Parenting Aspies: Meltdowns in Public

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • One of the most frustrating aspects of Asperger's syndrome for parents is meltdowns and eve more frustrating is when those meltdowns occur in public, in the middle of the grocery store, at a relative's home, in a restaurant. At home when a meltdown occurs, parents can focus on the behavior but in public their attention is divided between their child and the stares and dirty looks of the onlookers. As a parent, you are embarrassed and imagine that everyone around you is judging you a poor and incompetent parent.


    It helps to understand what causes meltdowns. While temper tantrums are frequently caused because your child wants something, a toy, a certain food, attention, meltdowns often occur because of sensory issues or a stress overload. Temper tantrums signal a demand and, most parents agree, the more you give in to demands, the more often your child will have a tantrum. A meltdown, however, is communication - often a way for your child to tell you he has reached a level of frustration or stress that he can no longer handle by himself. The meltdown allows your child to release that frustration.

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    Understand what types of situations and places trigger a meltdown. For example, suppose you are heading off to the mall on a Saturday afternoon. You know it will be crowded; there are bright lights, lots of noise, store window after store window full of things to look at, smells from restaurants and constant movement. All of this activity and sensory experiences can be overwhelming to a child with sensory sensitivities. Instead of arriving at the mall hoping your child won't have a meltdown, be prepared by making sure your child is well fed before you leave.


    Bring along a toy or an item that your child finds calming, often this is something related to his special interest. Have your child use their music player or video game with headphones to help reduce the noise level.


    Keep a journal listing your child's meltdowns, where they occurred, what happened prior, what your child ate and any other information you can think of. By paying attention, you may be able to see patterns that will help you avoid future meltdowns.


    In your journal, write down any warning signs, does your child become agitated, is rigid thinking more apparent, do repetitive actions increase? Paying attention to your child's behavior can help you be prepared for a meltdown before it happens and help you take steps to minimize or avoid the meltdown.


    Think about what actions you take that help head off a meltdown. This might be listening to music, finding a quiet area to calm down, stress relief techniques such as deep breathing. Decide ahead of time what you will do if you see the warning signs of a meltdown. Can you take your child out of the store and sit quietly with him for a few minutes? Can you have a snack with you where he can sit and have something to eat? Knowing in advance what your actions will be will help you stay more in control if a meltdown does occur.


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    Explain your plans to your child. Let him know where you are going, how long you plan to be there, what you will be doing there. Discuss your expectations and how you expect him to behave. Offer a reward for good behavior. For example, if going to the mall, once you complete your shopping, let him know you will take him to his favorite store. If going to a restaurant, let your child know that if he behaves through dinner, he will be able to order a dessert.


    Finally, discuss with your child what he should do if he is feeling overwhelmed or stressed. Although in the younger years, your child may not be able to understand when his level of frustration is nearing meltdown stage, as he matures he will be better able to do so and preparing him early will help him learn self-monitoring skills. You may want to create a "secret signal" that he can give you. Let him know you will immediately respond to his signal and together, will take the steps you planned for minimizing or avoiding the meltdown.


    Finally, if a meltdown does occur, talk with your child later, after he has calmed down, about what happened and what could have been done differently. Talk about what he can do next time and ask how you could have helped him better handle the stress. 


Published On: October 08, 2011