How to Handle Meltdown Moments
with Students on the Autism Spectrum
Dr Kathie Nunley, 2017
Many of the
most intelligent and creative adults I know are people on the Autism
Spectrum. A lot of adults with autism have learned how to capitalize
on their gifts and compensate for their emotional differences.
with autism haven't yet learned many of these skills and can present
serious daily challenges for the adults who work and live with them.
It is critical that those of us parenting and working with children
on the spectrum help them learn to bring themselves "back to center"
during an emotional chaos episode.
Here's a recent
scenario: Samuel, a child on the autism spectrum is in the 2nd grade.
It was time to move from "Music Circle" to the "Reading Table".
While the other children were making the transition across the room,
Samuel screamed, fell to the floor writhing, rolled across the carpet
and began kicking the materials off a corner shelf, requiring 2
adults in the room to restrain him
If you work
with children on the spectrum, particularly young children, you've
probably seen similar scenarios. Transition times, irregular schedules,
over stimulation with peers, and new environments can all cause
an emotional crisis and meltdowns.
How do you handle
these meltdown moments? Rather than attempt to bribe, coerce or
physically overpower the child, help him or her to learn to bring
themselves back under control with the following protocol:
Step One: Proactively
make a plan. If you wait for a "meltdown moment" to try to figure
something out, you've lost. You need to identify, early in the year
(as in day one) what the individual child finds comforting and calming.
This will vary from child to child. Ask a parent or caregiver for
input. Do they need darkness, music, rocking, a heavy blanket, quiet
isolation? If you don't have input from parents or previous teachers,
spend a couple of days offering "relaxation" choices and see what
the child prefers. Create options in the room such as a beanbag
chair with a weighted blanket, a dark closet (door removed) with
a rocking chair, a carpet square facing the corner with a pair of
headphones connected to a music source, etc.
Step Two: Teach
the plan. Role-play the strategy of recognizing one is starting
to feel overwhelmed or anxious. The teacher or paraprofessional
aide can play the role out first, verbalizing his or her feelings
and action plan. "I'm feeling very upset right now. I'm angry and
I feel I'm about to get out of control. I want to go to my peaceful
place and relax until I feel better. Here I go into my quiet rocking
chair. I'm setting the timer for 5 minutes. I'm going to rock and
calm down so I can come back to class.". Act it out. Verbalize the
process. Have the child act it out, multiple times. If this is in
a heterogenous classroom, encourage many of the students to role
play the scenario. This is good practice for everyone, not just
students on the autism spectrum.
Help the child learn when escape is needed. Ask, proactively at
any point that you suspect might be leading to a meltdown moment.
"Mare, we're finished with music time now and are moving to reading
circle. I know that might make you sad. Do you want to go to your
relaxation corner for a few minutes or do you want to come to reading
circle with our friends?" Anytime you see the beginning of what
could be a meltdown, escort the child to their relaxation place.
Encourage them to stay as long as needed until they are ready to
come back to the class, however setting a visual timer helps them
set a target time.
Step Four: Praise
and reward any initiated relaxation time attempts from the student
(privately rather to the whole group). "Paul, that was really a
good decision you made to go to the listening corner when you were
upset. I'm so glad you were able to get yourself back to center
and enjoy the rest of the morning with us."
The goal here
is to help the child learn to find a socially appropriate way to
release their emotional tension and regain focus and control. It
can be taught.