Autistic Meltdowns In Children And What You Can Do To Help


Anyone caring for an autistic child understands that meltdowns are inevitable. They can be difficult to manage, and they aren’t something you can easily plan for. In this post, we will break down some strategies to try in public or at home to help you make the process as painless as possible.

Meltdowns vs Tantrums

There is a simple test my wife and I use to determine whether a child is experiencing a meltdown or a tantrum. If you give your child what they want and the crying stops, that is a tantrum. For example, if you are walking through a toy aisle, and your child sees a toy they REALLY want they might start throwing a fit. Is this a meltdown or a tantrum?

Let’s apply this test. First, if you buy them the toy, does it make them stop crying? If yes, then it’s a tantrum. You might tell me that your child just won’t let it go, sometimes even hours later. Is it still a tantrum? Yes, it is. Autistic children form strong attachments and have strong obsessions. They have grown an attachment to the object they are wanting you to buy even in the few seconds or minutes they were around the item. It is a tantrum, but just a stronger tantrum than a neurotypical child.

Facts you need to know about meltdowns

The first thing to understand with meltdowns is that no matter how hard you try, your child will not be able to process anything you are saying. They are overwhelmed and you will just blend in with what’s overwhelming them.

The second thing to understand with meltdowns is that you aren’t going to be able to solve the meltdowns. There is nothing to fix. Only time will be able to resolve it.

Finally, physical touch, love, and affection probably won’t help the meltdown stop. In my case, when I have meltdowns, I don’t want anyone near me. This is very difficult for my neurotypical wife, but she understands that it will only make me spiral more. We have noticed that with our daughter, the meltdowns stop sooner if we just leave her alone.

When our daughter has a meltdown, she usually likes to be alone. We encourage it. She usually goes to her room and closes the door. Her mother or I usually go upstairs, don’t open the door, and say something like, “We love you, we are here for you if you need us.” We’ve noticed that usually, she comes back down sooner than if we try to force love or affection.

Public Places

  • Think about WHERE you are going

  • Think about WHEN you are going

  • Think about possible triggers

  • Set your child up for success

First, you need to think about where you are going. Many autistic children do not like crowds or loud noises. If you are planning to go to a rock concert, your child probably will melt down, because of the overwhelming noise. Even places like Walmart have many sounds. Personally, if I don’t wear my noise-canceling headphones, I can hear all of the people talking, doors opening and closing, shopping cart wheels, etc. I can’t focus on the task of buying groceries. As a result, I usually just avoid going to Walmart completely.

Second, think about WHEN you are going. Many autistic children like to have alone time. If your child has had a stimulating day, i.e. school, going to the store might not be the best option. They probably need some time to cool down in a safe, comfortable space. If you have the option, let them stay home if they want with one parent or caretaker when possible. We usually ask our kids before just taking them places. Usually, they understand when they need rest time. If you need to go to the store, consider going on a Saturday or Sunday morning to the grocery store when it is calmer and less busy.

Third, think about possible triggers. Our little girl grows strong attachments very quickly to stuffed animals and real animals. If we need to go to Walmart, we will actively avoid the toy aisle to make sure she doesn’t have the chance to attach to a toy. When we are by the checkout, we will let her help scan or load the items on the conveyor belt to distract her from the items at the checkout.

This leads to the final thing which is to set your child up for success. If you know that toys will cause them to have a tantrum, avoid the toys. This way your child never has the chance to fail. Providing your child with every opportunity to be successful is a simple way to ensure meltdowns happen less frequently.

A simple way to help your child be successful is to involve them. If you are cleaning dishes, let them load the dishes in the dishwasher. If you are doing laundry, let them help fold. Keep in mind the result might not be perfect, but you are helping them learn and avoid meltdowns.

At Home

When you are at home, remember that this is your child’s safe space. They might lash out more at home or become more frustrated. This is where your child can be uniquely them. They no longer have to mask in public, they can take that mask off and release all that energy. They might be more inclined to have meltdowns, but that’s because they are where they feel comfortable enough to let it all out.

Also, keep in mind that you are that comfort person. As the parent, the child knows you are there for them when they are most vulnerable (with their mask off). This is where patience is absolutely required. They might hit you, but it’s not because they are trying to hurt you. Autistic children struggle with emotional regulation. They know they can be themselves around you, and though it seems counterproductive, they are hurting you because they trust you and know you love them no matter what.

Obviously, avoid any known triggers. However, you never know what will cause the meltdown, or be able to anticipate everything that will cause all meltdowns.

The first thing you should do if you suspect it could be a meltdown is to apply the test mentioned above: If you give the child what they want, would the child stop? If the child would stop, this would most likely be considered a tantrum instead of a meltdown.

A common example that causes a meltdown at home is screen time. There is no doubt that screen time can help autistic children regulate, and you shouldn’t necessarily keep them from it if it helps them. However, sometimes children throw a fit over a screen. So what should you do?

First, determine if it’s a tantrum or a meltdown. If you give the child the screen, does that make them stop? If so, it’s a tantrum, so you should proceed to step two. If you are in a crowded place, and it’s to help them regulate their emotions, then you can give it to them.

Next, redirect the child. Make them meet certain guidelines before giving it to them. When our daughter wants a device, we first make her ask nicely and with the right tone. We tell her to say something like “Can I please have the iPad?”. And we show her an example with the correct tone of voice. We then let her have it if she says it correctly and with the right intonation. This is where you have to hold firm. Remember, if you give them the device without making them show you how to correctly ask for what they want, they will think they can just throw a fit and get a device.

Strategies and Advice

  • Create a calm-down area


  • Make time to get into their world

  • Allow a space that is uniquely theirs

  • Plan, plan, plan

  • Use lists

  • Allow them to have some control over their life

Create A Calm-Down Area

A calm-down area is simply a place for your child to go when they have big feelings. This could be for when they are stressed, overwhelmed, having a meltdown, overstimulated, sad, angry, or any other big emotions. This place should be isolated and full of sensory items. This is just simply a place they can go to calm down that is full of sensory items, sensory toys, and/or fidgets. Here is an image of the calm-down area that we use. We have it in our game room upstairs, since we spend most of the time downstairs.


If you need sensory items, we have a sensory box called Pickle Booty Sensory Box. It’s a monthly box that comes full of sensory toys, sensory items, and fidgets for you to use. You can find more information about our box here:

Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff

This was the hardest lesson to learn. I grew up in a pretty strict household. I wore certain clothes and acted a certain way. In the beginning, I carried these lessons into my own household. I quickly realized that forcing our autistic daughter into these social standards caused several issues like meltdowns, strong negative reactions, fighting, hitting, and more. At some point, I realized that I can save a lot of headaches by letting the small things go.

Here are some things we do now, that have saved us countless meltdowns.

  • Let her pick out her own clothes. She gets some independence, and it’s not the end of the world if she’s mismatched. She’s happy living her best life.

  • Let her carry a toy or two with her places, even if it’s small or could get lost or ruined easily. They are just toys.

  • Pick her own activities. We don’t force her to do activities she isn’t interested in like dance, gymnastics, or sports. We let her try them if she wants and don’t make her keep doing them. However, if she signs up for something she has to complete the season or duration for which we signed up. However, after that, she doesn’t have to do them again.

Make Time To Get In Their World

Many autistic kids feel misunderstood frequently. Your interests may not align with theirs. For example, my parents made me play sports like football, basketball, soccer, baseball, and more. They also made me do things like Boy Scouts. I always had to do an activity. When I was a child, I really liked chess, computers, and basically anything else. I was forced to do Boy Scouts from Cub Scouts to Eagle Scout. I wasn’t allowed to quit even though I HATED IT.

I would talk to my parents about wanting to do activities that I liked but was never allowed to. This drove a wedge between us, and I resented my parents for a long time. Thankfully, due to a horrible injury, the only sport I could do for three years of high school was golf. I loved it because I could be by myself frequently, but yet still be involved in a school sport like my parents wanted. I could leave the school for the golf course and spend time by myself outdoors. It was very therapeutic.

The point is to actively listen to your kids. Don’t make them do things just because you want them to. In the end, it’s more worthwhile for your kid to love you and be happy than it is to fight them to do things they hate. Even if it doesn’t make sense to me, I will go to my daughter and engage in whatever activity she’s doing. She struggles with play, so usually, it’s just to boss me around. However, she loves the bonding experience and we are closer as a result. All you have to do is show an interest in their interests.

Allow a space that is uniquely theirs

In our house, our Autistic daughter has her own room. She is free to make that room hers within reason (no stickers on furniture, no unreasonable messes, etc.). She can put things on the walls, put toys anywhere she likes, and move her stuffed animals anywhere she wants. Her space is her space. It’s a place she can go to get away, so even at home, she can be 100% herself. Sometimes, even at home, neurodivergent children can feel like they need to be able to express themselves without fear of judgment. This space allows them that freedom.

Plan, Plan, Plan

I can’t say it enough, plan EVERYTHING. We have schedules on our refrigerator for what’s coming up for the next two weeks for dinner. Before we go somewhere, we let our kids know days in advance unless it’s an emergency. Spontaneity needs to go out the window. We don’t do anything without planning it. If we are going out to eat, we won’t do it the same day we think about it. We might wait until the weekend or at least the next day. Everything is planned so we can all have time to adjust our schedules. My wife sends me calendar invites for everything so I can keep track of life. I keep a schedule for my workday, eat lunch at the same time every day, stop working at the same time every day, etc.

Planning and keeping a schedule will prevent many meltdowns once you leave the house because your child will be well prepared that their routine will have to change. It may still cause a meltdown, but it will lessen the blow more often than not.

Use Lists

I swear if we didn’t have lists, we would be running all over town to make sure everyone has everything they need. By our front door is a list of everything each kid needs to do before leaving the house. This way they can visually see if they have brushed their teeth, fixed their hair, used the bathroom, gotten their backpack, and more. If your autistic child has something to reference or check off, they are less likely to forget things, and less likely to cause a meltdown because something was left at home.

Allow them to have some control over their own life

As a parent, you make them do things all the time. They don’t get a choice. Would you like it if someone controlled every aspect of your life? Allowing them to have some freedom to make their own choices that impact their life can allow them to feel like they get to be themselves. These don’t have to be huge decisions.

Here are some things we allow our daughter to do to feel in control:

  • Pick out her own clothes. Sometimes they look ridiculous and are mismatched, but she is so happy and she loves them. As long as she picks out the week's worth of clothes and picks her outfits from those throughout the week, she gets to choose her clothes.

  • We let her pick dinner regularly. When we pick out meals, we show her pictures and allow her to choose which meals she would like. She doesn’t get to choose all of them, but she gets to choose what our whole family eats.

  • We play games by her rules. We may play uno the right way most of the time, but sometimes we play uno and play by her rules. Yes, she might win every time when we do that, but what does it matter?

  • We let her choose her own lunches. When mom does the grocery shopping, we let our daughter choose if she wants Lunchables, peanut butter and jelly, etc. This way we know she will eat lunch at school, and we don’t have to fight her.

  • Our daughter loves movie nights, so we specifically let her pick out movie nights and let her pick the movie and snacks. She usually likes popcorn with candy mixed in, but we all do what she wants us to do, and we have a blast.

These are just a few examples of some of the things we do, but feel free to come up with some things on your own. If you come up with other things, reach out to us and let us know. We might try to implement some of your ideas in our house.


Meltdowns are inevitable, but make sure it’s a meltdown before you respond. Tantrums and meltdowns are not the same thing, and you should react accordingly. Meltdowns will not be resolved by giving the child what they want. There are ways to possibly prevent meltdowns from happening, and hopefully, this post has given you some ideas and strategies.

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