How to Calm a Child With Autism

Techniques for avoiding and managing meltdowns

Children with autism can have a tough time managing their behavior. Even high-functioning children can "have a meltdown" in situations that would be only mildly challenging to a typical peer.

Children with severe autism can get upset on a daily basis. Meltdowns can make it hard to participate in everyday activities or, in extreme cases, even leave the house. It is not always easy to calm a child with autism, but there are techniques that can help.

how to calm a child with autism

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

This article explores some of the tools and techniques used to manage or prevent meltdowns in children with autism. It also looks at the causes and signs of a meltdown to help you recognize and deal with them more effectively and with less anxiety.

Causes of Meltdowns in Children With Autism

Unlike their typical peers, few autistic children "throw fits" to garner attention or achieve a desired outcome (such as getting a new toy or their favorite food).

In most cases, autistic children react to physical or emotional stress without any particular agenda. They may simply be expressing feelings of excitement, frustration, or anxiety. They might also be responding to sensory assaults (meaning the overload of sensations).

The reality is that children with autism generally have less control over their emotions than other children. As a result, emotional outbursts are more common.

Predicting a Meltdown

It is not always easy for a parent of a child with autism to predict or even recognize situations that may cause a meltdown.

Ordinary changes in a daily routine, such as a detour on the way to school, can be upsetting to some children with autism. Certain odors, such as the smell of fresh paint, or flickering fluorescent lights at the grocery store can also trigger a meltdown.

In general, there are some common triggers of a meltdown in children with autism:

  • Very loud noises, such as fireworks or the backfire of a car
  • Major changes in a daily routine
  • Strong smells, even pleasant ones like a Thanksgiving turkey

With that said, a child may react differently to the same situation from one day to the next. A trigger that sets off a meltdown on Tuesday may be entirely ignored on Thursday.

Similarly, a child may respond differently to the same stimuli in different environments. For example, a crowded mall may be too much for a child, but a crowded movie theater may not be (particularly if it is playing a movie they are looking forward to).

There may not be any rhyme or reason to why some meltdowns occur, but this doesn't mean that they are "intentional" or a "tantrum."

Recap

A meltdown in a child with autism is usually not a "tantrum" but rather a reaction to physical or emotional stress. Triggers include loud noises, strong smells, changes in environment or routine, and other stimuli that cause a sensory overload.

Reactions to Stress in Children With Autism

Reactions to physical emotional stress can take may different forms in children with autism. Meltdowns are only one of them.

Other reactions may include:

  • Screeching or other noise-making
  • Bolting or running away
  • Self-stimulation, or "stimming" (such as intense rocking, pacing, or self-talk)
  • Self-aggression (such as slapping oneself or banging one's head)
  • Sensory avoidance (such as covering the ears or eyes)
  • Sensory-seeking behavior (such as crashing against furniture or squeezing into a small space)
  • Compulsive behaviors (such as touching the same object repeatedly)
  • Refusal to engage
  • Aggression toward others (rare)

Some of these behaviors are attempts to self-calm. Others are simply physical manifestations of internal upset.

Recap

Meltdowns are only one of the possible responses to stress in children with autism. Others include rocking or pacing, running away, making screeching noises, hitting oneself, covering one's eyes or ears, squeezing into a small space, or engaging in repetitive behaviors.

Understanding Why Meltdowns Occur

There are underlying factors that contribute to meltdowns and other atypical emotional responses. The behaviors are based on limitations seen in most children with autism, including:

  • Difficulty understanding social norms and conventions
  • Difficulty following or using spoken language
  • Difficulty following or using non-verbal communication
  • Unawareness of others' likely reactions to behaviors
  • Sensory challenges that can get in the way of positive behaviors
  • Lack of social motivation or the desire for social acceptance

Recap

Children with autism are prone to outbursts and other atypical responses because they generally have difficulty understanding social norms, non-verbal communication, and the reaction of others to their behavior.

Staying Calm During a Meltdown

Avoiding, managing, or planning for meltdowns can only go so far. It is simply not sustainable and can be extremely limiting for everyone in the family. A better solution is to help the child learn how to calm their own emotions.

The best way to be calm is to stay calm to start with. This is the first step to teaching your child how to manage their own feelings.

There are some techniques that, while not fail-proof, can make a big difference. Many are related to sensory integration therapy, a form of play therapy that aims to "train" the brain how to react to touch, sound, sight, and movement.

There are several things you can do to prepare for a child's meltdown:

  • Have a game plan: If your child is easily overwhelmed, have a game plan ready so that you and your child know what to do when anxiety strikes. This may involve counting to 10, walking away, deep breathing, watching a calming video, or reading a comforting book.
  • Get sensory toys: You can buy sensory toys, but less costly options include soft "squeezy" balls, hobby clay, fidget toys, and other things that provide a tactile or sensory outlet.
  • Get an indoor or outdoor swing or trampoline: These are often great ways for kids with autism to get the sensory input needed to self-regulate. Small indoor versions are often available through toy stores. There is no need to buy a special "sensory" swing.
  • Get a weighted vest or blanket: For some children, these heavy items can provide a feeling of security. This can also make it easier to manage the sensory assaults at school and other gathering places.
  • Buy "chewy" tops for pencils and pens: For some children, being allowed to chew can be enough to overcome stressful episodes.
  • Explore guided meditation techniques: Not all autistic children are able can grasp meditation, but many can benefit from learning mindfulness and guided breathing techniques.
  • Get a family pet: Pets have a calming effect on children with autism. In fact, some children with autism rely on them as service or emotional support pets.

Recap

A child with autism can learn to calm themselves by being taught what to do when anxiety strikes. Provide the child with tools to self-soothe, such as sensory toys, calming books or videos, weighted blankets, a swing set, or even a pet.

Techniques for Calming an Upset Child

Even the most vigilant parent will be faced with the occasional meltdown from their child with autism. When that happens, the following tips may help:

  • Recognize the signs: Children with autism will often show signs of distress before they have a meltdown. Be cognizant of changes in your child's demeanor, and ask them what they are feeling if something doesn't feel right.
  • Check for any changes in the environment: This may involve things as simple as closing a door, turning off a light, or turning down the music.
  • Give the child space: If your child is in no danger of harming themselves, give them space to calm down on their own. Stay nearby to ensure they remain safe, but avoid crowding them or trying to "make things right."
  • Keep self-soothing tools nearby: If you're away from home, be sure to have your child's favorite sensory toy, weighted blanket, video, or book close at hand.

Recap

If a child had a meltdown, provide them with a sensory toy or other self-soothing tools. Check for changes in the environment that may have triggered the meltdown. Give your child space to bring their emotions under control by themselves.

Pitfalls to Avoid

In moments of stress, it can be hard to remember that children with autism are different from their typical peers. It is unlikely they are "acting out" or intentionally being "naughty" to upset you.

Here is what not to do if your child has a meltdown:

  • Do not shame the child: Screaming "act your age" has no impact on a child who doesn't connect with age-appropriate behavior.
  • Avoid reasoning or arguing: Even a high-functioning child with autism will find it impossible to have a rational conversation in the middle of a meltdown.
  • Avoid threatening the child: This will either be ignored, make you angrier, or escalate the situation.
  • Do not leave your child alone: You can give your child space but don't leave them. Children with autism can have a tough time understanding danger in the best of situations. Keep close enough so they know that you are there.
  • Don't let someone else handle the situation: Even with the best of intentions, the majority of adults have no clue how to manage an upset child with autism. Step in and take charge.

Recap

As a parent, the best thing you can do during a meltdown is to keep calm. Do not punish or threaten the child, or throw up your hands and leave. Doing so may only escalate the situation.

Summary

Meltdowns are common in many children with autism. They are usually not "tantrums" but a response to stressful situations that overwhelm them. Meltdowns often occur due to sensory overload or triggers like loud sounds, strong smells, or changes in routine or environment.

Preparation is key if a child with autism is prone to meltdown. Find sensory tools that can comfort a child at times of stress. These may include squeezy toys, weighted blankets, a calming video or book, a swing set, or even a pet. If a meltdown occurs, allow your child the time and space to calm themselves down and learn to self-regulate.

Don't try to shame, blame, or threaten a child during a meltdown. The outburst may be beyond the emotional comprehension of the child and only serve to make the situation worse.

A Word From Verywell

It's not easy to parent a child with autism, but there are things you can do to make things better for yourself and your child. Having a game plan always helps.

With that said, allow the game plan to change as your child learns to self-regulate. By speaking with your child and asking what they are feeling, you can intuitively discover what is working in the game plan and what needs to change.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What triggers an autism meltdown?

    A meltdown is caused when a stressor exceeds the person’s ability to self-regulate emotions. For a person with autism, this can be caused by anything from a change in a routine or sensory overload. Common sensory triggers can include: 

    • Bright lights or sun in their eyes 
    • Crowded areas
    • Feeling too hot or too cold
    • Loud, sudden, or unpredictable noises
    • Strong smells
    • Uncomfortable clothing, socks, or shoes
  • Why does my autistic child have a tantrum at the grocery store?

    The grocery store can be a sensory nightmare for people with autism. It has all the ingredients for a meltdown: fluorescent lighting, noisy crowds, food smells, and unpredictability.

    Keep in mind, however, that a meltdown is not the same as a tantrum. A tantrum occurs when a child is trying to get something they want or need, like a toy or candy in the checkout aisle. A meltdown occurs when a child is overwhelmed by their surroundings.


  • Is there a way to prevent an autistic meltdown?

    Sometimes, but not all the time. It helps to recognize and anticipate your child's triggers. If your child shows early warning signs of a meltdown, remove the trigger or remove them from the environment.

    For example, if the grocery store is triggering, avoid going at busy times and bring a comfort item, like a blanket or stuffed animal. A cloth or face mask with a few drops of lavender essential oil or another pleasant scent can help prevent meltdowns from strong smells.

  • How can I help my autistic child when they are having a meltdown?

    The most important thing you can do when your autistic child is having a meltdown is to stay calm. Try to assess the situation to determine if there is a specific trigger to the meltdown. Is it too hot or cold, too bright, or too loud? Are there strong smells?

    If you are in public, try to remove the child to a calmer location such as the car. Provide them with a calming item, like a favorite blanket or stuffed animal.

    Some people with autism need space to calm down, while others may prefer to be hugged tightly or have their back or arms rubbed.

    Once you figure out your child's triggers and the techniques that help calm your child, it will become easier to prevent meltdowns and help your child to recover faster from them.

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2 Sources
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  2. Pfeiffer BA, Koenig K, Kinnealey M, Sheppard M, Henderson L. Effectiveness of sensory integration interventions in children with autism spectrum disorders: a pilot studyAm J Occup Ther. 2011;65(1):76-85. doi:10.5014/ajot.2011.09205