I “met” Mari Nosal through LinkedIn at some point last year. While I look forward to meeting her some day, I will continue to enjoy her articles regarding children on the Autism Spectrum. Her knowledge and experience as a parent and as an educator shine through within these articles. I am grateful she agreed to share some of that knowledge with my awesome followers including this guest post regarding a meltdown vs. a tantrum. Be sure to check out her links below for more information, her books, and resources too! Anywho…Here is Mari!
Your child is on the autism spectrum. He comes home from school. A question as innocent as how was your day, incites and causes the child to experience a meltdown that is akin with an earthquake that rates a 7 on the Richter scale. What you have witnessed is a meltdown not a tantrum.
I constantly witness the descriptor tantrum and meltdowns used interchangeably. They are vastly different. A tantrum originates from a child not getting something that they covet, not getting to go to see a movie, not wanting to do their chores and such.
We have all witnessed a child who was told that they may not buy a candy bar, toy etc. The child screams, rolls on the floor, cries and stomps their feet. When a child has a tantrum, they are aware of their surroundings and tantrum with intent. If one observes the tantrum, there is a great likelihood that the child will stop and check the response from onlookers. If the child realizes that they are not going to receive what they covet, the tantrum will resume.
A meltdown is a byproduct of sensory overload. It is common with children on the autism spectrum. The importance of being capable of discerning between a meltdown and a tantrum is important. Immediately preceding a meltdown, facial affect may display warning signs of an oncoming meltdown. You may note raised eyebrows, tense mouth, grimacing etc. The child may wring their hands together, tap their fingers or feet, have excessive gross motor movement such as limbs or feet that appear to be in constant motion. Vocal intonations may change such as the child’s voice becoming higher pitched or louder than normal. In some cases when the child has reaches extreme limits of emotional overload, they may twirl in circles, flap their arms and even self-harm.
The child in meltdown mode can be equated with a faulty electrical system. Faulty wiring can short circuit, creating electrical overload which will inevitably be resultant in a nonfunctional electrical system. A child in meltdown mode has a neural circuitry overload which in a sense overloads and shuts down their neurological system. Meltdowns do not occur with intent as a tantrum does. They occur because of an immature neurological system that has experienced sensory overload. Tantrums will cease as soon as the child receives what they want. A child in meltdown mode has literally experienced emotional and sensory overload. They are not in control and normally lack awareness of their surroundings during a meltdown.
Parents must assist children in learning coping mechanisms with the ultimate intent and goal of preparing a child to live a productive and independent adult life. In the case of a meltdown, a child must be taught coping mechanisms. If we do not do so, children will enter society as adults with no limit setting capabilities. It will ultimately affect their ability to socialize with others, work and cope with employers and basically successfully assimilate into society at large.
Meltdowns are resultant from feeling overstimulated from their environment which is resultant in sensory overload. Meltdowns are not to be ignored yet must be handled decisively. Talking to a child in meltdown mode will not be productive and will merely incite them. The child is in sensory overload mode and cannot process your attempt to reason with them. In simple terms, they are incapable of hearing you during this time. Save discussions for another time when the child is calm. I recall sending my son to his room to calm down. On his way up stairs, he picked up a laundry basket full of folded clothes. He immediately chucked the basket down a full flight of stairs. I refrained from commenting as this situation was resultant from a meltdown. However, without a long-winded conversation, I requested that he pick up and refold all of the clothes before he was allowed to come downstairs and join the family.
The best thing to do is remove the child from the over stimulating environment. Attempt to redirect them to a quite area where they can calm down. Make sure they are in a safe environment where they cannot harm themselves. If a meltdown occurs in a restaurant, attempt to take the child out to the car away from staring faces which will incite them more. Jot down a note of meltdowns, where they occurred and what stimulus was present. Attempt to avoid those situations.
Meltdowns are frightening for children who are experiencing them. They are quite frightening for parents as well and often create a sense of guilt resultant in the fact that the parent could not control it. Remember parent, the child’s meltdown occurs because they have issues processing sensory experiences. You have no control over sensory overload and it is not your fault. Please do not personalize it. I have felt that guilt many times it is unwarranted.
Attempting to reason with your child when they are in this state of mind is futile. It is difficult. However, the best thing to do in this situation is to avoid comments regarding why they are treating you in such a manner. It is likely that any comments from you will merely incite the child on the Autism Spectrum and the situation will become reactive and volatile. Remember, your child’s emotions are already on edge at this point.
What has worked for me with my child and in the classroom as well is to merely say, “I can see you have had a bad day, I am not going to discuss this further with you. It looks like you may need some alone time to calm down so I am going to give you your space.” By doing so, you are modeling for your child. These point out the fact that your child had a bad day and is upset (Defining their feelings) and you are modeling a coping strategy for them to use. (Needing alone time). When we define our observations to the child and express an outcome, the child has been given a reason for their behavior.
The delivery of comments makes a huge difference. By making a statement such as, “Why are you acting like this” rather than the above-mentioned strategy, the child is put on the defensive. They believe you are judging them rather than understanding their behavior. The first strategy that I mentioned has always been resultant in a far better outcome then the second for us. Please attempt to remember that in the case of a child with high functioning autism, they may have large descriptive vocabularies but lack the words to describe their feelings and emotions.
When the child has been allowed space, they may calm down. At this time, they may be more open to talking. Play a video game with them, watch T.V., go for a drive, cook dinner together or any other situation you can size up that will place you in a non-threatening situation where your child may open up. You may take this opportunity to use statements such as, “I am so sorry that you are so upset today.” Lead in to a conversation with an example of when you were upset as a child. This normalizes their situation without reeking of preaching to the child. It is all in the timing.
In closing, always point out the positives as well as negatives. Even after a meltdown, a child can receive positive reinforcement by noting what a great job they did in turning their behavior around. Point out positive behaviors such as brushing teeth without being told, doing homework without an argument, or even helping to set the table for dinner. Remember, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. If children only receive attention when they present with negative behaviors, the negative behavior is sure to increase. Note positive behaviors, but do not use false praise. Find the positive actions and let your child know that you notice them. Positive praise begets positive praise-seeking behaviors.
Remember, you are doing the best that you can. Parenting special needs kids is a 24/7 job. Your child’s behavior is not indicative of bad parenting skills. In actuality, you are an awesome parent. Otherwise you would not support them day in and day out, would you? NOTE FROM MARI- Are you looking for a book that explains how to interact/understand the needs of kids on the spectrum? I believe that my book written by me, a special needs parent/educator who has actually walked down the special needs path both as a parent and an educator? It was written from the passion developed from my experiences as a parent wading through the challenges of bringing up kids who are wired differently and my experience in classrooms.
I am the parent of an adult son with a late DX of Aspergers and earlier diagnosis of ADD/Anxiety. My family has experienced learning disabilities, medical challenges and more. I have certainly walked the walk of a special needs parent and still do. My goal is to light the path for parents who feel as though they are alone and walking down a dark path. There is a LIGHT at the end of the tunnel and my goal is to supply you with some inspiration while educating society in a collaborative manner as well.
Check out my book 10 Commandments Of Interacting With Kids On The #Autism Spectrum written from the heart with a passion to make a small dent in society with the ultimate goal of increasing tolerance and acceptance of those with different needs. May we all one day, ALL live, love, laugh, play and work together in a society void of judgment and filled with acceptance and understanding for our fellow human beings.
Check out ten of my thirty commandments for autism posted on the national ARC website by AUTISM NOW :Ten Commandments of Parents with Kids on the Autism Spectrum . If you enjoy the sampling of commandments for the autism spectrum. You are most welcome to stop by my Amazon book website to check out my five star reviews and have a free preview of my books.
Mari Nosal, M.Ed
Mari Nosal, M.Ed., CECE received her B.A. in psychology and her Masters degree in Educational Foundations from Curry College. She spent years as a school age coordinator, blogger and author, and has over 30 years’ experience within the human services and education fields. She has had special needs articles published in several magazines. Mari is a published author whose special needs Autism and Asperger related books can be found on Amazon.com Barnes and Noble and Createspace. She is certified by the Department of Early Childhood Education as a lead preschool teacher, an infant and toddler teacher, and site coordinator qualified to manage school age programs.
Mari also works with Non Profits, schools, and society at large as well. She conducts public speaking engagements in Massachusetts and surrounding areas that provide them with the tools and knowledge to help special needs children, (predominantly autism and Asperger (with her specialty being Asperger Syndrome) to become as independent and successful as possible.
Mari has presented autism workshops to staff, management teams, and parent groups. She offers tips on curriculum development and behavior modification within the classroom and through in-services. She is certified by the Department of Early Childhood Education as a lead preschool teacher, an infant and toddler teacher, and site coordinator qualified to manage school age programs.
Inquiries regarding availability for Workshops, Public Speaking Events, motivational speaking and training can be arranged via messaging on LinkedIn.