Sample Behavioral Modules

Meltdowns and how to grow beyond them

No doubt, one of the hardest facets of autism – both for the autist and for the neuro-typical parent or caregiver – is the frequency and severity of the meltdowns.

Autism meltdowns are regular ‘tantrums’.

A neuro-typical toddler will meltdown for very logical reasons: frustration, inability to communicate what they want, desire for something they can’t have right now, being tired or hungry, or feeling not well.

For a parent, difficult as this may be to deal with, you don’t have the added stress of trying to figure out the source of the tantrum – it’s usually pretty clear. Nor does the child go to a place of panic and sometimes self harming.

But with autism meltdowns the panic, the self-injury, the complete mystery as to what caused them in the first place and the seeming randomness on when they happen (e.g. in the middle of the night out of a deep sleep) and the frequency and duration of the meltdowns can all combine to create a massively traumatic life for both the autist and the parent/caregiver.

The first thing to understand is why they happen.

Autism meltdowns are neurological in origin. We go into this in more detail in the next module, but suffice to say here, that an autism meltdown is generally not a result of any kind of brattiness.

A neurological fire storm coursing through the body is much more like a panic attack than a normal child’s tantrum. It involves intense physical sensations that can be terrifying and even agonizingly painful. There is a ton of testimony of adult autists out there confirming this.

For you, the parent or caregiver, knowing the origin takes you half way towards solutions. You also learn to know the triggers and begin to adapt the child’s environment to minimize them and you can also begin to strategize your way through them.

It’s understandable if you lose patience and even your temper sometimes. It’s also understandable if you yourself meltdown or even break down sometimes. Dealing with autism meltdowns day in and day out over several years can leave a parent with PTSD. So you have to think about self-care as well, making sure that you do get some time to recharge your batteries, because no doubt, bringing a young autist through these early years is extremely demanding.

So know we want to think about how we grow beyond the meltdowns.

One thing is for sure – time is on your side!

It seems that the sensory triggers that can cause autism meltdowns in the early years become less acute in later childhood. This might be little consolation to you right now, but believe me it will get better.

However it will only get better if you identify the triggers and make really deliberate steps to change your child’s home, therapy and if possible school environment to eliminate or at least minimize these triggers.

In the early years this is vital.

Also, there are some insider tips that can really help. For us, we have generally found, that if a child can have some form of chicken, bacon, or other meat protein (not so much soy or vegetable protein – unless you really know how to create a full amino acid needed for the human body through these non-meat proteins), then you can not only find that the child tantrums much less, but that when they do, if you give a little piece or bacon or a chicken nugget the recovery is often much quicker than without.

We have found this to be successful in so many cases over so many years, that it’s now a standard part of our strategy to try to encourage parents and caregivers to give the child a couple of mouth-fulls of this sort of protein as a preventative.

If you carry it in a zip lock bag and just have it handy it can be lifechanging.

We aren’t saying that the tantrums will go away completely, but we have found that they are much less, of shorter duration and can be retrieved with these types of proteins.

The theory of why this works is down to the fact that these proteins have large amounts of taurine in them which is a mood stabilizer and are high in B vitamins. Obviously, you want all these proteins to be organic.

However, this is theory, all we can say for sure is that we have observed this work effectively time and time again.

It’s easy to implement.

Especially if you start with very small almost miniscule mouth-fulls which effect a gradual change in the child’s taste buds that they don’t really notice and therefore don’t resist.

Remember that in autism gradual is good, sudden is bad always.

So, by understanding what causes the meltdowns, minimizing those triggers, putting in the right brain fuel and eliminating the wrong brain fuel basically sugar, chemicals, high fructose corn syrup etc. you begin to move away from a lifestyle or culture of lurching from meltdown to meltdown.

Also, remember, our constant adage – KIDS MUST MOVE!

The more exercise your kid gets, the more you do his or her academics or therapies while bouncing, swinging, swimming, running, etc. the more endorphins your child will have and the more physically good they will feel.

This counteracts the cortisol levels produced by the child’s already overactive or overactivated amygdala. If some of these activities involve rocking the pelvis in rhythm (e.g. horse riding, rocking chairs, swings, and so on) the child will create oxytocin which is actually an antidote to cortisol and which tones up the vagal nerve, boosting the health of all his or her organs, including the brain. Within the brain these movements will also create neuro-plasticity through BDNF and the production of Purkinje cells (see The Science of Learning LINK) which activate the pre-frontal cortex and gradually allow the child to reason their way beyond tantrums. 

Here is an example of this:

When Rowan, the child who we began this whole adventure with was very young, it seemed that he would never get beyond his tantrums. Little by little, we pieced together the Methods that we have outlined in the above paragraphs, partly through observation and partly through mentorship of adult autists like Dr. Temple Grandin who guided us from the get go.

The day he consciously moved beyond the meltdowns was very memorable. His caregiver was out with him and they ran into a situation where for both sensory and emotional reasons a meltdown seemed in evitable. He was about 12 by now. The meltdowns had lessened and lessened but certain situation could still trigger a doozy.

Rowan and his caregiver were on the way to visit the N-Line road construction office in Austin. Rowan’s then obsession. While Rowan was about to meltdown his caregiver reminded him that they will only be able to go visit the office if he is in a stable emotional condition. They kept driving a minute or two and Rowan suddenly looked at the caregiver and said: “Wow, I did it! I managed to get over it!”. He then smiled and said proudly: “Pre-frontal cortex 1 – Amygdala nil”.