Are meltdowns common at your house? It has definitely gotten better for us now that my daughter is seven. But, when she was younger, we experienced our fair share of meltdowns. These extreme reactions to small problems are typical for children on the Autism spectrum. Why? Likely due to challenges with emotional/self-regulation.
Emotional regulation is the ability to monitor and control our behavior or emotions and adjust them based on the situation. For example, when we are well regulated we can cheer ourselves up when we’re sad and calm ourselves down when we’re upset.
So, why do our kiddos with Autism struggle so much in this area?
One reason is that individuals with Autism typically have challenges with executive functioning skills. These skills are controlled by the frontal lobe of the brain and help us to use past information to make action in the present. Executive function skills include: shifting attention, flexible thinking, inhibiting emotions and organizing/planning. Individuals with Autism also tend to have poor working memory skills and sensory sensitivities. The combination of these challenges makes it very hard to navigate the requirements of daily life and stay emotionally regulated.
What can parents do to help?
1. Observe your child: Simple, but not really. Without intervening, watch how they handle the daily stressors of life. What behaviors are they currently using to cope? This will be helpful to know as you assist them in developing a plan for using more productive and "expected" behaviors.
2. Size of the Problem: Discuss the daily problems that your child typically experiences as a "range", like from 1-10. For example, a broken pencil is a 1. We have control over this situation by simply getting a new pencil. But a broken leg may be an 8 or 9. We have little control over this situation once it has happened. We must depend on others and time to help. Typically, our children with Autism go from 0-10 when problems occur without understanding the gray area in between.
Also, we can discuss the expected reactions for different size problems. For example, if you break your pencil it is expected that you will just choose a new one. Crying, screaming or yelling would be unexpected in this situation. Michelle Garcia Winner has developed awesome materials to assist with teaching these concepts, found at socialthinking.com.
3. Zones of Regulation (ZOR): ZOR is a great program developed by Leah Kuypers, an Occupational Therapist (zonesofregulation.com). ZOR is a visual framework that puts words to our feelings with appropriate strategies for getting into a “good space”.
4. Social Narratives: Social narratives are short stories with and/or without pictures that honor the feelings and thoughts of the child while explicitly teaching the expected behaviors for specific situations. These stories can be developed by caregivers and clinicians with the participation of the child if possible. Carol Gray’s stories are a great example of social narratives (carolgraysocialstories.com).
Over the years, we have created numerous social narratives for my daughter to help guide her through situations such as attending birthday parties and fire drills at school. Now, we keep the stories in a binder for her to review at her leisure. It is important to note, however, that social narratives should be created, discussed and reviewed prior to the target situation occurring. As for most of us, "in the moment" of the situation it may be too challenging to review strategies and successfully attain emotional regulation.
Meltdowns for children with Autism are common. However, there are many strategies to help support them in building emotional regulation along their Autism journey.
References: Researchautism.net; Psychologytoday.com; Education.com; www.hope-therapies.com
Crystal Sanford, M.Ed., M.A. CCC-SLP has practiced in the field of speech-language pathology since 1998. As a licensed clinician and fellow parent, Crystal's passion is supporting families of Autism and related social language challenges. In her free time, she enjoys gardening and spending time with her husband and two children in San Diego, CA.