Picture this: You and your family have made it to your favorite annual block party. There’s a clown and games for the kids, and plenty of food too. Everyone’s having a great time … that is, until your child with autism gets completely overwhelmed by the festivities.

She seemed fine with the noise, crowds, and general merry-making for the first half-hour, but then she started pacing and hair-pulling. You tried to redirect her attention, but it didn’t work. She tipped into a full-scale meltdown in front of everyone.

You’ve been looking forward to this event for weeks, and now you’re dealing with a screaming child. What’s your next move?


Meltdown Prevention 101

First, let’s rewind the tape a bit. Our initial recommendation is that you do what you can to prevent a meltdown prior to its inception. Remember that behavior is learned, and that what you model during calm moments will influence what happens during stressful ones.

If you take time to teach your child appropriate self-management strategies, he or she will have a much better chance of maintaining their emotional control in difficult situations.

For example, you can:  

  • Remind your child of the appropriate behavior and associated reward
  • Employ social stories and role-playing exercises to educate about appropriate behavior
  • Prompt the identification and verbal expression of feeling states
  • Review deep breathing techniques
  • Use adaptive equipment to provide calming pressure or lessen the experience of sensory overload

All of these practices help with meltdown prevention, and they facilitate greater personal independence too.

That said, sometimes the best-laid plans go awry. Meltdowns do happen, and it’s important to know how to handle them effectively when the time comes.


Tantrums vs. Meltdowns

Next, make sure you understand the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown, as they require different responses from you as a parent.

To put it simply, a tantrum represents a demand, be it for attention, a reward, or a reprieve from a task. Don’t give into tantrums; instead, remain calm and stand your metaphorical ground until they pass.

Of course, if safety is an issue, do what it takes to keep your child secure, without giving in to the demand. Many tantrums simply involve a lot of noise and fuss, with little actual danger.

By contrast, a meltdown represents a loss of personal control without agenda. Meltdowns are often triggered by an experience of high stress or sensory overload. (You can read this FirstPath Autism post for a more detailed description of the difference between tantrum and meltdown behavior.)

Since a child may engage in self-injurious behavior mid-meltdown, he or she might need your help to stay safe. As such, your priority is to keep yourself and your child as protected as possible until the meltdown ends.

That said, if your child frequently melts down and hurts himself and others, don’t let that go unaddressed. It’s important to receive support and maintain a consistent behavioral management program too.

As we shared in our blog post, 10 signs you need ABA therapy support:

“ABA teaches that all behavior is a form of communication …. Your child may exhibit tantrum behavior seemingly without reason or strike out at others without apparent provocation …. Until you understand the need that’s fueling the behavior, you’ll have a hard time decreasing it.”


Practical Strategies

But what exactly do you do in the midst of the meltdown? How do you handle the frustration, stress, and fear that arise when your child loses control at a party?

Child psychologist Lauren Elder, Autism Speaks assistant director for dissemination science, speaks to this question in Parents of Child with Autism Seeking Help Handling Public Meltdowns.

Elder suggests the following essential steps:

1. Stay calm

This might seem obvious to you now, but in the chaotic moments surrounding a meltdown, it won’t seem so clear-cut. When your child is struggling, it’s easy to get swept away by frustration and panic, but the calmer you can remain in the crisis, the more effective you’ll be at helping your child.

As we noted in a previous post, What to do when your child has a meltdown in public:

Take a moment to breathe and regain a sense of calm within yourself …. Your reaction is so important. You have the power to escalate or de-escalate the situation with your words, body language, and overall approach.

2. Stop and help your child

Again, this might seem self-evident, but how many times have you seen parents trying to manage their child’s behavior while simultaneously working, eating, or conversing with other people?

Some such parental juggling is inevitable, and even the best parents need to divide their attention at times. However, make sure that you don’t do this during a meltdown. If your child is truly out of control, you need to be fully present and attentive to what’s happening around you. Otherwise, their physical and emotional well-being is put at risk.

However, giving your full attention doesn’t mean lecturing, bargaining, or disciplining. If your child is having a true meltdown, she is in a panicked, fight-or-flight state. As such, she won’t be able to engage in new learning.

In addition, be sure not to give in to any request or demand that directly preceded the meltdown. Doing so reinforces the idea that meltdowns yield positive results, and that’s not what you want to teach!

Rather than shouting, correcting, or rewarding negative behavior, simply prioritize safety. You can work on teaching once your child has regained equilibrium.

You can also reduce stimulation levels. This may mean a quick move to a quieter, more private space. If that’s not a possibility, you can stay put and lower lights, block excess noise, and disperse a crowd if one has gathered. Which brings us to our final point …

3. Tell bystanders what you need them to do 

One of the most difficult elements of a public meltdown is … the public. Even if you’re at a party where the guests know and love your child, it’s still stressful to have him melt down.

That said, you can take this potential frustration and turn it around. If you’re concerned about communicating with bystanders, try talking to friends and family members ahead of time about what to expect should your child lose control.

You might consider carrying cards to hand to strangers if it helps to explain the situation. But if you’re surrounded by close friends and family, it may be easier to simply plan ahead and ask for what you need (be it space or support) in advance.

Finally, after a meltdown ends, make sure to take time to recuperate before re-entering the party. You both need to take pause and rest before getting back on your feet.

Want more guidance on this topic? Then you won’t want to miss our free guide, 10 Tips for Managing a Meltdown, with specific guidance from Amalie D. Holly, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst on the FirstPath team!