“Imagine being in line at Target with two people in front of you and three people behind you. You’re stuck in that weird spot where you can’t really move forward or backward, and your child’s last nerve just snapped. It’s clear; he’s going to have a full-blown meltdown.”
It’s a story that Andrea Gilkison, an ally with the Autism Society of Indiana, still cringes to tell. Fortunately, she says that her son, Oliver, now 8, who has a neuromuscular disease and autism, was small enough for her to pick him up and leave the store. But it’s not always that simple.
The threat of a public meltdown can loom large for parents of children with sensory sensitivities, including many on the autism spectrum. Bright lights, loud noises, strong smells or even itchy clothing can cause sensory overload, triggering reactions that look a lot like a tantrum. The difference, experts say, is that a child having a tantrum typically wants something – and will calm down once he or she gets it – while there’s often no stopping a sensory meltdown once it’s started, even after a child escapes the overwhelming stimuli.
“It’s hard for the parents, when you’re blocked in and your kid falls to the floor, and it’s hard for the kids, because they’re struggling to understand what’s going on, too,” Gilkison says. “Planning ahead, watching your own emotions and not expecting too much from your child afterward can go a long way to helping make a public meltdown more manageable.”
Prepare, prepare, prepare
Even a small outing can take a lot of preparation for those on the spectrum. Talking ahead of time about what you are going to do, see or get and making up a visual schedule or list for the child to follow along with can help decrease the chances of the trip ending with a meltdown.
“I found that if I gave my son a heads up of what was going on, he would transition much better. So if we were going to a store, I would say everything I was going to do before I did it,” says Shana, a local mom of an 11-year-old son with autism. “By the time he was in the third grade, he would say out loud that he needed a break, and he could get some quiet time that way.”
Giving the child a “job” to focus on while you’re out, such as marking items off a list or comparing prices, can help them tune out the minutiae of their surroundings that may overwhelm them. Keeping a go-bag with favorite calming items, such as noise-canceling headphones, sensory fidgets, weighted blankets or an iPad, on hand can help diffuse a potential meltdown.
Ange Cahoon, a former therapeutic foster parent with The Villages of Indiana who often cared for children prone to meltdowns, reminds parents with more than one child to plan ahead for what the other children should do in the case of a sibling’s meltdown. “Create a safety word beforehand and teach your other children that it means they need to listen to other adults who help while you deal with the meltdown,” she says. “It’s also their signal that they need to be using their own calming tools to stay under control in the situation.”
Cahoon also suggests taking well-labeled essentials with you, like medications the child takes or antihistamine if the child is prone to hives during meltdowns. She also recommends that parents always carry a verification of the child’s diagnosis.
When a meltdown happens
If you find yourself dealing with a meltdown in public, Gilkison advises parents to speak softly, confidently and in short, easily digestible sentences to help reassure the child. Keeping your own emotions in check is important, too. “You know everyone is staring at you, and you know they’re judging you. You’re embarrassed, you’re mad and these feelings can overwhelm you and your child,” she says. “Our kids are tuned into our emotions, and if we panic, then they will feed off that emotion.”
Also, ensure that your child is safe from hurting themselves or others during a meltdown. Cahoon urges parents not to be shy about asking for help from employees when it comes to clearing an area or watching your other children while you handle what’s happening. “I’ve asked for everything from a physical boundary, to a pop-up fort using coats and people, to multiple people repeating the safe phrase, ‘You are safe right now. Count with us,’” she recalls. “Know what you need, and as long as you demonstrate a knowledge of how to control the situation, employees and emergency responders are trained to follow your instructions.”
Don’t expect answers right away
After a meltdown has subsided, it’s best not to pressure the child to find out what happened immediately, experts say. Instead, limit demands and expectations afterward, and understand that the rest of the day, or several days, may be dedicated to recovery.
“As parents, our initial reaction is, ‘What happened? What made you upset?’ Some kids can articulate why it happened, but others may need some time to process what happened, and that can be an hour later or a month later,” Gilkison says. “Just make sure that they understand that you love them and that you want the best for them as you both work through it.”
For more tips for handling public meltdowns, check out Autism Speaks’ Challenging Behaviors Tool Kit at www.autismspeaks.org/family-services/tool-kits/challenging-behaviors-tool-kit. For a shopping-specific article, visit www.autismspeaks.org/blog/2016/11/25/ten-tips-prevent-autism-related-shopping-meltdowns.