26 MARCH 2019

Managing Meltdowns

by Petra Ecclestone

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Many parents are no strangers to meltdowns. But what do you do when your autistic child has one?

There are few things worse than being in the middle of a crowded supermarket, laden with bags, your child lying on the ground, kicking his legs and pounding his fists as hard as he can while simultaneously deafening all those around him.

It’s what’s known as a meltdown and can strike fear into even the most prepared of parents. In times like these, you may want the ground to swallow you up rather than deal with the pointing, stares and even strained smiles of fellow shoppers.

Anyone who’s had children can relate to the dreaded meltdown. Usually triggered by tiredness or over-stimulation, kids are prone to letting their feelings be known in the form of screaming, crying, kicking and even hitting anyone who tries to soothe them. But while most parents can wave a merry goodbye to meltdowns once their child is out of toddlerhood, for children with autism, there is no age limit.

A child with autism having a meltdown is not trying to be naughty; sometimes, shouting and screaming is the only way they can express themselves. In simple terms, a meltdown is just a strong response to an overwhelming situation.

If your child gets overwhelmed and reacts this way, there are some things to remember.

Take time
Don’t try to rush your child to calm down. If they are very overwhelmed, children may take a while to cool off. You should make sure they’re ok, and don’t panic if you can’t get them to quiet down immediately!

This can be more difficult in public places, but the thing to remember is that most people are understanding, and no one should judge you. Your child is the most important person in this situation, and if you need to let them make a noise for a bit longer, your patience will pay off.

Make some space
If it’s possible, try to create a safe and quiet space for your child. Turn off any music or loud TV and turn down bright lights. Do anything you can to reduce the information overload.

If you’re in public, you might want to explain the situation and ask people to give you some room and not to stare. If you’re in a busy shop, leave quickly but calmly, and try and find somewhere quieter to sit.

Have the right tools
There are both items that can help and items that can be harmful when your child is having a meltdown.

Be wary of objects that could be harmful, and remove them from your child’s reach. Even hard toys could be dangerous, as they could be thrown in distress.

On the other hand, noise cancelling headphones can be a life-saver in noisy environments, and many parents swear by weighted blankets that apply a mild pressure to the body which can help calm an anxious child.

Learn the triggers
Children with autism will likely show certain signs before they have a full-blown meltdown, such as pacing, rocking or becoming very still. They may also seek reassurance more than usual. If you notice signs that your child may be on the brink of a meltdown, you can try and distract them with something comforting and remove whatever you think is causing them distress.

Another way to identify the triggers of your child’s meltdown is to keep a diary. Record what has caused meltdowns in the past and what happened before, during and after each episode and you might find patterns emerging. If you can establish a pattern, you may be able to minimise triggers.

Common reasons for meltdowns are changes in routine, anxiety and communication difficulties, and by recording your child’s behaviour in a diary, you might be able to help reduce meltdowns and be more prepared if they do occur.

Keep calm
I know it can be difficult, but one of the most vital things to remember is to keep calm yourself. As simple as it may seem, some deep breaths can work wonders for you and your child.

You must also try your best not to worry about what anyone else is thinking. The important thing is that your child feels safe again and is able to calm down in their own time.

A final note
Some of these suggestions may seem obvious if you’ve never experienced a meltdown as a parent. However, sometimes things ‘keeping calm’ can be the hardest thing to do when your child is hysterically crying on the floor, and remembering to ‘write down triggers’ may be the last thing on your mind. But like everything, learning what causes stress to your child and finding ways to manage the situation will inevitably take time.  If you can only slowly incorporate some of these strategies, it should be helpful in the long run.


Have you used any of these tips in the past, or do you currently use them? Do you have any tactics that are especially effective when your child has a meltdown? Tweet us at @PetraEFdtn to let us know what works for you. I’d love to hear your experiences!

Thankfully there are ways you can slowly introduce the festive fun in a relaxed way. These ones below are my tips – what are yours?

Visiting Santa

Meeting the man in red and giving him your Christmas list can be truly magical! But loud music, long queues and flashing lights can be stressful for anyone, let alone children with autism.

A few shopping malls, garden centres and family attractions have cottoned on to this problem and offer ‘silent Santa’ visits in a more serene environment but there are still many who don’t.

So how can you visit St Nick without a special autism-friendly session?

A bit of planning, might just do the trick.

  1. Firstly, talk to your child about Santa and Christmas beforehand. Maybe even show your child some photos.
  2. Find a local grotto experience that offers pre-booked time slots to see Santa. Many grottos offer this and it eliminates long queues for you and your family.
  3. Although it’s tempting to plan your visit as close to the big day as you can, try and book your visit in late November or very early December so that crowds will be minimal.
  4. If you’re really concerned about your child being overwhelmed on the day, one idea is to visit in advance and ask the staff for photos from previous years’ grottos and Santa so your little one knows exactly what to expect.
  5. A quick word in the ear of an elf on the day of your visit can also ensure that Santa doesn’t agree to any outrageous gift requests or make any comment that might alarm your child.

Christmas shopping

No one likes Christmas shopping in late December. It’s busy and chaotic with frantic people trying to grab last minute bargains. If you want your child to participate in the shopping experience by maybe choosing a gift for a sibling or parent, there are ways to go about this.

  1. Again, planning is key to avoid any stress and for Christmas shopping, aim to go as early as you can. And If you can avoid weekends, even better.
  2. Children with autism usually like to plan themselves and know in advance what will be happening. Choose one shop for them to select a gift for a loved one and be clear with the budget. It helps if the shop you select sells things all within a similar price range. By giving your child a choice on what to buy as a gift for someone will give them a sense of independence.
  3. Of course, the obvious way to avoid crazy crowds at Christmas is to shop online. You can still allow your child to choose a gift for a loved one by letting them browse the website after you can pre-selected the price range.


Spending hours in the car, train or even flights are common at Christmas to visit loved ones. Hosting Christmas at home can avoid all that but sometimes the only way to spend the holidays with family is by going to them.

  1. If you are travelling by train or plane, calling ahead to make special arrangement will make the trip easier. You can discuss your needs and request certain accommodations such as speedy boarding.
  2. A checklist is always wise to make sure you don’t leave anything behind that’s important to your child. Children with autism sometimes have items that they can’t do without such as a blanket or favourite toy. It’s also a good idea to bring along items to reward your child for good behaviour.
  3. Think of your daily routine and bring anything you can to help your child through the day. Things like snacks, food, books and electronic devices can help to keep them preoccupied.

A change in routine

Whether you travel or not, Christmas time will always bring a change in routine. School, nursery and other activities stop, there are lots of people to see and the house looks and smells different with the decorations and festive food.

  1. If your child if a bit anxious about the season, you can create something called a social story to prepare them for what will happen. You can use photos to show your child who will be coming to the house and how the house will look with the tree up and presents around.

There are lots of websites and apps that can help parents create personalised social stories with their own pictures. You can find them by searching ‘social stories’ on Google.

  1. Another way to fully prepare your child for change is by using a timetable along with photos of clocks to explain what time a family member may arrive or what time dinner will be served.
  2. Whatever you do, planning ahead and letting your child know what to expect can really help them get used to the new routine over Christmas.

Taking the Time

No matter what your plans are this Christmas, taking some extra time with your child can help them feel less anxious and look forward to the season with you.

Talking to them about what’s to come and helping them feel involved without being overwhelmed will help everyone enjoy things more.

But always know your child. If you have to give them cereal instead of Christmas dinner, not wrap any presents and keep the Christmas tunes turned off, it doesn’t matter.

Follow their lead and do what’s best for your family.

Wishing all of you the best to you and your family this holiday season, and if you want to share your tips for the holidays with other parents like you, you can use the space below!

The Author

Petra Ecclestone is a Philanthropist and mother of three. She is founder and Director of the Petra Ecclestone Foundation, providing services and support for young children with suspected or diagnosed autism and their families.

Copyright © 2021 The Brightest Star. Content curated by Petra Ecclestone