Meltdowns are not uncommon for people on the autism spectrum and there are many things that can contribute to them. Author and mother of an autistic teen shares a lot of useful information on how to recognize, handle and preempt meltdowns without melting down yourself.
Every person is different, so it is impossible to say for sure 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 have developed ways of responding in order to keep the meltdowns from escalating further. We have also gotten pretty good at anticipating situations that are 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 just 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 keep in mind that sometimes meltdowns are not the result of just one thing but of a combination of things all happening at the same time.
If your child is struggling to communicate, this is likely to lead to frustration, which can, in turn, lead to meltdowns. Even if your child is able to communicate some basic needs or wants, if his understanding is beyond his ability to express himself and he has a lot more inside that he is trying to get out (which is the case for most kids on the spectrum, in my experience), he is still likely to have meltdowns that result from these struggles.
The majority of children with autism also have challenges with processing sensory information, which can result in the need to either seek out or avoid certain sensory experiences. Over stimulation and under stimulation can both result in meltdowns as the 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 meal time because he can’t stand the sensation of the food touching him, whereas 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 as well. Working with an occupational therapist who has a specialty in sensory integration can go a long way toward figuring out your child’s specific sensory needs and, in turn, reducing meltdowns.
One of the first things I consider when my son is having a meltdown are his basic physiological needs. Just like the rest of us, if our kids are tired, hungry, or sleepy they are going to 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 as well, especially for children who struggle to communicate how they are feeling.
Many children on the spectrum have food sensitivities/allergies and/or gastrointestinal issues, which can lead to physical discomfort, and then to meltdowns. If you’re not sure if this is an issue for your child, you can try keeping a log of what he eats, how often he is having 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, another important physiological aspect to consider will be hormones. So when puberty comes around it is likely to bring some new challenges along with it.
This list is not all inclusive, so be sure to be open to other considerations as well. 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.
Jennifer Rainey is passionate about helping both her sons (one of them autistic), achieve their highest potential and helping other parents find joy and fulfillment in their parenting journeys. She is a VitalGuide on Vitalxchange and offers a free support community and 1:1 guidance for any parent looking for her support and guidance.
Visit her expert page to learn more!