Autism: What is a Meltdown?

Overwhelmed and Stressed

The terminology used for an intense episode of challenging behaviour that may be displayed by Autistic children and young people with learning difficulties can vary wildly according to the ethos and values of those witnessing it. An accepted term seems to be Meltdown (but please correct me if I’m wrong).

meltdown-quote-autism and autistic stress

At school we have worked hard to remove the term kicking off from our lexicon. The phrase tantrum should never be used as these are very different behaviours. They have a very different function or driver of that behaviour. This is a great video to watch to explain this from a parents point of view.

Each individual needs an in depth support plan to reduce these episodes. A meltdown is a way of expending energy, frustrations or anxieties caused by overstimulation or information overload, therefore tangibles or reward/sanctions are not going to be effective. We can however use each one as a learning experience for those of us who support an individual who processes the world differently.


It is essential you control the space around the individual. This may be removing items that can may break. It may be clearing a physical space especially if a crowd is gathering. Most people will not understand, gawpers should be moved on. Turn off music, lights or the TV to reduce sensory input. Reduce the number of people communicating to a maximum of one.


You need to assess the cause of the meltdown – it will rarely be a tangible object in the case of a true meltdown. If you can remove the trigger or identify it for the future. Assess the impact on the individual. Assess whether the child is hurt. Can they tolerate continuing the activity or do they want time out. Ask very simple questions with plenty of processing time.

See also  Teaching Students with Language and Communication Disabilities


Your reaction can hugely impact the wellbeing of the individual. They need support not sanctions. A drink (with a straw) may help. It can help to reassure the child. The stronger your relationship the better, ask them what they want you to do in this situation once all is calm. Remember it takes time for emotions and adrenaline levels to stabilise.


What can be done to support the person to manage a similar situation in the future? Headphones, listening to music, a baseball hat to prevent light shining in the eyes. Did you do anything that helped or hindered the process? Use a sensory first aid kit. This reflection time is vital.


Please do not punish a meltdown!

This is an excellent graphic that Rikkie Johnson from Proud Autistic Living gave me permission to use.

Proud Autistic Meltodowns ASD.jpg
Managing Meltdowns Autism
Managing Meltdowns Autism

3 thoughts on “Autism: What is a Meltdown?”

  1. Pingback: Using Sand Timers To Support Autistic Children in Class and Home - Education

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