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10 Tips for De-Escalating Autism Sensory Meltdowns

January 11, 2024

Special needs child having a meltdown


As a parent to a child with autism, you’re probably no stranger to meltdowns. You’re also well aware that changes in routine can trigger or exacerbate meltdowns. That’s why the summer can be particularly trying for both kids with autism and their parents. During a sensory meltdown, children with special needs have very little control over their behavior. They may scream, break things, attack others, and even try to hurt themselves. While it’s painful to see your child lose control for seemingly no reason, meltdowns help you understand when your little one is experiencing sensory overwhelm. As a parent, you must learn to recognize the signs of a meltdown so you can keep your child safe, and help them regain control and composure.


Perhaps what’s most terrifying about a sensory meltdown is the extent to which a child loses control. During a meltdown, a person with autism is completely unaware of their actions and what’s happening around them. Their behavior is an involuntary, knee-jerk response to sensory overwhelm. It’s almost as if they’ve had a complete break with reality. While it is heart-wrenching to see your child experience this, with enough awareness and proactive intervention you can prevent them from causing harm to themselves and others. 


When you can’t be with your child, the AngelSense Assistive Technology can help you be there for them when they need you the most!


What’s the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum?


A good place to start is by understanding the difference between a sensory meltdown and a tantrum. The two are easily confused which is why many dismiss meltdowns as nothing more than a badly behaved child’s cry for attention. This couldn’t be further from the truth.


Tantrums are behavioral outbursts which are a deliberate attempt to get something. A child could have a tantrum for many different reasons. They could, for example, want their parents’ attention or perhaps they want their parents to buy a specific toy. Unlike meltdowns, a child having a tantrum is in control of their behavior, and will most likely stop acting out when they get what they want. Tantrums and meltdowns are very different and cannot be handled in the same way. By simply dismissing a meltdown as a petulant child acting out, you can cause severe harm to a child with special needs.


We put together some tips which may help you calm your special child during these trying times. But remember, what calms one child with special needs may not work for another. The important thing is to be understanding, patient and loving. That is after all what a child needs most during a sensory meltdown.


1. Identify and remove sensory triggers


You’ve probably already identified stimuli which tend to trigger meltdowns for your child. For some children with special needs this can be a visit to the town pool or a ride on a crowded bus to camp. The important thing is to be aware of your child’s sensory sensitivities so you’ll be prepared to act should a meltdown occur. In addition, you’ll want to keep record of stimuli which make a meltdown worse. This could include loud noises or flashing lights. You may even find that talking to your child during a meltdown can exacerbate the symptoms.


2. Try distracting your child


This will only work if you spot the tell-tale signs of a meltdown before your child loses complete control. You can distract your child by doing anything which makes your child happy. The aim is to focus on something which is comforting but not over-stimulating. This could include something like making silly faces or singing your child’s favorite song.


3. Make your child feel safe


Your first priority during a meltdown is to remove any triggers. This may require you to switch off music or perhaps leave a store in search of a quieter, more soothing environment. You want to do everything you can to create a quiet, cozy space where your child will feel safe. One way to do this is to put up a tent somewhere quiet. While this will help your child calm down, it isn’t always an option. For those times when you can’t find a quiet place to soothe your child, you can simply cradle your child in your arms until they calm down. This may take time, but it should help keep them calm.


Parents need to remove dangerous objects when kids have meltdowns


4. Remove any dangerous objects


It’s important that you remove any objects from the vicinity which could harm your child. This includes everything from glass shelves to hard objects which your child may throw. It’s best to take your child to a room or space free of clutter and other people. However, it’s not enough to simply isolate your child. To prevent injury during a meltdown, you’ll need to monitor your child closely until they’ve calmed down completely.


5. Invest in a good weighted blanket


Weighted blankets can be very effective for children who have frequent meltdowns. These blankets apply mild pressure to the body, helping an anxious child calm down. In addition, the weights in the blankets help improve a child’s body awareness which can reduce the severity of the meltdown. Alternatively, weighted vests give similar calming sensory feedback, and are a great option for summer and travel.


6. Carry a pair of noise-canceling headphones


For children who struggle with auditory stimuli, a pair of noise-canceling headphones are often a life-saver. They help reduce sensory overwhelm and can prevent the meltdown from getting out of hand.


An emergency kit can help a special child cop during a meltdown


7. Put together an emergency meltdown kit


Having an emergency kit can come in handy especially if your child tends to have meltdowns in public places. A well-stocked kit can help you defuse the situation and can make it easier to calm your child. Be sure to take this kit with you wherever you go so you’ll never be caught off guard. Ideally, you should tailor the kit to suit your child’s preferences. You can include things like your child’s favorite toy, a body sock, a heating pad, a handheld massage ball, or some aromatherapy oils.


8. Stay calm


It’s essential that you try to remain as calm as possible when your child has a meltdown. Any sudden movements or aggressive actions could be perceived as a threat by your child, triggering violent behavior. It’s best to talk in a soft, calm voice and to move as slowly as possible. Also, avoid any forceful behavior such as throwing your child to the ground.


9. Watch what your child eats


Food can be a potent trigger for children with sensory processing issues. Some parents resort to a gluten-free diet as they find this keeps their child calmer. If this seems too extreme, try limiting how much sugar you allow your child to consume. Carbohydrates and sugars tend to increase anxiety and anxiousness in children with autism spectrum disorder.


10. Never act without explaining


To prevent a meltdown from escalating, you need to keep your child as calm as possible. One of the best ways of doing this is by explaining what you’re going to do to your child before you do it. For example, you’d say something like: I want you to hold my hand for your safety. Regardless of whether your child is responsive, a calm explanation can help prevent any impulse reactions.


AngelSense for Extra Safety During Sensory Meltdowns


These are great tips for when your child is with you, but what happens when they are at school or with a therapist or caregiver? Sometimes the only person who knows what to do is the parent. AngelSense comes with an assistive speakerphone and an auto-pickup. If your child needs you they can simply press an SOS button on the device to initiate a call with you. This has helped many parents calm their children while on the school bus or whenever they aren’t physically present.


Children with autism who also have a wandering diagnosis can be triggered to run when they have a meltdown. To escape whatever it is that is causing them to get upset, they oftentimes take off without warning. AngelSense is the most accurate and reliable assistive technology to prevent wandering incidents and find your child as quickly as possible if they do wander. With advanced features like Continuous Real-Time GPS Monitoring, Lifesaving Intelligent Alerts, Safe Ride School Bus Monitoring, Assistive Speakerphone with Listen In and 2 Way Voice, Emergency Search & Rescue Tools and much more, AngelSense is the clear choice for protecting your child with special needs!


40 Comments

  1. Mindy July 15, 2016 at 6:49 am - Reply

    We learned when my son was around 3 or 4 that he just needed physical comfort instead of justice with his siblings. At first we sort of had to force it and say things like “I’m sorry you got hurt” and hug him and help him know we were there comforting rather than getting onto the child that hurt him. It took some months and then he finally started coming to us for comfort instead of letting his anger get the best of him. He is now 9 and we
    Stil struggle when it comes to sibling fights if I am not there to catch it before it escalates but if I am it usually works and we quietly and calmly talk about it..

  2. Racquel July 17, 2016 at 12:40 am - Reply

    I have worked for years in our church nursery and I’ve had several Autistic children there. There are a few things to do that I did not read here. One, is to be on a routine. They don’t do as well with change. They need to expect what is happening next or day to day. You can create a picture calendar schedule so they know what is to be expected. You can also let them know what will be changing before it does. For instance, I would take kids to play outside. I would let the kids know that in 2 minutes we would be going outside. Then before getting ready to go inside I would let the child know in 5 minutes we would be going inside. Since they love being outside I would give them another notice on 3 minutes and in 1 minute. Also giving choices helps. Example, you can be upset in time out or you can calm down in 2 minutes and we can color a picture or another activity they like. Hope it helps some.

  3. Jen July 18, 2016 at 5:28 am - Reply

    Artificial food dyes are massive triggers for my son. He becomes violent and pretty much unconsolable. He goes from zero to 1000 in no time after he has had red dye 40 or yellow 6. I completely cut out all foods with artificial dyes in my house but occasionally the grandparents or friends parents will miss something and he is triggered. Most effective thing for him is to find a quiet place for just me and him, he will only allow me around him when he’s in a meltdown- usually just to hit me- but only me. I calmly talk to him and eventually the meltdown subsides and we just sit and cuddle. It is so frustrating that so many additives in food can cause so much distress to our children.

  4. Karen Jenkins July 18, 2016 at 7:42 pm - Reply

    Great for all parents. I’ve seen many parents reacting badly to tots, children having sensory(or other) meltdowns in retail or other public places where catering to stimuli is part of sales pitch. Whether child has conditions or not, those little people have not developed attention spans, nor do some understand that they are really ‘aggitated’, why, or how to cope. I worked retail. I’m a Mom. Pre-shop ads and on-line first. Limit outings to an hour, and only go where you intend to buy, limiting to 15-20 mins. per store. Use exterior entrances when possible, rather than wading thru mall full of shoppers, stimuli. Go at earliest times, preferably weekdays. Take along another child-free adult who might stand in line, so you can step aside, until it’s your turn. It’s back-to-school shopping time ahead, so now’s the time to avoid the crowd.

  5. Kendall Everett July 19, 2016 at 12:36 am - Reply

    Carrying an emergency kit to defuse a meltdown is a great idea. Like you mentioned, including things such as toys that the child enjoys would be important. It may help to change it around every once in awhile so the child is always surprised by what is offered.

  6. Cynthia Bleyer July 19, 2016 at 4:39 am - Reply

    Wonderful pointers! Thank you AngelSense!

  7. Jennifer July 28, 2016 at 3:55 pm - Reply

    My grandson just turned 4 and has autism. ..I would love to learn all I can to understand autism and to help him…he does have breakdowns that I hate to see…I dont know what to do for him; I need all the info I can get on autism plz..thanks

  8. Mark G August 7, 2016 at 8:37 pm - Reply

    I taught severely emotionally challenged students for over 25 years. One tactic I used very successfully during meltdowns is to approach the student cautiously and slowly,from the front – so he/she has a moment to visually notice that I’m approaching – getting as close to the same head-height as possible. For example, if the student is sitting on the floor, I will hunch over and try to engage his/her eye as I approach (the sense of someone taller approaching usually increases their anxiety.) If it looks a bit funny, so much the better – the child usually responds positively to the humorous gesture, or at least calms down enough to steady their gaze. As I get closer, I begin to whisper forcefully in “I” messages: “I’m glad you’re okay. I’m happy you’re safe. I’m glad you are here with me.” If they haven’t made eye contact yet, they often will when they hear whispering, or feel the air movement from the forceful whispering. This, plus the “I” messages, seem to be the key. The child often becomes quiet in order to hear what I’m saying. Overall, with all these things, I’m trying to communicate that “we’re sharing this difficult moment, and we’ll recover from it together.” However, if the child angrily or stubbornly turns away from my approach, I will back off for about 30 seconds, then start again from scratch.

  9. Patty Kinnard November 20, 2016 at 5:15 pm - Reply

    Most of the comments I have read are very helpful and cover most meltdowns we’ve seen in our son. Just a couple of suggestions – We used a backpack with a few heavy books in it. Cheaper than a weighted blanket or vest. The only other thing I can say is to try to remember this, something our son’s Behavioral Pediatrician told us many years ago. Your home is your child’s safe place, where he/she knows that he can let go after holding it together all day. I know it’s not fun to feel like a punching bag, and trust me I’ve had many busted lips and headbutts, especially when he was young, but I always took some comfort in knowing that even when he melts down at his worst, he knows he is safe. I hope this helps some.

  10. Joy November 27, 2016 at 9:56 pm - Reply

    My son responds to deep pressure like a “sandwich” hug, which his Dad and I used to do with him, even solo, a deep hug for maybe a minute or two would enable him to calm down… we could literally feel the tension leaving his body! Also, lying on the floor, preferably on carpet with shoes off, and making “Snow Angels”… usually by the 2nd one he was visibly calmer and by the 5th one he was a noodle!

  11. Delerie Ausland November 27, 2016 at 10:38 pm - Reply

    I have a 14month old grandson. Who loves children learning channel. If you block vision, tries to look around you. Gets squeely if commercial comes on. Hits his head when he gets upset. Zones out when strangers are around, acts like he’s deaf. Loves to beat on chairs, buckets, anything noisy. Loves balls. He loves stuff with texture, he pets everything. Loves playing in sand, grass, leaves, dog food, picks up and let’s it run through his fingers. Far as I know, he’s not been diagnosed. When the mother was pregnant, she was told she had extra amniotic fluid around the baby. And told her he might be mongoloid. By looking at him, he looks normal. I’ve been with him since he was born. He was in a rocking bed, since day one, until he outgrew it. He lives to rock. Before he started walking, when you stood him up, he would rock back and forth on his feet. He just started walking a month ago.

  12. Bethany January 3, 2017 at 9:39 pm - Reply

    My sister and I babysit a child with autism (she is 22 and i am 14) and she is a special needs major. Whenever i am alone or she is alone with the child (we take turns) and they have a melt down, we always tell them what we are going to do (“I am going to put these noise cancelling headphones on you now”) then do what we like to call a swaddle. A swaddle is sitting down anywhere, putting the child in your lap, wrapping your legs around theirs lightly, which helps with bodily awareness and slightly constricts them, then crossing their arms across their chest, then wrapping your arms around them, which also helps with bodily awareness and slightly constricting them. We do this until the child has calmed down enough to talk about what happened (she has moderately high function autism) and why she had the meltdown.

  13. Monica January 6, 2017 at 4:30 pm - Reply

    Any tips for an older child to help diffuse him/herself, i.e. for a stressful situation at school? Long story short version–my son has had some really awful teachers that have left him with some trauma issues…

  14. Sandy January 9, 2017 at 4:40 pm - Reply

    The article and comments are great. As a substitute teacher I never do the behavior chart. If the students act up they count to 10 or 100 depending on their age at recess and then go play. They are on the honor system and that has worked for me for 25 years. It worked when I taught K-1 as well. Also we sing for transitions and clean up. My son died at 37 and I don’t think I ever got behaviors right. God bless you all. You and your kids are what makes this world go round!

  15. Jennifer Mileski January 27, 2017 at 4:26 am - Reply

    Over time, an autistic child can be desensitized to sensory triggers. My son, seventeen and severely autistic, would freak out (when he was young) every time we turned on the dishwasher. We started slow, turning the dishwasher on for a minute at a time for a couple Then two minutes. Then five. Then ten. We got him to start helping us load it and let him turn it on. That really worked because he had control of the situation. After about six months, we could put it through the whole cycle with no problems. He even got to where he liked the dishwasher.

  16. Gina April 10, 2017 at 10:38 pm - Reply

    A sensory room!! If your child’s school doesn’t have one, GET ON THEM. My son’s school just had one built. My son will go in there and self calm. I know parents who have turned a room in to their home in to a sensory room or even just an area of there house. Its a life saver for us.

  17. Alexis S April 13, 2017 at 4:41 pm - Reply

    Been reading allot About how to deal with behavior and meltdowns for my son’s who is 5 with mild autism. He is fairly well behaved and follows directions pretty well which I’m proud of. However for some time now he seems to have anxiety and yells and screams when he’s frustrated. He especially has a hard time when we are out for example at a theme park and has to wait in line. He gets very impatient and has a meltdown after a few minutes. He hasn’t learned the concept of waiting your turn and this frustrates him very much. Once he’s in his meltdown it seems there’s not much I can do to console or get him out of it. Reading has helped me out somewhat. Work in progress.

  18. Patti L Starkey April 19, 2017 at 6:23 am - Reply

    Good comments here to help me out.I deal with behaviors at school with students who aren’t my own family but the love and patience is the key!!

  19. kat May 25, 2017 at 8:03 pm - Reply

    A doctors note works at Disney as you take it to guest services just when you enter the park. You then get a time ticket at the ride for when to return and do not wait in line. I ask at all parks for a accommodation for handicapped children. Also a weighted snake helps or a weighted vest or back pack. I carry small toys, iPad, cards, paint sets, snacks etc to reinforce good behavior. Talk in short sentences, give a time to explain what you are doing and what comes next so the child has time to prepare. Give plenty of time to rest and be calm even if you need to just sit in the car for quiet time or a break. If all else fails go home and chill out. We have a safe large fenced yard to play and run around in. A folding wagon also helps with smaller kids that do not care to walk when they are tired. You can tent it for quiet time. You can order vest and snakes on line at Fun and Function. they will send you a catalog.full of great things !!

  20. marolyn baker July 3, 2017 at 5:21 am - Reply

    I have a wonderful caring grandson and nephew with sensory ty I will take this into help and love dearly ty again

  21. Jen whitney July 3, 2017 at 5:37 am - Reply

    When needing a child to do something, like hand holding I avoid “I” statements. Instead of saying “I need you to hold my hand” I make it something the child needs to do ” YOU need to hold my hand to be safe”

  22. Cindy July 4, 2017 at 11:58 pm - Reply

    My granddaughter is also blind non verbal 10 year old just now getting her to stick to schedual which helps a lot but public places she just hits scratches bites herself We have weighted vest and head phones doesn’t seem to help don’t want to keep her at home all the time but her room is her safe place here in Oklahoma we don’t have certified caregivers teachers act scared when she is calm she is such a happy girl.

  23. Using Mindfulness to Support Kids Heading Back to School | Voices at the Table August 21, 2017 at 2:35 pm - Reply

    […] Angelsense.  10 Tips for De-Escalating a Child with Special Needs’ Sensory Meltdowns. Retrieved from: https://www.angelsense.com/blog/10-tips-de-escalating-child-special-needs-sensory-meltdown/ […]

  24. Klizwarden October 8, 2018 at 4:15 am - Reply

    What advice do you hv for older boy 16 has ADHD and high functioning Autism? He is also on meds has councling been a abused phy and mentally . When they have meltdowns severe ones he screams loudly for over 30 min . We raise our grandchildren 3. Any advice for severe anger issues from abuse and high functioning autism Also is on meds and see’s Dr’s councler , therapy also very talented high iq Etc . Thank you

  25. Lane October 25, 2018 at 8:17 pm - Reply

    I am a special education teacher in oklahoma. I am certified. I do understand that teachers get scared during a students meltdown at times bc the aggression is unable to be controlled for a short time. I do the best that I can. Of course I have a great group of parents who back me.

  26. donna francis November 15, 2018 at 2:46 am - Reply

    My 3yr old dont talk she knows what she wants and what shows she likes or movies but only a few she likes she makes noises ans def throws really bad tantrums like slaps her legs pitches her self bites her hands and she can scream forever she dont throw her self or hit her head but she rocks to relax when ever she is watching tv or doing something she likes that involves sitting she will rock her 1 yr old sister my youngest acts like a big sister its cute but its stressful id like some tips on how i can help her talk and help her feel better when upset also what can i do to feel more relax during this stuff because it bothers me i feel overwhelmed and sad help …..

  27. Shaquita kindle December 13, 2018 at 7:07 am - Reply

    they believe my 5 year old is autistic, I could really use any help when it comes to having to have blood work done, she gets so worked up that she will drop to the floor so my husband and I have to pick her up, he was punched in the face kicked and clawed, idk what we can do to help calm her and let them draw blood. We have to go Friday to havs it done again to check her liver enzymes and her blood sugars. Thanks in advance to anyone who has suggestions

  28. ohfrock December 17, 2018 at 11:27 am - Reply

    Thanks for sharing useful Information. I appreciate your Content. I love your Blog. Keep Sharing!

  29. Beulah Naha January 21, 2019 at 1:02 pm - Reply

    I am grandmother to a 9 year old boy with autism. Reading all these comments opened my eyes to how I can help my grandson! I had him for a few days and felt like I wanted to pull my hair out or scream. Now I have a better understanding his world. Thank you!

  30. Amy May 17, 2019 at 10:06 pm - Reply

    My son is 7 and though he is mostly non verbal he has a few words to use. He has a weighted vest and blanket but when he’s overstimulated he doesn’t want anything to do with them. So, I prompt him to ask for a “squeeze”. It’s a firm short bear hug to give deep pressure. I’ll keep offering queezes and keep a calm voice until he calms down. I learned that from a very experienced autism teacher. I do this in a safe space. I have a few safe spaces at home and at Grandma’s house that are quieter with nothing to throw.

  31. Cindy May 28, 2019 at 12:21 am - Reply

    Wanda, have you tried a picture or PEC system for your child?

  32. Bobby Ratliff July 26, 2019 at 2:02 pm - Reply

    Our 7 year old autistic grandaughter wears a cochlear implant. This makes a bigger challenge during her meltdowns. She also has a syndrome known as C.H.A.R.G.E. Thanks for your info.

  33. The Truth About Autism and Meltdowns - CyberParent July 30, 2019 at 1:01 am - Reply

    […] be proactive, try to minimize as many triggers as you can. You can’t eliminate them all but removing simple things like a ticking clock, or opening a […]

  34. Rachael October 22, 2019 at 3:43 am - Reply

    I’ve found lately no matter where I am with my 5 yr old daughter when she has her meltdowns that she feels at her safest if I get down on the floor but kneel and ask her to come to me and place her self on my legs and she does but she curls up so tight across my legs and calms down while I cradle her while stalking her hair and face and talking to her telling her it’s ok to feel what ever she is feeling and that mammy is always here to help her thro it.. if I have to kneel in a shop or a street then I will aslong as my baby girl comes out from her melt down safe and feeling better thank u for reading my post here from newcastle, England xx

  35. Tantrum or Meltdown: How to Tell the Difference and Help Your Child – BetterBabyDeals.com May 14, 2020 at 1:27 pm - Reply

    […] of a serious meltdown, they are simply not in control of their developing nervous systems and need support and assistance from a caregiver. Here are some signs of a meltdown and what do to […]

  36. Karen Gomez November 3, 2020 at 6:29 pm - Reply

    l’ve work with children with speacial needs and is very helpful.

  37. Maricruz January 15, 2022 at 9:43 pm - Reply

    Thanks for finally talking about > Autism Meltdown – 10 Tips to Handle them – AngelSense 카지노사이트

  38. Autism Respite January 17, 2022 at 2:34 pm - Reply

    When an autistic child has faced a distressing situation that they could not resolve, repeated exposures without intervention may do more harm than good. You must address the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. Wait to find more workable options. A social group for autism (https://theadventureteam.com.au/pages/respite-sta) could help your child to be more familiar with such situations.

  39. Tamara February 6, 2023 at 11:27 pm - Reply

    Very good article. I learned somethings I didn’t know at all.

  40. Andrea February 26, 2023 at 5:46 am - Reply

    I would press on my son’s back and and rub it to instantly calm him and immobilize him. I did things with him from early on and he was okay for energetic me to manage, but some resolute would have helped too. I taught him to read early and could hand him a book and ged sit for hours on the floor till the book was read. Every kid is unique so find what works for your child.

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