Meltdowns can be a symptom of autism. For many people with autism, a public meltdown is a source of anxiety and frustration. However, there are tools and techniques to manage autism meltdowns when they happen — even in crowded spaces.
Whether you’re an adult on the spectrum, or your child has autism, having a few strategies in the back of your mind may help you deal with meltdowns before they get out of hand. Here are our best tips for minimizing meltdowns and soothing yourself or your child when you feel a meltdown coming on.
Kids with Autism: Autism Meltdowns Are Not Tantrums
Probably every parent on the planet has dealt with a child’s temper tantrum — whether you make the mistake of offering chicken nuggets instead of a hot dog, or you announce that it’s bedtime in the middle of a favorite television show.
Tantrums are common among young children, but they’re not the same thing as an autism meltdown. Children sometimes throw a tantrum to get their way or to express a strong emotion. In children with autism, however, meltdowns occur due to sensory overstimulation.
Like any child, kids with autism can certainly throw a temper tantrum every now and then. However, a meltdown is something altogether different. Different kids have different triggers, and children with autism can feel overwhelmed by noise, stress, large crowds or an unfamiliar experience like traveling.
Adults with Autism: Why Do Autism Meltdowns Happen?
If you’re an adult who has autism, you’re probably familiar with meltdowns. To the outside world, however, autism meltdowns might be a source of confusion or misunderstanding.
As Ashlea McKay, an adult with autism, describes, autism meltdowns aren’t panic attacks or the side effect of having a stressful day. McKay writes, “[An autism meltdown] is the complete loss of emotional control experienced by an autistic person. It doesn’t last long but once triggered, there’s no stopping it. Meltdowns are emotional avalanches that run their course whether you or the autistic person having it likes it or not. They can happen at anytime and can be caused by a number of factors including: environmental stimuli, stress, uncertainty, rapid and impactful change and much more.”
Like McKay states, many adults with autism worry about whether a meltdown is affecting the people around them. Are coworkers bothered? Is a project going to suffer? What if a meltdown forces you to go home for the day? Unfortunately, this stress can make the symptoms of an autism meltdown even worse.
6 Ways to Manage an Autism Meltdown on the Go
Adults with autism usually develop effective coping strategies for managing meltdowns. However, many will tell you they do better when they experience a meltdown at home, where they’re in a comfortable, familiar environment.
Likewise, most parents of children with autism know how to handle a meltdown at home. They know their child’s routines and preferred ways of self-soothing.
When you’re out and about or traveling, however, easing a meltdown can be a major challenge. It’s easy to feel like every eye is on you when your child is wailing or kicking and screaming on the floor. As an adult, it can be tough to find a private, quiet space where you can decompress if you feel overstimulated.
Fortunately, there are several ways to manage an autism meltdown when you’re out of the house. Here are six tips to keep in mind.
Use Sensory Items
Sensory items can help a child with autism get the proprioceptive input they need. Parents usually know what soothes their child. Incorporate meltdown soothing strategies from home by assembling a sensory toolkit you can throw in your bag or in the car. You can even put your toolkit in a fun backpack your child likes to carry.
Ideas for a sensory toolkit include storage baggies filled with buttons and other sorting items, stress balls or squishy toys and dough or molding clay. Let your child know the toolkit is there whenever they need it. You can even switch out items to keep the toolkit exciting for your child.
Proprioceptive input can work great for adults, too. Fidget spinners, stress balls and sensory items are usually conveniently sized, so you can keep a few in your work desk drawer for when you need them.
Find a Safe Space
When a child has an autism meltdown at home, it’s often easier to calm them down because they’re in a familiar environment. In public, however, you have to deal with an audience. Worse, you might not be able to find a quiet spot to get away from the crowd. On an airplane, for example, you have to contend with limited space and noises your child might not be used to.
The same is true for adults. In some cases, a crowded subway car or airplane cabin can be enough to trigger a meltdown. Confined spaces, bright lights and loud noises can cause anxiety to spike.
However, there are ways to create a quiet oasis — even on a crowded 747 or a cramped subway car. One idea is to eliminate as much noise stimulation as possible. For example, many kids and adults do well with noise canceling headphones. You can find a good selection online, and you can even pick up an affordable pair at your local home improvement store.
You might also want to offer your child some sunglasses — or invest in a good pair for yourself. Some people with autism can get overwhelmed by bright light or large crowds. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re surrounded by strangers, sunglasses may help you or your child feel a little more secure.
Both of these strategies can work for adults, too.
Try Some Heavy Work
It can be helpful for those with autism to make pulling and pushing motions away from the body. These movements may help them with proprioceptive input and body awareness. Occupational therapists often refer to this as heavy work, and they may recommend it as a form of therapy you can do at home.
You can incorporate weight lifting into your workout routine, or you can do some body weight exercises at home or even in a break room or free space in the office. Some people say a brisk 15-minute walk helps them head off a meltdown when they feel one coming on.
For children, heavy work can be helpful, too. For example, if your child shows symptoms of a meltdown in the grocery store, you can try allowing him to push the shopping cart. Other ideas for heavy work on the go include lifting items off shelves or pushing a younger sibling’s stroller.
Carry Some Fidget Toys in Your Bag
Fidget toys can be a great way to keep little (or big) hands busy when a meltdown is on the horizon. Because fidgets are small, they’re perfect for managing an autism meltdown on the go.
Let your child play with fidgets at home to get an idea of which type of fidget she prefers. For example, some kids do well with bean bags, while others like spinners or cubes. For adults, don’t be afraid to experiment with a few different fidgets. Even things that aren’t branded as “fidgets” can work — some people like calculators, while others can manage with just about any object they can moved around in their hands.
Find a Calm Down Corner
Just because you’re away from home doesn’t mean you can’t find a secluded spot to focus on calming down. This doesn’t have to be a literal corner, and it doesn’t need to be particularly spacious.
The idea is to give your child or yourself an area where you can self-regulate and regroup. Admittedly, it’s easier to create a calm down corner at home. When you’re in public, however, you might need to improvise. In a busy shopping mall, for example, look for a fountain or some benches. If you’re stuck outside, try sitting at the base of a tree or on some exterior steps.
Use a Weighted Blanket
Being on the go can be stressful for anyone. For people with autism, running errands or traveling can lead to sensory overstimulation. Before you know it, a meltdown is brewing, and you have no idea how to help your child (or yourself) calm down.
This is where a weighted blanket may help. Noted autism researcher Dr. Temple Grandin (herself on the autism spectrum) got the idea to create a “squeeze machine” after observing how cattle seemed relaxed and calm after being led into a device that held them still for vaccinations. She wondered if a similar process would work for people with autism, who sometimes feel calmed by close contact but can also be overstimulated by hugging.
Dr. Grandin’s research showed that firm but gentle hugging can have a calming effect on individuals with autism. As she wrote in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, “Deep touch pressure is the type of surface pressure that is exerted in most types of firm touching, holding, stroking, petting of animals, or swaddling… Autistic children will often seek out deep pressure sensations.”
Occupational therapists still use squeeze machines, but they tend to be bulky and expensive. Fortunately, a weighted blanket may provide the same result. In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Sleep Medicine & Disorders, researchers stated:
“The application of deep pressure, through for example weighted vests and blankets, has been reported to produce a calming and relaxing effect in clinical conditions such as autism spectrum disorders (ASD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and pervasive developmental disorders. Applying deep pressure has been shown to be beneficial for children with high levels of anxiety or arousal and deep pressure touch may also alleviate anxiety.”
SensaCalm’s weighted blankets are available in a large variety of colors and patterns, so you can find a fun print that appeals to you or your child. You can also add a cuddle fabric backing for extra soft sensory input. For information on weight and sizing, check out our How to Buy guide.
If you plan on traveling soon, you can also try the SensaCalm “Calm to Go” travel blanket. It’s sized for easy use in the car, on a plane or however you get from here to there.
The Calm to Go travel blanket measures 34 inches by 50 inches, which is throw size. It also comes with a free travel pillow, and the blanket has convenient carry handles, so you can roll it up and get on your way with no fuss. You can order in four pounds, six pounds or eight pounds.
Ease Autism Meltdowns with a SensaCalm Weighted Blanket
SensaCalm was founded by the grandmother of a child with autism. We’re committed to helping parents — and adults — with autism find the tools they need to navigate the world just a little bit better.
Questions? We’re here to help. Give us a call at 855-736-7222 or use our contact form to get in touch with one of our knowledgeable team members.
Disclaimer: The content on this website is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. Talk to your doctor or healthcare provider before undertaking any type of therapy or treatment.