How do I stop these nasty meltdowns?  What can I do to stop my child’s uncontrollable hour-long screams How do I get him to stop banging his head on the wall, or stop her from hitting, pinching and biting others? Is there an end to this distressing behaviour?

These are common questions from parents of children with autism. They are genuine concerns from parents desperately trying to help their children stop hurting themselves and possibly others as well.  As a parent, it is natural to want to alleviate the suffering of your child as quickly and effectively as possible. But this becomes a daunting exercise when you can hardly understand the actions of your own child let alone “make them stop” these acts of self-injury. Not being able to do this basic parental duty, would be crushing to any parent. We feel absolutely powerless. It is then no wonder that parents simply want to make it stop.

The big reaction

If your child with autism has gone through a couple of such nasty meltdown, you know the sad reality that wishing them away doesn’t make them go away. Actually in most cases, you probably are unwittingly contributing to the situation. In an attempt to help your child, you repeatedly and increasingly firmly ask your child what the matter is. You do everything in your power to stop this episode of unbearable screaming, head banging, kicking, biting, etc. You try to physically hold them down. The more you try to get them to stop, the more agitated you get.

Now your child has to deal with two conflicting yet super stressful situations. He /she is dealing with whatever caused the meltdown in the first place, but additionally now has a stressful parent in their hands making their situation even more unbearable. So understandably, he screams even louder. She kicks even harder. And the cycle continues.

The solution -get curious

So how do we get off this crazy roller coaster of grief striking, sometimes even dangerous events? The answer lies in the question -Why? Why would he suddenly and seemingly “unprovoked” throw himself on the ground and start screaming at the top of his lungs? Why would she start hitting and biting others in the middle of what appeared to have been a normal shopping experience at the supermarket? Why the seemingly sudden change? Why here and now?

In order to stop a meltdown situation and even prevent future similar undesirable events, you have to try and understand the reason behind them. What is your child trying to tell you? What is he/ she so desperately trying to communicate to you? Asking these question is the first step in gaining back your power to help your youngster. If you can understand what changed in his environment, then you can take the necessary steps to stop the meltdown and drastically reduce or possibly completely prevent any future ones from occurring.

It is doable

So how exactly does this work? “Surely it can’t just be as simple as asking my son what’s causing his meltdown. Besides, he’s nonverbal! And even if he was able to talk, understanding anyone in the middle of loud bursts of screams can be quite challenging.” These were my thoughts years back when I was first introduced to this mind shift regarding my own son’s meltdowns. And over the years I hear them echoed by other parents nervous about trying a different approach to their all familiar yet mostly ineffective response to meltdowns.

The idea is that, what seems to be an undesirable behaviour is in fact your child’s way of regulating himself in a highly stressful situation, and they are doing their utmost best to cope and communicate to you what they’re going through at that moment. He /she is trying to communicate something to you. To understand the message, you need to focus. Actively and purposefully listen and observe. And while it might not be easy to do, it is really that simple.

What to do

Take a moment to assess the situation. Understanding what happened just before, during and immediately after a meltdown is the key to the message. It offers you the possibility to zero in on the triggers that may have set off the unwanted experience. This could be challenging at first but it gets easier with time. It’s definitely worth the time and effort, and it beats the horror of an hour long meltdown marathon any time!

Getting to know and understand your child might take a while but with practice and consistency, you’ll get there. You’ll be able to understand his spoken and non-spoken communication. His /her body language. With time you become an expert on your child.

The next time your child throws themselves on the ground crying, screaming, hitting, pinching, or is head banging, master all your efforts in relaxing yourself. Take some deep breaths and relax. The only time you react quickly in such a situation is if there is an immediate danger to the child or others around him. Otherwise, focus on calming yourself down. Remind yourself that your child is desperately trying to communicate something to you. So listen, observe and pay attention. The sooner you understand the message behind the meltdown, the sooner you can do something to help him/ her. Apply this mind shift strategy with consistency, and in time you will develop the ability to recognise and make sense of your child’s behaviour.