Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterised by difficulty with communication, social interactions and repetitive behaviours. A child may become severely distressed during an episode of behavioural meltdown or ‘storm’. During these times, it can be very difficult for parents, family members and carers to know the best ways to help their loved ones. Parents need to be prepared for these situations and have coping skills in place.
Despite there being no universal, single intervention strategy that will work for every child, there are some things you can do to support your son or daughter during an autism storm. Here are strategies that should help manage the situation until it settles.
Behaviours like melting down are completely normal for people with ASD. You can prepare by explaining to your child or grandchild what a meltdown is and why it happens. Children often know why they are feeling overwhelmed but lack the words to express how they feel, so this can help them understand what’s happening.
If your son or daughter is very upset, you need to give them some space and time before approaching again. When trying to stop an autistic child from engaging in destructive behaviour (e.g. aggressive behaviour), always remember that they are not doing it because they are being nasty towards you, but because they are in pain. The more aggressive the autistic child becomes, the more distressed they are likely to be.
For many children, it is far easier to control their behaviour in an environment that they have a lot of control over. For this reason, it can be helpful to direct an autistic child into a quiet room or somewhere that they find comfortable. You can encourage the person with autism to talk about what’s worrying them and ask them what they think might help solve their problem.
During an autistic storm, it can be difficult to know if your child wants you to talk to them or leave them alone, especially when you’re worried about their pain and distress. The person with autism must know that they have a safe place to retreat to should they need it.
You can do this by creating a relax space that is locked if necessary and has only the things your child likes in it – perhaps some familiar toys or pictures from home. This “safe room” should also have a gate at the door so your son or daughter can feel safe inside without needing to close or lock the door themselves.
When your child has an autism storm, it can be difficult for them to receive any form of help from you, as you may be seen as a possible cause of their distress. Whatever the reason, if your child cannot calm themselves down, it is important that they have someone else that they can talk to that they are comfortable with, for example, their therapist.
Sometimes children with autism will try to escape their difficult feelings by behaving in a way that will distract them. They can snuggle into a corner or shut out the sound by covering their ears with their hands.
It is important to give your child an alternative way to deal with these sensory overloads – one that doesn’t involve self-harm behaviours.
For example, if your son or daughter shuts themselves in a bedroom, make sure you create a visual signal (e.g. place something shiny on the door) that tells them they can come out when they are ready – but don’t try to get them out yourself.
It is important that your autistic child has clear rules and boundaries in life, including clear expectations on behaviour. When an autistic child behaves in a way that you don’t like, it can be frustrating and upsetting – but it is important not to show this.
Remaining calm will not only make things easier for your child, but it will also help them to calm down quicker. Remember that autism does not mean “no rules”. If your son or daughter knows what you expect of them, they will be far less likely to become distressed.
As with all things autism-related, treating autistic storms may take time and is often very difficult. If your child has an intense meltdown, it can be difficult to know how long you need to wait before intervening – but remember to remain as patient as possible. Your son or daughter needs to learn how to manage their behaviour, and they’ll need your help to do this.
Autistic children’s brains are wired differently from those without autism, making it difficult to cope with certain sensations and triggers. Treating an autistic child as they would any other child is not only unhelpful but also cruel – we need to treat every child at their level, which is especially important with children on the spectrum.
It’s just a matter of trial and error to find a way that works for you and your autistic child. When in doubt, just remember to take one step at a time. For more information on supporting and interacting with people who have autism, contact us or visit our website and claim your free lesson.