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Autistic meltdowns, sometimes mischaracterized as “tantrums”, can be difficult and frightening to autistic people, as well as to their housemates and caregivers. But, by incorporating mitigating techniques, the household can move past such episodes more easily. The affected person will feel more in control of feelings and reactions and will, hopefully, come to trust that help will always be there. Three mitigation techniques are explained and these, used together, work to lessen the severity and frequency of troubling episodes.
1Teach the individual deep breathing exercises. Deep breathing inhibits adrenaline and oxygenates the brain. Use the following steps while the person is calm, so that when out of control and having a “meltdown” (as it is commonly called), the individual will be able use these techniques to calm himself. Teaching these techniques while the person is upset is much more difficult, though not impossible.
- Mirror the person while you do each step.
- Breathe in through the nose slowly and evenly until the the lungs are at full capacity.
- When the lungs are completely full, the stomach pushes out, so calling each breath a “belly breath” provides a concrete image that helps in visualizing the proper technique.
- Hold the breath for a slow count of five.
- Breathe out through the mouth, releasing the air slowly and evenly.
- Repeat five times: Five “belly breaths” held for a count of five make one group (or set).
2Practice up to three sets of “belly breaths” two times each day. Do it once in the morning and once in the evening. Practice until the person can do the breathing independently.
3Use imagery (below) during breathing. It will add to the calming influence of the breathing itself.
Part2 Using Imagery
1Practice using imagery twice per day, every day. Once learned, it can be called upon as a sensory image when the person does become upset or out of control.
2Find out the colors, sounds and feelings the person finds peaceful.
- Many times it is water, either waves or a gurgling brook.
- Focus on determining the particular color of light that is calming. It is normally some uniform, pastel color.
3Write a script. It should consist of short lines which describe the process of walking towards the calming sound (perhaps a brook or ocean) and going towards the calming light.
- Describe how, as the person gets closer, the place becomes safer and safer, how the warm light of a certain color is welcoming, protecting, calming.
4Ask the person to shut his or her eyes. This will enhance their ability to imagine the situation you’re describing. However, don’t force them into situations they’re uncomfortable with.
5Use a recorder to play his or her specific comforting sounds. This might be helpful during the breathing and a few minutes afterwards.
6Don’t stop too early. Continue to talk about safety and light, even after the breathing exercises have concluded. Continue until the person has visibly calmed.
7Reverse the process. Continue the script: Walk away from the calming force (water, for example), but remind the person that the light is now carried within, calm begetting calm. Return to the beginning of the script, carefully reversing the dialogue.
8Ask the person to open their eyes. Ask them if they feel calmer, or if they want to continue with imagery and breathing techniques.
9Implement imagery beyond practice sessions. Use this technique, once learned, along with deep breathing, to bring calm in “meltdown” situations.
Part3 Calming through Hugging
1Ensure that the person wants to be hugged. Talk the person through this process prior to attempting any hugs. If trust is an issue, or if the child is young, demonstrate the process with another person. This will ease the child into understanding and offer comfort.
2Focus on the benefits. Explain that this type of hugging is very, very relaxing. However, avoid making them feel they have to do anything. No forced touch is ever preferable.
3Hug them, if they want. You can do “practice hugs” during calm times, and calming hugs during distressing times. Use this process:
- Approach person from the back.
- Hold your upper arms out straight and your forearms pointing at the sky (up).
- Talk as you go through the entire experience so there are no surprises and everything is comfortable.
- Ask the person to put their arms at their sides.
- Using your forearms, provide a moderate amount of pressure on the person’s upper arms near the torso. Squeeze moderately for the count of ten, then release.
- Repeat this five times.
4Ask the person if they want more hugs. If yes, repeat again in sequences of five.
- Stop after the third set, if the person has asked for that many.
5Ask the person how he/she feels. If they feel calmer or liked the hug, they may want more. If not, they may want to try something else.
6Repeat hugging if desired. Use this and any of the other calming techniques as necessary during meltdowns to help the person calm down. But continue practicing and doing it during calm times, too – you don’t want hugging to become associated only with meltdowns or distress.