than done, but over time, it will (usually) become easier to identify your child’s triggers. Remember, there’s a tendency for them to fall into one of three categories as listed above.
  • Create a diversion – again, easier said than done. But if you can distract them from the current situation, you may have an easier time helping them implement calming strategies.
  • Remain calm – this is just a gentle reminder to you, mom or dad, to take a deep breath. Because if you aren’t in control? You’re only going to make the situation worse.
  • Do a quick safety assessment – this is for your child’s sake and for yours.
  • Give them some space as you can.

Implement calming strategies with ease when you use the Calming Strategies cards in the Autism Family Guide.

After the meltdown happens:

  • Take time to recover. This applies to both of you. If your child feels embarrassed, reassure them that it was out of their control.
  • Find the right time to talk, as you are able.

Tips to possibly prevent future meltdowns:

  • Do your research regarding your child’s triggers. Try implementing a behavior journal or behavior log where you’re tracking your child’s meltdowns on a daily basis. Soon, you’ll start to see patterns and from there you can start identifying the triggers easier. Not only that, but you can also start to work on implementing specific calming strategies depending on the situation.
  • Be prepared for the environment around you. Yes, I know- it’s not always easy to predict what’s going on. But, when your child has more control over their surroundings? All the better.

how to respond to an autism meltdown

One of the best things that you as a parent can do? Is to effectively respond to your autistic child’s meltdown. Obviously, this is going to depend on your child and the environment that you may find yourself in. But, here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Stay calm. As mentioned above, if you aren’t staying calm? You’re likely going to escalate the situation and potentially make it worse.
  • Speak often and regularly. Maintaining constant communication with your autistic child is so important. As you are able, without putting your child or yourself in harm’s way, maintain contact.
  • If your child is having a meltdown, and is not harming themselves or others, let it happen. Or at least let them get some of that excess overload out. If you are at home, of course, it’s easier to redirect them to a sensory room or a calm-down corner.
  • Equip your autistic child with calming strategies. These can be self-calming strategies or sensory calming strategies.

From an autistic autism mom to you

The Autism Family Guide is your shortcut to autism parenting.

How do I know?

Because friend, the resources in this guide are lifechanging.

Create routines with ease, calming strategies at your fingertips, and more.

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Digital Product Creator at Kori at Home
Kori is a late diagnosed autistic/ADHD mom. She is currently located in Albany, NY where she is raising a neurodiverse family. Her older daughter is non-speaking autistic (and also has ADHD and Anxiety) and her youngest daughter is HSP/Gifted. A blogger, podcaster, writer, product creator, and coach; Kori shares autism family life- the highs, lows, messy, and real. Kori brings her own life experiences as an autistic woman combined with her adventures in momming to bring you the day-to-day of her life at home. Kori is on a mission to empower moms of autistic children to make informed parenting decisions with confidence and conviction.

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