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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.

However, children 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.

Step Three: 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.

About the Author:
Dr Kathie Nunley is an educational psychologist, researcher and author of several books on parenting and teaching, including A Student's Brain (Brains.org) and the best selling, "Differentiating the High School Classroom" (Corwin Press). She is the developer of the Layered Curriculum® method of instruction and has worked with parents and educators around the world to better structure schools to make brain-friendly environments. In addition, her work has been used by the Boeing Corporation, Family Circle Magazine, the Washington Post, and ABC television.
Email her: Kathie (at) brains.org


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