Calming down an Autistic Child

When adults become parents, things become a little bit more challenging. Caring for your child is the biggest challenge that comes with parenthood. It comes with the territory once you become one.

More so when your child is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

The way they see the world is different from anybody else. They think, feel, or act differently compared to the reactions of regular or neurotypical people. Their condition makes it harder for everyone to interact around them. Regular folks need to be aware on how to conduct themselves when around someone who’s on the spectrum. They might unknowingly do something that makes matters worse for everyone involved.

Some things make them happy and at ease. Then there are specific items, events, or conditions that trigger a tantrum or meltdown.

It’s always a troubling scene every time an autistic child throws a fit. It’s like watching a scene from a horror movie where a child gets possessed by an evil entity and just goes wild.

For parents, their only recourse is to assert control of their child before things get out of hand. If allowed to escalate further, things can turn from bad to worse very quickly. If that happens, you need to apply effective strategies that calm them down.

Here’s how to calm down a child with autism

Hold them down

Holding them down is done for safety reasons. It prevents them from inflicting injury upon themselves, breaking or damaging household items, or hurt other people. Now is definitely not the time to think that restraining their movements is cruel.

Make the necessary changes to make your home safer in case they run amuck.

You gain control of the situation when they burn themselves out that makes it possible for you to apply another strategy to calm them down.

If your child is bigger or stronger than you, ask for help from other members of the family to hold them down. You’re putting yourself in harm’s way if you do it alone because they can easily overpower you.

Take away the root cause

You need to take away the item or the person that likely caused the meltdown. To do that, you need to identify what it was. You should know what they hate the most or are afraid of in the first place. 

To keep the incident from happening again, give yourself a favor and list down the things or situations that upset them. It will serve as your guide to prevent the same thing from recurring in the future.

Take them somewhere else

Once you have identified the likely cause, and it’s not possible to get it away from them, your best recourse is to get them away from the cause of the problem. Do this while reassuring them that you want them to feel better in a language they understand.

You must be able to assert yourself to prevent them from doing any further harm to themselves or other people. If they don’t like noisy or crowded spaces, take them to a place that’s quiet and peaceful.

Distract their attention

Identify the things, places, or persons that they’re fond of and use it to distract their attention.

Having them nearby keeps them calm and prevents the build-up of negative feelings or emotion. Sing them their favorite song or let them wear headphones to listen to their favorite music to drown out the noise. You can also make them perform the activity they love doing.

Soothe their senses

A meltdown happens due to the overstimulation of their senses. You can soothe their senses by:

  • Turning off the lights or letting them wear sunglasses or caps when out in broad daylight.
  • Turning down the volume of your radio or let them wear earplugs to muffle out the noise.
  • Hug them to make them feel secure and protected.
  • Get them to play with their favorite toy.

Are tantrums and meltdowns the same?

People who have no idea about what it’s like to have a child, with or without autism, can’t tell the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. For them, it’s just the same, but the reality is, it’s not. It's hard to distinguish the difference between the two at first glance, but tantrums and meltdowns are not the same.

They are worlds apart and should be treated differently.

When a child has a tantrum, the child feels entirely in control. Normal or autistic children throw a fit on purpose; to get attention. They do it to get what they want or when parents deny giving them what they want. They’ll go back to their usual self when you give in to their demands. Other times, it will eventually subside if you choose to ignore their outbursts.

They'll use this tactic repeatedly to get what they want all the time if you give in to their demands. They’ll become spoiled brats if they always get what they want by throwing a tantrum.  Ignoring them, on the other hand, will let them know that you’re standing your ground. It sends a clear message to help them understand that a no is a no. 

With a meltdown, they’re completely powerless. They can seriously hurt themselves or other people when having a meltdown. Meltdowns will eventually burn them out while a tantrum can go on until they get what they want or the issue gets resolved. Tantrums are outbursts used to try to control your response while a meltdown is not.

A meltdown happens because of the overstimulation of their senses. It is not something they intend to do or wish to arrive at any given moment. They want it to stop but don’t know how to do it.

You should step in before things take a turn for the worse. Their brain is processing more information than they can handle.

A solution that may work for one autistic child may not be practical for another. It is important to note that every child with autism behaves differently. The response should consider and tailor to the child’s needs and condition.

There is no one-solution-fits-all strategy when helping them calm down. Recognizing the signs that lead to a meltdown is ideal, but doesn’t happen all the time.

Get a hold of the situation before it gets out of control for everyone’s safety and well-being. Make a written guide that lists down the triggers for every meltdown or tantrum your child had in the past and include the possible solutions that helped resolve the situation.

Update this regularly each time your child threw a fit.

Use this to guide and educate the other members of the family on what to do when you’re not around. Share this information to help other families with the same situation as you are.

What are the usual triggers that cause a child with autism to lose control and have a meltdown?

Small or big changes

People on the autism spectrum hate unpredictability. They prefer sticking to a daily routine for it makes them feel safe and understand what’s going on.

Sensory overload

It’s when they experience too much of the things they’re hypersensitive to like being in a crowded place or hearing sudden loud or irritating noises.

Information overload

It happens when they have a hard time understanding what people are saying when talking to them.

Emotional overload

Their difficulties in communicating or showing what they feel usually triggers the emotional overload. They often get confused and feel helpless about their situation that’s why they can’t help themselves but break down. 

Signs that tell you that your child is about to have a meltdown

Asking to leave or asking for a break

The overstimulation of their senses tires them out. They want to take a rest so they can try to process everything. If they’re asking for a break, let them have it. Patiently wait for them to initiate the resumption of the activity when they feel much better.

Visible signs of tension

If you can see them pacing back and forth, says something repeatedly, too much fidgeting, or you can see them squaring up their shoulders, it’s a clear indication of the build-up of stress or negative emotion.

These things are clear indications that they’re stressed out or overly anxious. Intervene and get them to relax through hugging, giving a light massage, or anything to snap them out of what they’re doing. 

Running away

Running away is a good thing that they want to avoid something but can be dangerous because they don’t understand the danger of being hit or run over by a car. If you can see them already running, catch up with them so you can stop them from running further and apply strategies that get them to relax.

What are the things that help you calm down an autistic child?

A cap and sunglasses

Ideal for those who are sensitive to bright lights. The use of caps and sunglasses helps them enjoy doing outdoor activities.

Headphones or earplugs

Headphones or earplugs help drown out the noise and the ideal companion for autistic children who are easily startled by sudden loud noises.

Weighted blankets, vests, or lap pads.

The use of weighted blankets, vests, or lap pads simulate deep pressure touch stimulation to help autistic children relax and feel secure or protected.  Used by therapists and medical professionals for many years to help autistic children or those suffering from hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

Their favorite toy or food

Playing with their favorite toy or eating their favorite food distracts them and let them enjoy what they love having around.

Unscented hand wipes or preferred scented lotion or hand sanitizer

Ideal for those who have tactile defensiveness when they touch something that upsets them. Smelling their preferred scent eliminates any surprises and reassures them that everything’s fine.

Presence of mind

The most important is to have the presence of mind. It will allow you to do what’s required of you without panicking. You lose your ability to help your child during a tantrum or meltdown when you no longer know what to do because you have suffered a panic attack.