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Less Confrontational Strategies for Approaching Autistic Children during a Meltdown

In my last post, I looked at less confrontational strategies to approach autistic children with under normal conditions. In this post, I want to look at how it's done during a meltdown.

A Brief Look at Meltdowns

I'll begin by defining a meltdown. Meltdowns are generally violent and loud events which look very much like temper tantrums with one very obvious distinction. Meltdowns are "out of control" events. 

The person is not using the meltdown as a means of getting what they want - in fact, they want the meltdown to stop more than you do.

Not all meltdowns actually are violent but all have the capacity to be violent. A person in a meltdown state is not responsible for their actions.

For this reason, it's important for young children on the spectrum to learn their triggers and how to avoid them.

To Approach or Not to Approach

The first question that you need to ask yourself is; is it dangerous for you, for others or for the child?

If the situation isn't dangerous, then don't walk into it unless you're very confident that you can provide the exact kind of support that the child needs. 

During a meltdown event, no support is much better than the "wrong kind" of support.

Different ways to Attract Attention

The techniques which work for one child won't necessarily work for another. Many children respond well to a calm voice repeating something like "it's alright". 

Honestly, I've found that most people with seem to respond best to "the calm voice" but as I found out during one incident, it's not for everyone. If your calming voice seems to be annoying the child, then you're using the wrong technique. 

If your technique isn't working - and particularly if it seems to be irritating the child then stop. 

Some children respond better to a stern voice or even a snap of the fingers. It's important to discuss control techniques with the parents to find out what works best for a particular child.

What not to do

  • Don't become part of the meltdown. 
    The child may be using violence, shouting and abusive language but you should not. For the most part, the child isn't in control of their part of the situation but you, the adult, should be in total control of your section. 

  • Don't turn the child into a spectacle.
    As I mentioned before, the child in a meltdown state isn't putting this on. They're" out of control" and they really want the meltdown to end. It's very much like being a helpless observer in someone else's body. They're going to feel bad enough about the situation after the crisis without you drawing extra attention to it by pointing, laughing or taking photos/video.

    If you allow a crowd to gather, you risk exacerbating the meltdown and you risk someone getting hurt. 

  • Don't attempt to lecture or accuse during the meltdown.
    During a meltdown event, the child isn't in control and won't be able to process information. Your words may make perfect sense but even if the child is shouting them back at you, they're still not processing them. Save any recriminations and discussion until the meltdown is well and truly over.

What to do

  • Make the situation safe
    Take a good look at the meltdown and the objects/people around. Look for anything which is unsafe, such as glass objects, dangerous things which could be thrown or used as a weapon and move them safely out of reach.

    If other people are in harms way try to get them to maintain a safe distance and if you have extra supervision, have that supervisor clear them from the area. Watchers, particularly youth watchers can often contribute to a meltdown by teasing and laughing. You'll also be helping the aspie to keep their friends if you can isolate them in times of crisis.

  • Remove the trigger - if it is safe to do so
    Although meltdowns usually serve a longer term and less visible "issue", there is often a trigger for a given situation. Sometimes this will be something simple, like building blocks and sometimes it will be a person.

    If it is possible to remove the trigger safely, then do so. If the trigger is a person, then remove the person from the room or at least out of reach/sight of the person in meltdown. Sometimes it will be better if the autistic child is escorted away from the trigger. If that's the case, you'll need to entice them rather than attempting to drag them.

  • Attempt to get the child into a stationary position
    If the child is moving about they're far more likely to cause harm to themselves, others or objects. If you can get them stationary, you'll be more able to control the situation. There will be times when you do need to chase them to intercept, such as when they're heading towards a busy road.

    In general, however, you should allow them to separate from a situation provided that they stop a short distance away. One of the key mistakes that police make is chasing them or restraining them unnecessarily. Often, if you sit down, the person in meltdown can also be convinced to sit down - albeit, some distance away.

  • Desensitize the Environment
    It should come as no surprise that meltdowns occur more frequently in noisy, overcrowded environments. Don't forget that autistic kids have a lot of sensory issues. If you can reduce these by turning off any background music, bright lights, sound etc, then it will often reduce the intensity of the meltdown.

  • Co-habit but don't touch
    If it's safe to do so, you might want to sit near the person who has had a meltdown. Your presence may be enough to calm them down. Note however that if you're wearing strong scents, you could pose a sensory issue. Most importantly however, don't touch.

    You can say, "if you need a hug, let me know" but don't initiate. Touch is a very critical sense and during a meltdown, those senses are already on overload.

  • Forgive and Move On
    When the child has calmed down enough to participate again, please don't hound them with recriminations. You'll want to discuss the incident but give them time to get over it and process what has happened before demanding apologies.

  • Be a Mentor
    When the child has calmed down and put some distance between themselves and the event, discuss it calmly with them. Ask them how they felt and what they could do better next time. Ask them what they think they need, what made them feel better and what made them more angry.

    We need our children to learn how to deal with meltdowns because you're not always going to be around to help them come down. We need them to learn how to recognise and avoid their triggers before they grow up. After all, there's a big difference between a child's meltdown and an adult one.

    You might even like to practice some scenarios and develop some code words so that they can leave the room safely before a situation explodes and without their classmates noticing. Your advice as a mentor will make a huge difference.

Further Information

For more information on meltdowns, you might want to read some of my earlier posts on the subject;


Ralph Doncaster said…
I disagree with the statement, "An aspie in a meltdown state is not responsible for their actions".
Responsibility is a continuum, and relates to the amount of choice in your action. I think you are always "responsible" for the natural consequences of your actions.

So if you accidentally knock over a friend's vase, you are responsible to replace it, even though you didn't choose to break it.

Note that as in my example, responsible does not mean liable to be punished.
helmarkxx said…
very informative information thank you :D

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