When a child or adult with disability has a meltdown, it’s hard to know what method to use to calm them down. It can be especially difficult when you are in public. Meltdowns are not something easily controlled and come from the overstimulation of the senses.
Is it a tantrum or sensory meltdown?
A tantrum is different from a sensory meltdown. A tantrum is usually characterised as a child wanting something but not receiving it when they ask, causing an outburst of anger and frustration.
Children can control a tantrum, because it is based on an emotional want, whereas a meltdown is usually initiated by a feeling of being overwhelmed and is a sign of distress.
For example, a child may want a toy while visiting a department store. As a parent, you say no, they don’t need any more toys. This isn’t good enough for your child and they start to cry, scream, kick and make a big scene.
This example is a child throwing a ‘temper tantrum’ to get their way.
However, a sensory meltdown is an intense response to overwhelming circumstances - a complete loss of behavioural control.
This type of response is commonly experienced by children or adults with autism or other intellectual disabilities.
Imagine going into the very same store and moving through a toy aisle. There is wall-to-wall colour with loud sounds coming from the toys, children are running and screaming through the aisles as they test the latest gadgets.
This type of sensory overload can cause a child with autism to have a meltdown that isn’t solved by giving your child the toy you think they want. It's where they were so overwhelmed by the sights and sounds that they had a negative reaction.
How sensory processing works
For a person without a sensory processing disorder, walking down a hustling and bustling street would not cause issues. You recognise a smell of baked bread and categorise that as a smell from a nearby bakery. Cars are beeping at each other and you are able to categorise that as traffic build-up.
But for a child or adult with a form of sensory processing disorder, this is more difficult to organise in their head. For a person with sensory processing issues, overstimulation of the senses can become quite painful and scary.
When the body deems the overstimulation as a threat, your body can start to react with a “fight or flight” response. This can be shown in multiple ways, such as screaming, withdrawal, aggression, self-harm or escape (running away).
Sensory meltdowns are often associated with autism and other intellectual disabilities or developmental conditions.
How to prevent sensory meltdowns
Sometimes, meltdowns can be avoided or minimised in severity, so having preventative measures in place can help.
Identify a meltdown trigger and remove it as a factor
If you are aware that your child doesn’t cope well with crowds, this is already an indicator of what to avoid. If you know what triggers a meltdown, minimising or completely removing the trigger from the equation will lessen the likelihood of a meltdown.
Picking up physical queues from the child or adult can give you a hint that they may not be coping and are unable to communicate that with you.
For instance, if they are covering their ears, their auditory senses may be overloaded with sounds.
When someone starts having a meltdown, it can be easy to feel anxious and panicked yourself. It’s important to keep calm throughout the meltdown so that the individual feels safer while with you.
Many autism advocates suggest having a toolkit ready to go in emergencies for any overstimulation while out and about. This could include dark sunglasses, a weighted blanket, noise-cancelling headphones, wide-brimmed hats, crunchy snacks, and hand wipes or fidget toys.
Calming strategies for meltdowns
If a meltdown is unavoidable, here are some different calming techniques that can help.
Go to a quieter place
If the child or adult is having a sensory overload, the best option is to remove them from the area. Finding a quiet place without too much sensory stimulation can help them calm down and not feel so overwhelmed.
For instance, quiet rooms are becoming more common at sporting and community events to provide accessibility to people and families with sensory processing disorders.
Some shops, museums and other activity centres also have special 'sensory sessions' at particular times during the week where they provide a more relaxed environment with smaller crowds, less background music, lower light and accessible calming spaces to cater for people with sensory processing disorders.
Redirection of attention or distraction
The art of redirection can be an effective way to stop a meltdown. If you have a favourite toy or snack available, this could draw attention away from the overwhelming feelings and redirect that focus to something else.
A form of redirection, having the child or adult focus only on their breathing can have quite a calming effect and is a good thing to implement when there are no other options available or on hand.
Toys or products with sensory benefits, like magic sand or fidget toys, can help calm someone having a sensory meltdown, as having something physical in their hands can ground them in the present moment.
Before you can solve a problem, you need to understand the problem. The same goes for a child having a meltdown. Meltdowns aren’t random - something has triggered it. If you are able to identify what may have caused it, you will be better prepared to deal with the situation.
A sensory meltdown is an involuntary response and the result of issues with regulating emotions and expressing dislike. It’s important to teach a child their own mechanisms or strategies so they can learn how to recognise the onset of feeling distressed and how they can manage these feelings themselves.
One of the best ways to do this is to visit a professional. They will have a range of tips and strategies to help manage breakdowns. Check out the Disability Support Guide Provider Finder Tool for a list of available therapists near you.
How do you manage sensory meltdowns? Share your tips and experience in the comments below.