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8 Tips on How to Manage Meltdowns in Public from Autism Experts

As a parent of a child with autism, you know that meltdowns in public will happen.  The key is how to deal with them (and how to prevent them if you can).
 
An autistic meltdown is when a person with autism is overwhelmed, either from sensory, emotional, or information overload.  It can look like a tantrum (crying, yelling, aggression), or it can look like complete shutdown and withdrawal.  It is different from a typical tantrum because a tantrum is usually about getting something they want, and it usually goes away when it is ignored.  But an autistic meltdown can happen without an audience, and is the result of being overwhelmed (more information about the difference here).
 
ABA Therapists can help you develop your own personalized strategies of what to do and what not to do when a meltdown strikes.  Here are 8 tips on how to manage a public meltdown with your child with autism.
 
1:  Stay calm.  Take some deep breaths.  Look around and assess the situation.  Focus on your child and what he or she needs in the moment.  Your goal is to remove any triggers and help your child to feel safe again.  And try hard to stop caring what other people are thinking.  I know this is easier said than done, but work on ignoring the people who stop and stare.  You are doing the best that you can do, and it really doesn’t matter whether they understand or not.  
 
2:  Stay strong.  If this is a tantrum, remember to be consistent with your original demand or your original “no”, and don’t give in.  Giving in now will only teach your child that if he has another tantrum, he will get what he wants again.  Just wait it out.  As much as possible, try to find a safe space which is quieter or away from the traffic, and stay strong.
 
3: Let others know what you need from them.  If you have multiple adults in your group, make a plan together.  Bystanders may want to help once they are able to interpret the situation.  Many parents carry around little cards that say something like:  My child has autism.  This means that sights, sounds, and smells often overwhelm my child, and he may communicate this by screaming, hitting, etc.  (Download autism cards for free!)  
 
Or maybe you need to direct others to move out of the way, to reduce the stimulation, or to prevent someone from getting hurt.  You could also ask a bystander to help get something you need, or to get the manager.  Your goal at this point is to keep your child safe and to keep others safe.
 
These are strategies to manage public meltdowns, but what if you could prevent them?  Here are some ideas for being prepared.
 
4: Visual cues and social stories.  You can help prepare your child for the outing and prevent meltdowns by telling her all about what is going to happen, and doing this multiple times days in advance.  You could use pictures or videos of where you are going. (E.g. Here is what the zoo looks like, and here is a map, and here is what we will be able to see.)  You could outline the process with a picture of each step. (E.g. This is how we go to the doctor.  First, we drive in the car...)  You could write a social story which includes pictures of your child going on the outing, and read it every day for a week prior.  (Check out this visual supports toolkit.)
 
5: Practice.  The only way your child will get better at successfully being in public is to practice doing it.  You can start small (e.g. going to the park), and work your way up to more intense and intimidating places or scheduled activities.  If you know that your child is triggered by noises, you can practice at quieter places (e.g. in nature), and then move towards places with more and more noise over time.
 
6: Teach coping strategies.  Before going on the outing, work on some methods of calming.  Especially in the case of sensory or sensitivity issues, you know what the triggers are for meltdowns with your child, so look for ways to prevent or reduce these triggers.  For example, if your child is sensitive to having too many things in her field of vision, try sunglasses or a wide brim hat, or teach her to stop and close her eyes for a few seconds.  If he is sensitive to noises, invest in some noise cancelling headphones or headphones with music, and practice wearing them.
 
You could practice deep breathing together before going out, and then do some deep breathing once you are out and about.  Or you could spend some weeks at home teaching your child how to ask for a break (verbally, with a picture, or with a sign, etc.).  Then when you see him getting a bit unsettled, prompt him to ask for a break, and take him to a quiet space or to the car for a break.  
 
You may want to prepare an “emergency meltdown kit” to bring with you on outings.  You could include a weighted blanket, headphones, favorite toys, massage ball, body sock, or whatever your child might need to help calm himself.
 
7: Have distractions ready.  Many kids with autism can tune out the world if they are involved in something that they love.  Some examples of distractions could include: favorite toy, tablet or phone, music, snacks (crunchy snacks can also help block out the noise).
 
8: Give rewards.  One of the keys to ABA Therapy is to reward good behavior.  This can easily be done out in the community as well.  If your child is able to use a token board, you can award tokens for being calm, following expectations, and even for taking deep breaths and coping.  At the end of the outing, the tokens are turned in for a big reward.  (See more about token boards here.)  But even if your child is not quite ready for tokens, you can still use a first/then reward.  For example, show them pictures for: “First you need to walk into the zoo, then you can take a break with your iPad.”
 
To review, here are some reminders of what NOT to do during a meltdown:
- have a meltdown yourself
- yell or act rashly in a way that will overwhelm your child more
- focus on bystanders instead of your child
- try to teach new coping strategies in the moment
- give in to the behavior if it is a tantrum related to not getting what they want
 
Having individual support from an ABA Therapist could make a huge difference as you try to navigate meltdowns and outings.  Alliance ABA Therapy is the leading ABA therapy provider in Fredericksburg and Fairfax, VA.  Click here to contact Alliance ABA Therapy today.

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