Tantrums versus Sensory Meltdowns

You know the scene – a child screaming, stomping his feet and crying. It’s the behavior we usually call a temper tantrum. For kids with sensory sensitivities however, including many on the autism spectrum, this type of outburst is not just a display of acting out.

Bright lights, loud noises, strong smells and even itchy clothing can cause sensory overload in some children, triggering reactions that look a lot like a tantrum. But children experiencing sensory meltdowns are not looking for attention; they need to get away from the stimuli that are bothering them.

“It’s important to remember that autism spectrum disorders are neurological disorders, so how children on the spectrum interpret the world and how the information comes in to them, is different than it is for us,” stresses Cathy Pratt, Director of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community at Indiana University. “Behaviors don’t randomly happen. They’re a response to a lack of skills or other issues.”

What’s behind the outburst?

The field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a scientifically validated approach to understanding behavior, addresses tantrums and meltdowns by first identifying the function of the behavior. In the case of a tantrum, a child might want something, like a parent’s attention. With a sensory meltdown, a child who can’t express that the room is too noisy for example, may act out to signal he is overwhelmed.

“When you have challenging behavior occurring, you first want to identify why they’re doing it. Are they trying to get something, or are they trying to escape something?” says Liz Lefebre, a board certified behavior analyst and Vice President of Programming and Strategy for Bierman ABA Autism Center in Indianapolis. “We can analyze the behavior to determine what skills they’re missing.”

Staying calm amid a meltdown

That analysis happens later though, after the child has calmed down. Lefebre says that it is futile to try and problem solve with a child in the middle of a tantrum or meltdown. Instead, parents like Tracy Mayer, an Indianapolis mom of a 12-year-old son with autism, do their best to keep their children from hurting themselves or others when they are in this situation. “I try to get my son some place that is not public, and then I talk to him very quietly, and remind him how he doesn’t like it when he gets upset and has ‘fits,’ as he calls them,” Mayer says. “I ask him if he can use his words or write out why he’s upset. Most of the time he can’t, but the act of attempting can sometimes calm him. Sometimes he just has to get it out of his system for a few minutes.”

Mayer says she’s found that reminding her son of the fun things he can do once he calms down, like play on his tablet, can help him regain control. When she sees that the meltdown is waning, she offers lots of encouragement and praise.

Eventually, therapists can work on teaching skills to handle sensory overload, and provide the motivation to use these behaviors. “Let’s teach this kid to say, ‘I don’t want to be in this loud, noisy mall anymore.’ And once they say that, you take them outside,” Lefebre says. “You want to arrange the reinforcer – escape or getting something they need – so they only get it when they use their new, more appropriate skills.”

For parents having trouble identifying what sensory input is triggering meltdowns for their child, experts recommend having a sensory profile done to evaluate sensory processing patterns.

Preparing in advance

Anticipating situations that might cause sensory overload can be essential to preventing meltdowns. Preparing a child for the lights, noises and smells he or she might encounter, what therapists call front loading, can also lessen the chance of a bad reaction. Social narratives and videos can also help in this area.

For Kathy Shreve, a Carmel mom whose 7-year-old son, Andrew, is on the spectrum, that means traveling with noise-canceling headphones, a stroller, chewing gum and a weighted blanket. The family also plans outings around Andrew’s tolerance level. “We build in quiet time breaks and limit our time at busy events. We only do one busy-type activity per day,” she says. “You just can’t try to squeeze it all in… it’s too much.”

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