themighty logo

How I Helped My Child With Autism Handle Meltdowns


Now that she is 7 years old, meltdowns have gotten better for my daughter, who is on the autism spectrum. These apparent extreme reactions to small problems can be common for children on the autism spectrum. Why? Likely due to challenges with feeling overwhelmed by emotions or lack of self-regulation.

Emotional regulation¬†is the¬†ability to monitor and control our behavior or emotions and adjust them based on the situation.¬†For example, when we are well regulated, we can cheer ourselves up when we’re sad and calm ourselves down when we’re upset.

Why do some kiddos with autism struggle so much in this area?

One reason is that individuals with autism can have challenges with executive functioning skills. These skills are controlled by the frontal lobe of the brain and help us to use past information to take action in the present. Executive function skills include: shifting attention, flexible thinking, inhibiting emotions and organizing/planning. Individuals with autism also tend to have sensory sensitivities. The combination of these challenges makes it very hard to navigate the requirements of daily life and stay emotionally regulated.

What can parents do to help?

1. Observe your child.

Simple, but not really. Without intervening, watch how they handle the daily stressors of life. What behaviors are they currently using to cope? This will be helpful to know as you assist them in developing a plan to help them minimize meltdowns.

2. Size of the Problem.

Discuss the daily problems your child typically experiences as a “range” like from¬† one to 10. For example, a broken pencil is a one. We have control over this situation by simply getting a new pencil. But a broken leg may be an eight or nine. We have little control over this situation once it has happened. We must depend on others and time to help. Some children with autism go from¬† zero to 10 when problems occur without understanding the “gray area” in between.

Also, we can discuss the expected reactions for different size problems to help our kids understand. Michelle Garcia Winner has developed awesome materials to assist with teaching these concepts, found at socialthinking.com.

3. Zones of Regulation (ZOR).

ZOR is a great program developed by Leah Kuypers, an Occupational Therapist (zonesofregulation.com). ZOR is a visual framework that puts words to our feelings with appropriate strategies for getting into a ‚Äúgood space.‚ÄĚ

4. Social Narratives.

Social narratives are short stories with (or without) pictures that honor the feelings and thoughts of the child while explicitly teaching the expected behaviors for specific situations. These stories can be developed by caregivers and clinicians with the participation of the child, if possible. Carol Gray’s stories are a great example of social narratives (carolgraysocialstories.com).

Over the years, we have created numerous social narratives for my daughter to help guide her through situations, such as attending birthday parties and fire drills at school. Now, we keep the stories in a binder for her to review at her leisure. It is important to note, however, that social narratives should be created, discussed and reviewed¬†prior¬†to the target situation occurring. As for most of us, “in the moment” of the situation it may be too challenging to review strategies and successfully attain emotional regulation.

Meltdowns for children with autism are common. However, there are many strategies to help support them in building emotional regulation along their journey.

References: Researchautism.net; Psychologytoday.com; Education.com; www.hope-therapies.com

A version of this post first appeared on Sanford Autism Consulting.

Getty image by Aidon