Whenever your child has a meltdown, your first instinct as a parent is to make it stop; no one likes to see their baby distressed. However, sometimes it just isn’t that simple. Children are learning how to cope with different situations every day. A lot of the time, they just don’t know how to express their feelings.
Having a child who is autistic can sometimes require a little extra help. Autistic children can experience something called sensory overload. This is when you have too many senses going to your brain at the same time.
For instance, a trigger might be being at an outdoor event where there are loud noises, smelly trash cans, and the sun blinding your eyes. This can even be too much for even a neurotypical adult. For autistic children, it can be the makings of a sudden outburst of emotions or what most people call a tantrum.
Autistic children sometimes have outbursts because they feel unheard or struggle to process all their emotions at once. That is why paying attention and listening to their needs is essential.
A lot of times, children just need something to distract their minds away from the instigating event. Honestly, this seems to stand true with children of all ages and with or without any sensory or processing disorders.
Giving our children varied ways to manage their overwhelming emotions will help them flourish and grow as people. Autistic meltdowns are going to look different, depending on the child and situation.
So, it’s best to have the tools you need ahead of time. Sometimes those tools will be a physical object, and sometimes, these could be simple strategies that don't require any physical items at all.
Breathing exercises, physical activity, and sensory tools are often powerful solutions to complicated situations. Take a look at some helpful coping strategies for temper tantrums. Just remember, every autistic child is unique, so it is always important to try what works best for your child and seek medical advice when needed.
Everyone has triggers. Autistic children could have a few different triggers that cause them to become emotionally distressed and sometimes inconsolable. As parents of autistic children, it’s our responsibility to recognize these triggers and do our best to either eliminate them or help our children find a way to cope. Some of these triggers include things that happen in everyday life and can not always be avoided.
Here are just a few:
- Fluorescent Lights
- Loud Noises
- Repetitive Noises (like a clock ticking)
- The Texture of an Object (slimy, rough, bumpy)
- A Collection of all the Above
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have all types of triggers. It is always crucial to seek professional help to diagnose this disorder so that you can get your child the proper tools and coping skills to deal with whatever triggers they may have. Before you can access resources, Big Heart Toys is here to lend a hand.
Finding what works for your child may take time and patience but will be beneficial in the long run.
Signs of Distress
Before we discuss how to help calm an autistic child, it is equally important to know the signs of distress. There are different types of stimuli, and we must learn which ones cause stress so we can try to prevent or deescalate outbursts.
With each child, there will be different reactions, depending on the situation. Here are a few to look out for:
- Self-aggression (such as pinching or slapping themselves)
- Covering ears with hands
- Repetitive behaviors like rocking (often called stimming)
- Running away
Knowing that these are signs of distress will help you to take action right away so you can make your child feel safe and/or heard. These are all signs of autism but may also signify a distressed child in general. When you see your child doing any of these, just remember your calming strategies.
Emotional regulation can be a hard thing to navigate for an autistic child. They often do not have the ability to control their emotions. That is why we have to give them tools to help them.
Calming Toys for Autistic Children
A great item that you could keep with you at all times is a pop toy. They can fit in any bag and are lightweight. When your special needs child is in meltdown mode, accessibility is key.
Sometimes, you can soothe your child with simple fidget toys. These sensory toys require focus and can help them learn self-calming techniques.
You could also try keeping a sensory bin on hand. These are not always easy to travel with, but they are a good resource at home. Sensory bins are designed to help children play and learn while feeling different textures. They can help your child relieve stress and also to cope with sensory issues they may have.
Noise-canceling headphones have been known to help autistic children manage the world around them without all the noise. Sudden, unexpected, or high-pitched sounds can be a trigger for autistic children. That is why noise-canceling headphones can be a great asset. Some experts do suggest using them in moderation.
Some headphones can pose a danger, especially if your little one is trying to cross the street or is near a busy road.
Calming Behavioral Techniques
Breathing Exercises and Meditation
When tantrums hit, your autistic child might feel overwhelmed with emotions and not know how to express that to you. A good way to calm your child is to coach them on taking deep breaths.
Look your child in the eyes and instruct them to breathe in and out in deep breaths; popular options include diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. This is a fantastic exercise to help reduce their anxiety and stress.
When you see signs of distress in your child, you can encourage them to use calming strategies like their favorite breathing exercises to attempt to prevent a tantrum before it starts. The goal is to keep your child calm and recognize the warning signs of a tantrum. This will save you the stress and embarrassment of those public meltdowns we all dread.
Breathing can be a variation of meditation. Meditation is a highly complex practice that might not work for everyone. It may take a few tries to figure out what works best for your family.
Create a Cooldown Corner
When your child seems inconsolable, and all your tricks are failing you, often having an escape route for your child is the only answer. Creating a space where your child can go to relax and avoid all distractions can often be the only solution.
Make them a comfy corner with a mat in your house where they can sit and breathe. This will help them regain focus and remove them from whatever is causing them distress.
If you have the room, set up a little tent in a corner, somewhere equipped with sensory toys, a special stuffed animal, noise cancellation headphones, and maybe a weighted blanket. Whichever stress tolerance tools they like are great to keep in this permanent location.
Weighted blankets can add an extra feeling of safety and comfort that your child may need. It’s important not to associate this space with punishments, like if you have a timeout chair or step. Allow them to go there for a few minutes to calm down and collect themselves before returning back to what they were doing.
Our whole lives, we’re told to be active. Physical activity alone can help reduce stress, help clear your mind and help your body work properly. This stands for children as well.
Every autistic child is different, but many parents have found that giving their autistic child something physical to focus on is very helpful. Engaging in sports could help them mentally and physically. Being active will give your child an opportunity to be productive and feel accomplished. Encouraging positive behaviors will also help your child when they are having a hard time.
Ultimately, every autistic person will have certain things that work more than others. For instance, some may not enjoy sporting events where there is a ton of noise and people. Sometimes being active for an autistic child may have to consist of something more serene, like swimming in a local pool or going for an evening walk with the family.
Modeling Engaging, Encouraging Activities
Having great autism resources will help your family live a more stress-free life.
Children want to do the things that adults do; after all, a kid’s parents are often their heroes. The main goal is to show our children how to live and positively cope with everyday life. This can seem impossible when your child is having tantrums at random.
You may be able to help your child have fewer meltdowns by modeling your distress techniques. Activities like naming your emotions or practicing visualization techniques can help model self-soothing behavior.
Children love stories (as do adults!). A wonderful bonding activity for caregivers and children is to read together. While many children’s illustrated books are didactic in nature, caregivers can search for books geared towards behavior modeling. At Big Heart Toys, we love the books written by Sandra Arntzen, M.Ed.
Some of her books are specially geared for autistic children, including Leo Handles Teasing and Luna Makes a Friend. These books walk neurodiverse children through situations that they see every day, both at home and at school.
Such carefully-curated books can help young people play out scenarios that could potentially cause meltdowns or anxiety in a safe and well-controlled space.
Helping an autistic child calm down will take practice, time, and patience. Every day there are more and more resources for parents of autistic children. It's a bright idea to learn the different tools and coping strategies that work for your child; not every solution will work for every child.
It's all about controlling the situation as much as possible while calming your child and helping them deal with their emotions. Having safe spaces and sensory tools within reach to de-escalate a situation will help your child gain more control and stay calm in social settings.
As parents, we all love our children and want the best for them. With a bit of time and practice, we can encourage our children to take on the world.
How To Calm a Child With Autism | Verywell Health
Relaxation Training for Kids on the Autism Spectrum | Psychology Today
Stimming: Autistic Children and Teenagers | Raising Children Network (Australia)