Handling meltdowns and calming down your ASD child

[source]I had a question from a reader this week regarding the good ol' meltdown. If you're the parent of a child with ASD, you'll know all about these. I thought I would write my own response, but I also asked the community on the Love Tears & Autism facebook page and they came up with some great ideas, so here we go. The not-very-definitive-but-quite-useful guide to helping your ASD child calm down.

First, here's the question.

Do you go camping as a family and if so how does your son handle going away and having his routine disrupted for a few days-weeks etc? This is because whilst we were away down south we did have a couple of occasions where our son had a meltdown and it wasn't too pleasant at times...At times it was so hard for both my husband and I to try and control or calm him down... What sort of things do you do with your son to try and calm him down or get him to settle down after he has a meltdown of any sort?

And the answer.

First up, we definitely do NOT go camping. The main reason is that both me and my husband are useless outdoorspeople. We don't enjoy up and we can hardly put up a tent, let alone do all the rest of the work you're supposed to do before you can actually relax. But our boy does also come into it. He hates being outside. He doesn't enjoy trees or bushwalking or anything like that. And he's terrified of snakes. So being in a campsite would be very, very stressful for him. 

Actually, holidays in general are pretty stressful for us. The routine is mucked up and I'm more stressed as well, so there's a double whammy. Meltdowns are a regular occurrence. These days we mostly just go to my family's holiday house which we are lucky enough to have access to once or twice a year. He knows it well and we seem to do okay there, although he definitely won't ride his bike along the path or go for a walk or do anything except surf.

When it comes to meltdowns, these can be hard to manage. We find that they come when there's too much being loaded onto his little life. That can be too much to process, too many people around, too many demands, too much language... whatever!

When we see the signs we recognise as being precursors to a meltdown we act quickly. We quiet everything down, reduce the stress, the demands, the speaking, the 'have-tos'. Often these days we can head things off at the pass.  

He also is smart enough to know that he is about to explode and often we can suggest that he goes to have some 'quiet' time by himself. If he has enough time on his own with a book (or even Angry Birds on the ipod) he will usually come out fine and sorted out.

If we don't recognise the signs and he gets to boiling point, he can't bring himself back and he gets even more stressed by having one of us in his face telling him to calm down. Again, it's a case of leave him alone and he'll calm down. But you've got to be careful after that: just because he calmed down doesn't mean he'll be okay the rest of the day. In fact, once he's lost it, he's more likely to lose it more frequently that day.

He gets the concept of 'power naps' and relaxing his body entirely so that he feels better, but he won't always do it. Our osteopath had a few useful things including something she called 'harmonic rocking'. Ask a physio or osteo how to do it.

Sometimes but not always he's just grumpy and if I threaten 'no tv after dinner' he'll pull out his good manners and use them, but I have to careful because it's not always the case.

In general, reducing the stress around the home will help the meltdowns to become less frequent. You can do this by slowing down, talking less, leaving much longer gaps, asking less questions, making more statements, reacting with less anxiety, doing less, expecting less, smiling more, breathing more deeply and listening to relaxing music on your ipod. 

And, as usual, let me push my two favourite books, The RDI book and The Explosive Child, which cannot be beaten in terms of long-term answers to ASD and anxiety.

Here are the answers from our facebook community:

Kate: My son has chosen his own calming choices and they are in pictures with the word next to it on laminated cards in kitchen and his room ... His teacher last year put them on little cards on a keying for his pocket ... AND he has a red beast box ... With the book and rubber bands, liquid timer, paper aeroplane book, fidget toys, squishy frogs ...

Michelle: Theres a book called 'the low arousal approach to autism' my son 'only' has aspergers, but this book helped our family immensely,

Dianna: For about 1/2 am hour tonight my son has been bouncing off the lounge, jumping all over the place and being quite loud. We have a heavy foot stool that he loves to play with and use as "The Big Red Car". I asked him to pick it up and carry it to the next room and put it down. Then I asked him to pick it up and carry it to his room which was at the opposite end of the house. I then went with him to his room. I then got him to hold my hands and step up onto the foot stool. Then I would get him to step down and do it again more times. I then got him to let go of my hands and keep stepping up onto the foot stool but when he stepped up onto the foot stool I got him to clap his hands above his head 3 times and then step down again. I got him to do this a few more times and then carry the foot stool back to the front end of the house. He is now quietly and clamly doing a puzzle in his room. Our OT has told us that the heavy work and the steps of getting him to do an activity that requires some concerntration helps him to focus his thoughts and brain activity and slow it down. This seems to have worked.

Hailey: I find that time out on his room playing with Lego held to decompress him. It's his hyper focus activity and he settles.

Michelle: Take all the stimulation away noise lights etc well dim them dont turn them off and keep the situation without little change until the person is calmer