One of my sons has Autism. I’ve stopped counting how many meltdowns he’s had in his life. But, I can usually tell when they are coming now. And we have a service dog who helps too.
Meltdowns are like volcanic eruptions.
In our house, we compare meltdowns to a volcano. When the lava is down in the volcano -cool and calm- all the villagers are safe.
But when it starts to heat up and move around, if nothing interferes, an eruption happens. A meltdown is kinda like that.
When my son is calm,
…when he is healthy,
…when his body is able to process sensory input properly,
…when he is in his routine and knows what to expect, all is right.
It’s a sweet time to be on the island. He’s a sweet, fun, and smart boy. But when something is off…
- maybe his sleeve got wet when washing his hands
- maybe his blocks just won’t stay snapped together
- maybe we had to make a u-turn because Dad missed the exit
- or maybe his sister keeps touching him
Whatever it is, it causes the lava to warm up and move around. Then, my son will likely start yelling, rocking, or moving his body is a strange way. If there’s no interference, he will have a meltdown.
We call this Meltdown Mode.
Sometimes, it’s obvious what is wrong.
When it is, I talk him through it,
“Oh, I see your sleeve got wet. Let me help you take off this shirt and we will get a dry one.”
“You don’t like when your sister touches you, tell her to stop, please!”
“I see your blocks are not working well. Can I help you?”
Other times, it’s either not obvious or there’s nothing I can do about it.
“Sorry son, sometimes we have to turn around. I know you don’t like that.”
“I am not sure what is wrong. Would you like to hold my hand/have a snack/be alone?”
When you can’t cool off the volcano, an eruption happens.
Meltdowns happen. It doesn’t matter where we are. If a meltdown is happening, it’s happening.
That means it happens in the grocery store, the movie theater, at church, in
The difference between meltdowns and tantrums is huge, even though they may have similar behaviors.
I think it is important to note that meltdowns do not only happen to individuals with Autism.
A meltdown by definition is a reaction.
For my son, it’s usually a reaction to some sensory input/output or to a change in routine. But meltdowns happen with my neurotypical kids too.
Meltdowns are different than tantrums.
Simply put, a tantrum has a purpose, a wanted response from you. You know it. Your kid asks for a third cookie and you say no, so your kid starts crying/whining or hits the table. The child is hoping that if he makes some trouble for you, you’ll let him have his way.
Tantrums are easy behaviors to terminate. All you have to do is be consistent over time. Your child will learn that when you say no, you mean it, and he’ll eventually stop throwing a fit.
People do not go into Meltdown Mode because they are trying to get a response from you.
My son has a meltdown as a reaction to something that is beyond his control. For example, when his sister keeps touching him (even though she knows it irritates him!), he has no control over that input. And without direction, he does not have the verbal skills to tell her to stop either. The input from being touched repeatedly overloads his brain and makes it very difficult to process all the other stimuli coming in.
What can you do?
So, when you see my kid in the grocery store or at the birthday party, laying flat on the ground, kicking, and screaming/crying at the top of his lungs, what can you do? When you see me, sweating, almost crying, and just trying to keep my kid safe, what can you do?
1) Smile and remember I am doing my best.
Pity is not helpful. Judgment is not helpful.
Friendliness is helpful. Humanity is helpful.
Just smile at me. A smile from a stranger is encouraging. It lightens the mood, relieves the stress.
It shows me that you care and if you try any of the next three things after a smile, I will feel more at ease.
2) Look to my other children.
I have 3 preschoolers and a baby. When my oldest son is having a meltdown, sometimes, my angelic middle children act like crazy people who’ve never been to a grocery store. Please stop them if they’re knocking cans off the shelf or pulling shirts off the rack.
Don’t hit them. Don’t yell at them. But stop them.
Also, my baby may be having a rough time too; he doesn’t always know what to think about his brother in such distress. So, if my baby is screaming, offer to hold him for a minute.
In a normal moment, I’d say no, but in Meltdown Mode, unless you seem creepy, I promise I’ll say thank you.
3) Engage with me, not with my son.
Many people think they can distract my son with small talk while he is screaming and thrashing on the floor. Then, they get upset when he doesn’t answer and I don’t apologize.
a) He has low verbal communication skills anyway. If you say hello and ask his name, he’s not going to acknowledge that you’ve spoken to him in a normal situation.
b) If distractions stopped meltdowns, I would’ve already done it and it’d be over.
c) Since a meltdown is a reaction to sensory input/output, you’re just making it worse by adding more input with your words, body language, and expectations. He doesn’t scream louder because he’s getting attention from you. It’s because now he has more to process when he already can’t process what’s happening.
Long story short, if you need something from us, ask me, leave him alone.
4) Offer less sensory input.
This will not be applicable in all situations, but in any situation where you can, offer less sensory input.
Maybe you can turn off the lights, turn down the music/TV, move people to a different room or offer us
One time, my son had an immediate and absolute meltdown as we walked into a birthday party. It was very loud and there were a ton of people which he did not expect. There were people in front of and behind us and we were trapped. It would’ve helped immensely if the people behind us would’ve just backed up and let us out the door. Sometimes, it’s as easy as that.
While we were in Disney World, my son started having a meltdown during a show. Cast members immediately came to us and escorted us to a quieter space. It helped so much!
Think about anything you could do to stop sensory input. Less to process means less time in Meltdown Mode.
5) Keep walking.
If you’re unsure what to do or if the mom even wants/needs help, just keep walking.
But don’t gawk and certainly don’t let your kids stare, point, or talk loudly about my situation.
My son has Autism. He is not dumb or deaf or unaware of what is happening around him. He cannot clearly explain it, but it does hurt his feelings when people talk rudely or point at him.
And it makes me mad. Sure, explain Autism to your children (using the right language and in an advocating way), but don’t do it while we’re in the middle of the grocery store having a moment. Please.
One last thing…
You could incorporate these actions if you’re hosting an event too, especially if you know there may be an individual with Autism or sensory issues present.
Do what you can to prevent meltdowns and keep the volcano calm. I know if my family is on the guest list, we will definitely appreciate it!
What helps you when your child is losing it in the grocery store? Scroll down and comment to let us know other ideas you have.