Dealing with meltdowns from children with autism is often inevitable, but what we can do is to learn and understand what are ways to help and cope with the struggle. Meltdowns occur when a child with autism feels completely overwhelmed by a situation hence, causing an intense behavioural response that he or she has no control over. The loss of control can be expressed in verbal or physical forms, or a combination of the two. Frequently, meltdowns are caused by an overstimulation of sensory inputs causing the child’s central nervous system to be unable to process the excessive information. Of course, there are other reasons as well. For example, meltdowns may happen when there is anxiety, a change of routine, or communication difficulties and an inability to express how they feel. Meltdowns can also happen in a variety of situations as triggers can be anywhere. Thus, it is important to identify these triggers so that we can better prepare ourselves to manage meltdowns proactively in future instances.
However, as much as we want to be prepared and manage meltdowns confidently and effectively, we will not know what is causing distress until a meltdown actually occurs. More often than not, it can happen in school, at home, or in public spaces. Here are a couple of useful tips to deal with the meltdowns of children with autism in public spaces; be it in the train station, at the restaurant, or a shopping mall.
1. Staying calm while your child with autism is having a meltdown. It is nerve wracking to have to manage a meltdown in a public situation. This is especially the case if you don’t know what happened to cause the meltdown and have gotten some unwanted attention from the public. However, it is important to shift your focus to your child and calmly think of ways that would calm him or her down. By keeping calm, you avoid causing additional distress to your child who may reflect the emotions you are projecting. Some passersby may ask if you need help and it will be good to let them know that your child is autistic and space would be appreciated.
2. Identify any possible triggers.
Triggers such as the environment being too loud, too bright, or overcrowded; any changes of routines; or anything that has happened prior that caused anxiety. Identifying the trigger can help with understanding what is stressful for the child and help minimize meltdowns. If it is possible to remove triggers in the public space, do so to de-escalate any further meltdowns.
3. Make sure the surrounding is a safe space.
Bring your child to a quiet and safe space, ensuring that the surrounding is free from any dangerous objects to prevent your child or yourself from getting hurt. While a meltdown is occurring, the child loses behavioural control and hence, may unintentionally hurt themselves or even you.
4. Give your child time.
It may take your child some time to recover from the meltdown. Be with your child throughout as your presence can serve to let your child know that he or she is in a safe place.
5. Prepare a Sensory toolkit.
Before heading out, prepare some sensory toys that you know your child would be able to calm down with. For example, a chewy, stress ball, headphones to listen to calming music, sunglasses for light sensitivity, or fidget toys. These would help to reduce stress and regulate emotions.
6. Counting or Slow singing.
Softly count to ten or slow singing may help the child facing a meltdown to calm down. When the child has slowly calmed down, praise the child for being calm.
Meltdowns can be terrifying but bear in mind that we are always learning new things about children with autism. Every child with autism is different and meltdowns are an opportunity to let us know what is tolerable and intolerable for the particular child. We can then brainstorm possible solutions to help them cope with similar situations in the future. It is also important to understand that when a child with autism experiences a meltdown, he or she is not in full control of the behavioural impulses. Hence, ensuring safety is priority, especially when a meltdown is occurring in public spaces.
I hope the tips suggested will be useful in your preparations when you bring your child out. It is always good to be well-prepared beforehand so that you are able to manage meltdowns readily if and when they occur.
Written by: Mabel.
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