Every person is different, so it is impossible to say if someone will continue to have meltdowns throughout their life. My son is 14, and he does still experience meltdowns, but they have occurred in stages throughout his life. We have had periods of time when he has had meltdowns many times a day and periods where he will go weeks without having any.
Learning to recognize meltdown triggers
Over the years, we have learned to recognize triggers and developed ways of responding to keep the meltdowns from escalating further. We have also gotten pretty good at anticipating situations likely to lead to a meltdown and coming up with accommodations that we can put in place to reduce the likelihood of a meltdown occurring.
I want to emphasize how important it is to remember that meltdowns are not within the child’s control and to treat them as a form of communication versus a “behavior” that needs to be eradicated. So, all of that being said, here are some of the possible meltdown triggers.
What causes meltdowns?
In my experience, there are three big categories that most meltdown triggers fall under. I will share those below, but please know that the list is not all-inclusive, as all kids are different. Also, it’s helpful to remember that sometimes meltdowns are not the result of just one thing but of a combination of things all happening simultaneously.
If your child struggles to communicate, this will likely lead to frustration. In turn, this leads to meltdowns. Even if your child is able to communicate some basic needs or wants, meltdowns are still likely. His understanding may be beyond his ability to express himself. Also, he may have a lot more inside that he is trying to get out. This is the case for most kids on the spectrum, in my experience.
Most children with autism also have challenges with processing sensory information. This can result in the need to either seek out or avoid certain sensory experiences. Overstimulation and under-stimulation can both result in meltdowns. In this case, your child struggles to handle the effects of too much or too little input to their sensory system. For example, a child who is over-responsive to tactile input may have a meltdown when his face gets messy at mealtime. This is because he can’t stand the sensation of the food touching him. A child who is under-responsive to tactile input may have a meltdown because his favorite fidget that meets his need for input is not available.
Changes to routine and/or being put in a new and unfamiliar situation can also be overwhelming for children with sensory processing issues, so these can be common meltdown triggers. Working with an occupational therapist specializing in sensory integration can go a long way toward figuring out your child’s specific sensory needs. This can, in turn, reduce meltdowns.
One of the first things I consider when my son is having a meltdown is his basic physiological needs. Just like the rest of us, if our kids are tired, hungry, or sleepy, they will have a shorter fuse and be more likely to have a meltdown. In addition to those basic needs, it’s important to consider other physiological possibilities, especially for children who struggle to communicate their feelings.
Many children on the spectrum have food sensitivities/allergies and/or gastrointestinal issues, which can lead to physical discomfort and meltdowns. If you’re unsure if this is an issue for your child, you can try keeping a log of what he eats, how often he has bowel movements and what type, and what his behavior is like. This can be a helpful tool in identifying any patterns. The most common “offenders” are gluten, dairy, soy, corn, and food dyes.
Puberty and Hormones
As your child gets older, hormones are another important physiological aspect to consider. So when puberty comes around, it is likely to bring some new challenges.
This list is not all-inclusive, so be open to other considerations. For example, when my son was 7, he started having meltdowns that would come out of nowhere, and I knew something was going on. Long story short, it turned out to be absence seizures, and when we treated the seizures, the meltdowns stopped.