What is a meltdown?

We just had our dinner and decided to head to the ATM machine to draw out cash. My son spoke out and said that he wanted to help me to insert the ATM card and take out the cash. There was a long queue and both of us were getting restless when it was our turn.

I had forgotten about the initial agreement I had with him and I inserted the card when it was our turn. “Mummy, what are you doing?” “Sorry I forgot, I’ll let you take the cash when it is dispensed?” He started to raise his voice, mumbled, and gave me an angry look. He kept repeating,”How can you forget?” Arrrgghhhh…You promised!” His body is shaking by now, and no matter what I say, nothing gets in.

While this is not a full-blown meltdown, it was enough to get both of us exhausted.

What is a meltdown?

A meltdown to me:

involves my child exhibiting uncontrollable emotions and or behaviors.

They may come in the form of:

kicking, screaming, not being able to listen to anything I say, physical aggression at me or others, shaking of his body excessively, sobbing uncontrollably.

Why do our children with ASD have meltdowns?

Meltdowns can occur due to sensory (feelings) or cognitive reasons:

The child

  • does not understand the reason for the sudden change in a decision or situation.
  • is taken by surprise, and in most situations, unpleasant or ‘bad’ surprises.
  • has a sensory overload due to the surroundings.
  • is given too many choices and too little time to absorb, understand and make the decision.
  • lacks the knowledge, skills or competency to handle the situation.
  • does the receive the answer that he or she wants.
  • any combination of the above-mentioned points.

So for the above scenario, my child was taken by surprise that the agreed inserting or card was not done. And due to the long queue, added with both our mental and physical tiredness that day, he had a minor meltdown as I did not let him re-insert my card.

Note the differences between a Meltdown and Temper Tantrums.

A meltdown is

  • an uncontrollable reaction.
  • a protective function from the ASD individual to reduce or escape from an internal or external over stimulation.
  • when you can tell the individual is out-of-control.

A temper tantrum on the other hand, is

  • a premeditated action.

One test I would do during times of uncertainty is to offer my son something he likes or something he likes to do. If he is able to change his mood or reaction quickly, I know it is not a meltdown.

  • a function which can be exhibited by both mainstream or individuals with autism to ‘manipulate’ another individual into doing something or agreeing to something.

Some of the common warning signs of a coming meltdown

  • pacing back and forth
  • increased self-stimulation behaviors
  • freeze or stiff body movements
  • focusing on that topic that affects him or her
  • stuttering or heavy-breather speech
  • some do become mute

Are Meltdowns Preventable?

Based on my experiences with my son and my students, I think it depends solely on the situation. However, through careful planning and scripting or social stories, I think it is possible to decrease the occurrences of meltdowns.

12 Strategies that have helped me to cope with my child’s meltdowns

Photo credit: DonkeyHotey via Visualhunt / CC BY-SA


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