20 Ways to Help a Child With Autism to Stay Calm or Manage Meltdowns (2023)

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.

20 Ways to Help a Child With Autism to Stay Calm or Manage Meltdowns (1)

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.

Understanding and Managing Your Autistic Child's Behavior

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.

(Video) How To Help Stop Autism Meltdowns

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.

Helping Children With Autism Handle Their Emotions

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.

Weighted Blankets and Deep Touch Therapy for Autism

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.

(Video) How to Handle an Autism Tantrum | Autism

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.

    (Video) Easy-to-Use Calming Strategies for Autism
  • 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.

2 Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Mazefsky CA, Herrington J, Siegel M, et al. The role of emotion regulation in autism spectrum disorder.J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2013;52(7):679-88. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2013.05.006

    (Video) Reducing Problem Behaviors - Autism Therapy Video

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

20 Ways to Help a Child With Autism to Stay Calm or Manage Meltdowns (2)

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.

See Our Editorial Process

Meet Our Medical Expert Board

Share Feedback

FAQs

What are calming strategies for autism? ›

7 Relaxation/Self-Calming Strategies Used in Pediatric ABA...
  • Don't reinforce the challenging behaviors. ...
  • Use precise simple language. ...
  • Help to verbally express their emotions. ...
  • Sing preferred songs. ...
  • Create a calm corner (bean bags, dim lighting, sensory toys) ...
  • Take deep breathes. ...
  • Count to 10.

What are 5 strategies used to work with a child with autism? ›

The 5 Best Teaching Strategies for Autism
  • Support Routines and Transitions. Most children with autism are sensitive to abrupt changes in routine and will learn best in routine situations. ...
  • Use Visual Cues. ...
  • Use Special Interests as a Gateway to Teaching Skills. ...
  • Incorporate Sensory Tools. ...
  • Support social skills practice.
5 Nov 2019

How do you help autistic children manage their emotions? ›

You can help autistic children and teenagers calm down from strong emotions using a 5-step process:
  1. Notice the emotion.
  2. Name the emotion.
  3. Pause and say nothing.
  4. Support your child while they calm down.
  5. Address the issue that sparked the emotion.
28 Apr 2022

How do you stop autism meltdowns? ›

Strategies to consider include distraction, diversion, helping the person use calming strategies such as fiddle toys or listening to music, removing any potential triggers, and staying calm yourself.

How do you control autism meltdowns? ›

What to do during a very loud, very public meltdown
  1. Be empathetic. Empathy means listening and acknowledging their struggle without judgment. ...
  2. Make them feel safe and loved. ...
  3. Eliminate punishments. ...
  4. Focus on your child, not staring bystanders. ...
  5. Break out your sensory toolkit. ...
  6. Teach them coping strategies once they're calm.

What are some calming techniques? ›

Other relaxation techniques may include:
  • Deep breathing.
  • Massage.
  • Meditation.
  • Tai chi.
  • Yoga.
  • Biofeedback.
  • Music and art therapy.
  • Aromatherapy.

How do you calm an overstimulated autistic child? ›

Autism: Managing Over-stimulation and Stress
  1. Remember the rule of one. Use the rule of one when a child is deeply stressed, anxious or in the middle of a meltdown. ...
  2. Deep Breathing. ...
  3. Isometric Exercise. ...
  4. Deep Pressure. ...
  5. Massage. ...
  6. Provide a Box of Tactile Items. ...
  7. Create a Calming Area. ...
  8. Communication.
8 Apr 2020

What are some calming strategies? ›

Here are some simple exercises you can try that might calm you down.
  • Take a break. Focus on your breathing. Listen to music.
  • Spend some time in nature. Try active relaxation. Think of somewhere else.
  • Try guided meditation. Get creative.

What is the best activity for autistic child? ›

Hobbies such as collecting stamps, playing cards or board games, drawing and photography can also provide opportunities for enjoyment, as well as increased self-confidence and motivation individuals on the spectrum.

What games are good for autistic child? ›

Best Games for Children with Autism. I Never Forget a Face Memory Game This game is great for memory and also for recognizing and recognizing faces. Feelmo Speaking Cards These are good for helping teach emotions and feelings, and learning to identify and express them. What Would You Do At School If…

What triggers autism meltdowns? ›

What triggers autistic meltdowns?
  • Sensory overload or understimulation. This is when a child is sensitive to sound, touch, taste, smell, visuals or movements.
  • Changes in routine or dealing with an unexpected change. ...
  • Anxiety or anxious feelings.
  • Being unable to describe what they need or want.

How do you make an autistic child feel loved? ›

Communication and interaction tips for ASD
  1. Be patient. ...
  2. Teach the child how to express anger without being too aggressive. ...
  3. Be persistent but resilient. ...
  4. Always stay positive. ...
  5. Ignore irritating attention-getting behavior. ...
  6. Interact through physical activity. ...
  7. Be affectionate and respectful. ...
  8. Show your love and interest.

What are 10 ways to calm down? ›

How to Calm Down Fast
  1. Just breathe. Breathing seems like the most natural thing in the world. ...
  2. Close your eyes and count to 10 slowly. It really works! ...
  3. Chew a piece of gum. ...
  4. Phone a friend – preferably a funny one. ...
  5. Smell lavender. ...
  6. Curl up with your cat or dog. ...
  7. Listen to calming music. ...
  8. Exercise your body.
7 Jan 2021

What are 10 ways to relax? ›

10 easy ways to relax
  1. Go Swimming. Ok, yes we would say that wouldn't we, but it happens to be true. ...
  2. Listen to music. If you feel tensions rising play something relaxing, like classical music. ...
  3. Visualisation. ...
  4. Go outside. ...
  5. Deep breathing. ...
  6. Meditation. ...
  7. Yoga. ...
  8. Relax your jaw.
29 Sept 2016

What is the 3 3 3 rule anxiety? ›

Follow the 3-3-3 rule.

Look around you and name three things you see. Then, name three sounds you hear. Finally, move three parts of your body — your ankle, fingers, or arm.

What colors are good for autism? ›

Full intensity colors should be avoided. Red should never be used in the home as children with ASD perceive the color as florescent. Yellows likewise are very stimulating and are best to avoid. Greens, blues, pinks, soft oranges and neutrals can be very comforting.

How do you calm down a child with sensory issues? ›

Some tips include counting to ten, walking away, listening to music, or watching a calming video or reading a book. Develop an exit strategy in the event of sensory overload. Talk to your child about ways he or she can stay calm or change environments if they start to feel overwhelmed.

How do autistic students calm down? ›

How to Calm a Child with Autism in the Classroom
  1. Stick to a Routine. Perhaps the best way to keep a child calm with autism is to limit their frustrations in the first place! ...
  2. Practice Deep Breathing. ...
  3. Soothe with the Senses. ...
  4. Provide an Escape from Sensory Overload.
25 May 2018

What are 3 ways to relax? ›

Just stepping away from something stressful for a few minutes or taking time away from your normal routines and thoughts can give you enough space and distance to feel calmer. Read a book or a magazine, even if it's only for a few minutes. Run yourself a bath, watch a film, play with a pet or try out a new recipe.

What is the most calming activity? ›

Knitting has long been praised for its mental health benefits, but now a new study has found it to be the most relaxing hobby, thanks to its ability to decrease the average heart rate by 18.75%.

What is a calming activity? ›

Calming activities are a way to give sensory input to the mind and body. Since every child is unique, how your child responds to any activity can be unique as well. But, most kids do respond by calming down to the activities you'll find below. Think about activities that calm you down.

What toys do kids with autism enjoy? ›

The 10 Best Sensory Toys for Autism
  • Sensory Mats. A great sensory toy for children with autism is a series of sensory mats. ...
  • Chew Toys. ...
  • Sand, Slime, or Putty. ...
  • Pin Art. ...
  • Rainmaker Toys. ...
  • Fidget Spinners. ...
  • Electric Dog Pet. ...
  • Senseez Vibrating Cushion.

What do kids with autism like to play with? ›

Children with autism often enjoy sensory toys because they help them feel calm and engage their senses in a positive way. 6 Sensory toys can include weighted stuffed animals, fidget toys, and putty. When looking for a toy for a child with autism, keep in mind their interests and their developmental stage.

What kids should not do with autism? ›

Here's what shouldn't be done to deal with autistic children:
  • Feeding into their behavior – Kids of the spectrum might engage with caretakers or parents by making annoying sounds or moving in ways they think would get their attention.
  • It might escalate into poor behavior if they see that it gets them what they want.
1 Aug 2022

How do you raise an autistic child happy? ›

Helping your child with autism thrive tip 1: Provide structure and safety
  1. Be consistent. ...
  2. Stick to a schedule. ...
  3. Reward good behavior. ...
  4. Create a home safety zone. ...
  5. Look for nonverbal cues. ...
  6. Figure out the motivation behind the tantrum. ...
  7. Make time for fun. ...
  8. Pay attention to your child's sensory sensitivities.

What do autistic children like to do? ›

Science fiction and fantasy are often of great interest to people with autism. Depending on their interest levels and abilities, people on the spectrum may learn every detail of a particular "universe," write their own stories, watch and rewatch movies, read comics, attend cons, or even build their own costumes.

Is TV good for autistic kids? ›

Autistic people often learn best with their eyes and ears, while words may not sink in. Carefully curated TV and video watching can help a child build knowledge and skills that can be used in school or the community.

Should I let my child play with an autistic child? ›

Autistic children enjoy play and learn through play, just as typically developing children do. Through playing with others, your child can learn and practise new social skills and abilities. These skills are important for your child's overall development.

What challenges do kids with autism face? ›

School activities that may be particularly challenging for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), previously referred to as Asperger's Disorder, include social interactions, noisy or disordered environments, intense sensory stimulation, and changes in expected routines.

› blogs › special-needs › therapeutic-acti... ›

Check out our list of our expert's favorite therapeutic activities for autistic children. These are easy activities and toys that are easy to begin working ...
If you have a kid with autism, you need to be careful about their likes and preferences. Here we've compiled some fun activities for children with autism.
Play activities and the fun learning moments are essential for autistic children to learn and grow. Get 10 engaging activity ideas from our autism experts!

How do autistic students calm down? ›

How to Calm a Child with Autism in the Classroom
  1. Stick to a Routine. Perhaps the best way to keep a child calm with autism is to limit their frustrations in the first place! ...
  2. Practice Deep Breathing. ...
  3. Soothe with the Senses. ...
  4. Provide an Escape from Sensory Overload.
25 May 2018

What triggers autism meltdowns? ›

What triggers autistic meltdowns?
  • Sensory overload or understimulation. This is when a child is sensitive to sound, touch, taste, smell, visuals or movements.
  • Changes in routine or dealing with an unexpected change. ...
  • Anxiety or anxious feelings.
  • Being unable to describe what they need or want.

What kids should not do with autism? ›

Here's what shouldn't be done to deal with autistic children:
  • Feeding into their behavior – Kids of the spectrum might engage with caretakers or parents by making annoying sounds or moving in ways they think would get their attention.
  • It might escalate into poor behavior if they see that it gets them what they want.
1 Aug 2022

What are autistic kids scared of? ›

Types of Anxiety in Children with Autism

In children with autism, such phobias can arise from heightened sensory stimulation such as loud noises (for example, fear of popping balloons at an early age can develop into a phobia). Typical phobias like the dark or needles can also develop in children with autism.

How long can an autistic meltdown last? ›

Meltdowns can last from minutes to hours. Meltdowns are not your child's way of manipulating you: Meltdowns are emotional explosions. Your child is overloaded and is incapable of rational thinking.

Do autism meltdowns improve with age? ›

One key finding was that children's symptom severity can change with age. In fact, children can improve and get better. "We found that nearly 30% of young children have less severe autism symptoms at age 6 than they did at age 3.

› health › what-to-do-autism-... ›

Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person's story. I sat in the child psychologist's office telling her about my six-year-old...

What is an Autism Meltdown?

https://www.rdiconnect.com › what-is-an-autism-meltdown
https://www.rdiconnect.com › what-is-an-autism-meltdown
Meltdowns are just as individual as the unique personalities that children are born with but there are some ways to help your child avoid a meltdown.
You may have read or heard about children with autism having meltdowns and kind strangers responding with appropriate support. There was a tale of a child strug...

Videos

1. Understanding Autism - Meltdown Stage pt 1 (Video clip 1.7)
(Organization for Autism Research)
2. Teaching children how to manage emotions
(Marie Leiner)
3. Tips for Dealing with Meltdowns in Children with Autism
(Mary Barbera - Turn Autism Around)
4. A Life-Changing Therapy For Children With Autism At The Child Study Center
(Yale Medicine)
5. Helping Parents and Therapists Cope with Autism Spectrum Disorder | Susan Sherkow | TEDxYouth@LFNY
(TEDx Talks)
6. Learning How to Calm Down in our Autism Therapy Program
(OSNS Child Development Centre)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Fredrick Kertzmann

Last Updated: 02/03/2023

Views: 5796

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (46 voted)

Reviews: 85% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Fredrick Kertzmann

Birthday: 2000-04-29

Address: Apt. 203 613 Huels Gateway, Ralphtown, LA 40204

Phone: +2135150832870

Job: Regional Design Producer

Hobby: Nordic skating, Lacemaking, Mountain biking, Rowing, Gardening, Water sports, role-playing games

Introduction: My name is Fredrick Kertzmann, I am a gleaming, encouraging, inexpensive, thankful, tender, quaint, precious person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.