Tips for Dealing with Meltdowns in Children with Autism

Recently, on a Facebook Live, I asked parents
and professionals if they could wave a magic wand, what autism struggle would they want
to go away? A handful of people said they wanted to make
meltdowns go away, so today, I’m going to talk about three strategies to help both parents
and professionals get rid of meltdowns. Hi. I’m Dr. Mary Barbera, autism mom, board-certified
behavior analyst, and bestselling author. Each week, I provide you with some of my ideas
about turning autism around, so if you haven’t subscribed to my YouTube channel, you can
do that now. A little disclaimer here. Behavior analysts, including myself, don’t
really use the word meltdown very much. The reason for this is that it’s not an objective
and measurable term. In other words, I don’t know exactly what
the word meltdown means. If you tell me that your child is having a
meltdown, I can’t visualize exactly what is happening. I also can’t visualize other words that parents
and some professionals use to describe behavior problems in kids with autism. People say, “The child was really frustrated,
he was out of control, he was anxious.” Reporting that your child is having a meltdown
is kind of like that. But instead of being all snotty and saying,
“You need to talk more behaviorally,” the best way to get people talking more behaviorally,
so that we can help them, is to ask what the child’s meltdown looks like. Does the child fall to the floor? Does he hit others during a meltdown? Does he scream during a meltdown, throw objects? Basically, this helps us to define the meltdown. Also, if you and I are trying to count whether
the child is having a meltdown or not, or is having 10 meltdowns a day, or a week, our
counts would not be the same if the behavior is not better defined. It’s important to define a behavior well enough
so that our counting of the meltdowns, or behavior, is the same, because when we put
procedures in place to help decrease meltdowns, we need to be comparing apples to apples. So, we’ll define the meltdown as our first
step. This is defining what it actually looks like. Same thing holds true for other words that
are not very behavioral, like, “My child was frustrated.” Okay, what does frustrated look like? Does he slam his fists on the desk? Does he yell? Does he argue? All these things, I can count. I can’t really look at someone and tell if
they’re frustrated or not. Same thing for anxious. What does it look like when your child is
anxious? Is he pacing? Is he sighing? Those things, I can count. Anxiety and frustration, I can’t. So once we define the behavior, in this case
the meltdown, the second step is to do an assessment, to figure out how big of a problem
these meltdowns actually are. So part of the assessment is to determine
how old the child is, how large they are, how strong they are, how long the meltdowns
last, and how often do these meltdowns occur, per day, per week, per month. If it’s a large child and/or severe meltdowns
on a regular basis, even if it’s a small child, you’ll absolutely need an on-site, individualized
behavior analyst to help you. Preferably, it’s a behavior analyst, but someone
very skilled at reducing problem behavior. If it’s a smaller child, or even a larger
child having less severe meltdowns a few times per week or month, you might be able to put
procedures in place and see progress just using the child’s current team. So step one is to define the meltdown. Tell me what it looks like, or what it usually
looks like. And the meltdown can be a compilation of all
of these things put together. Step two is to assess how frequently the meltdowns
are happening and also how severe those meltdowns are, based on your child’s age, size, and
strength. Now we’ll move on to step three, which is
extremely complex, and that is the treatment of meltdowns, or any other problem behaviors,
that can lead to reduction. But, I’ll give you one piece of advice here,
because obviously in this short video blog, I’m not going to be able to tell you how to
reduce or get rid of all meltdowns entirely, but I will say this. We need to be spending 95% of our time preventing
meltdowns, not reacting to them. Everywhere I go, I see people being way too
reactive to problem behavior, and I know prevention is the key. So in summary, to get rid of meltdowns, we
want to define and describe what meltdowns look like, assess the frequency and seriousness
of the meltdowns in step two, and step three is to intervene, mostly with preventative
strategies. To get started learning more, download my
three-step guide at, and if you like this video blog, I would love
it if you would leave me a comment, give me a thumbs up, share the video with someone
that might benefit, and I’ll see you right here next week.

11 thoughts on “Tips for Dealing with Meltdowns in Children with Autism

  1. I'm generally on board with heavily weighting toward positive reinforcement. However, punishing operations are constantly shaping typical behavior of humans and animals. As adults, we may have built a repertoire of behavior that operates more in the realm of reflexive CMOs, but it was likely our contact with punishment when younger helped develop the context for that. For example, I show up to work and try to be professional and helpful partially for my paycheck, peer feedback, and for the satisfaction of seeing others improve; but also to avoid losing my job, being embarrassed if I don't have the solution, or making things worse. Much of that goes back to punishment when I was younger and my unpleasant experience with that.
    I agree it doesn't always feel the best, but natural punishing consequences are critical for developing safety awareness and navigating our complex world. I'm having much more fun mountain biking after fracturing my arm a few years ago, reminding me of my mortality and encouraging me to be just a little more safe on the trail.
    That being said, often what I observe as punishment by staff is out of their frustration, and often isn't operating as punishment, and ends up looking more like an inappropriate interaction, which often leads to increases in behavior. Sending students out of class, threatening to call their parents, etc, when it is not matched to the function.
    I daily remind staff to catch our students being good, provide praise at an 8:1 ratio, and focus on the positive. But at some point, the adult will have to step in and remove a student when they are not safe, issue a time out, or withhold minutes from choice time.
    Of course, this is in a public school where there are a lot of other factors aside from just that one student. At home, we adopted a shelter kitty who was in rough shape, on antibiotics in the first month, taken from her mother, etc. She was tough for quite a while, hissing and growling, scratching, etc. Fast forward a couple years and she is our sweetest, cuddliest kitty. Our ratio started close to 10:1 positive to punishment (often with non-contingent positive), and is now at least 100:1. Our other cat has always been around 100:1, responding more to verbal reprimands and rarely requiring a squirt or removal from an area.
    Sorry so long-winded, but I feel like often we ignore or forget the punishing operations constantly happening in every facet of our lives, and we need to help our kiddos understand those are operating so they can stay safe and be successful.

  2. I stumbled across your videos the other day, I work in a daycare with 2 year olds and my oldest child in my class displays some of the signs of autism (in my opinion)He has “meltdowns” and is non-verbal (but his mom is taking him to be evaluated for speech this week)

  3. Hello doc my son is 3yr 8 months old
    I don't know if he is mild autistic or speech delayed
    He is good with abc he is a very good piano player he even can compose
    Some songs on piano
    His conversation is clear but limited to his demands
    He doesn't follow teachers order
    Like sitting in class room for long time
    He recognises all animals colours numbers shapes
    He knows so much more than his class mates
    He reply to my question only when he want too
    He gets excited to see moving objects like bus truck and flaps his arm
    Some time he hits on his head with hands
    He spends time reading books and piano
    But limited conversation
    Help me with this

  4. My little brother who is 9 years old has "meltdowns" (When things don't go his way he'll start to throw himself on the floor and just droop It almost looks like he's convulsing I think i'd know if he really did yelling giberish) practically everyday like say when it's for him to go to his room and he has to finish up his video game prematurely (Like any gamer he gets mad at the fact he can't finish up properly but my mother has better things to do than watch him play to make sure he doesn't get into another match which if he won't finish well you know…). I'd really appreciate If you'd tell some tips on how to calm him down so he can do his chores and go to sleep In these situations or just calm down since these can happen anywhere. I can only imagine it's not that black and white but surely you can help. Id attend this seminar I heard you had but Id doubt I have the time.

  5. My sons 15 hfa autism he touched a hot bowl in the microwave he than starts punching me flipping furniture spits on me throws my coffee pot and crockpot runs outside flips my table and chairs throws my plants starts punching neighbors cars so me being a single parent how can I prevent this reaction

  6. Currently trying to handle my meltdown right now. I was a late diagnosis and my mom won't believe me. I have so many meltdowns I'm so tired of having them and having my mom either ignore me or talk down to me like "chill out, stop having a tantrum" or the classic "oh please, it wasn't that bad get over it" I don't know what to do or what to do to get help.

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