Aspergers-Help in the Middle of a Meltdown

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As many of you know, my teenage son was diagnosed with Aspergers (a mild form of  autism) and with Sensory Integration Disorder.  While most of the time he is a wonderful, intelligent and really funny young man, there are occasions when he is overstimulated and out of control.

We experienced this brain shutdown last year in a dramatic way when our family went on a missions trip to Guatemala.  Although we tried to prepare as much as possible for the airport and airplane travel experience, the situation was simply overwhelming to him.  He froze when he needed to move because he didn’t know what to do.  His brain could not process the information and he actually became very angry.  It was trying for everyone.

My overall goal is to avoid meltdowns (times when my son is overstimulated and out of control), but there are times when they are unavoidable.  Knowing how to deal with these meltdowns is key because my son’s normal ability to think and control his behavior goes out the window.   The following are some techniques which I have found helpful:

Get Quiet– When my son is becoming agitated, it is imperative that everyone else in the family get quiet so we can address what is bothering him.  His agitation combined with the over stimulation of the noise of several people talking at the same time can put him right over the edge.

Give Him Space-Getting in my son’s face when he is overwhelmed makes things escalate quickly.  I have learned to avoid physical contact as much as possible.

Talk Calmly– Even though I am often irritated at the same time, I have had to learn to quiet myself so that I can talk to my son in a calm way.  My yelling or being upset only makes him more upset.

The good news is that while these times are unpleasant, they are becoming more rare as my son learns self control and coping skills.  I am not ready to take him out of the country again for a while, but I think I am up for another field trip soon.

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  1. beveanne mckinley says

    your kids lucky. im 42 and my mom and husband still dont understand these simple things. my son and i are completely estranged bacause i didnt know how to explain this to him, every relationship ive had in my life shot down because of people not knowing this. i would only add and you may find this important ask calmly but ask questions until you get the answer you are seeking. we dont lie.but we omit.a lot constantly inadvertantly. ASK its really simple

  2. rachel says

    It IS hard when kids get overwhelmed, especially because it seems to happen so suddenly. In retrospect of course, you realize there really were warning signs, but you just ignored them or were overly hopeful they’d somehow go away.

    I’ve found that even children as young as 4 can learn to recognize when they are starting to lose it. You can help them by pointing out the physical signs you see that show this.

    It helps also if you discuss this issue before it happens, and then rehearse what your child/ teen will do when they feel like they’ve had it.

  3. Loree says

    When he was younger, and before we learned the signs, I carried an essential oil blend for stress with me everywhere. The oil would help me to focus him on the scent in the lid (I would wave the lid under his nose – this way I wasn’t touching him or speaking, but offering a different focal point), distracting him from the stimuli. He is now 12 and usually recognizes when he is becoming agitated on his own. He will get the essential oil on his own at home (or he carries a small bottle of Stress Therapy lotion from Bath & Body Works away from home). The act of “seeking out his scent” removes him from the stimuli – if you are digging in a backpack for a small bottle of lotion, you are less likely to notice the commotion around you – plus, the aromatherapy of the stress blend really helps to get his brain functioning in a calmer way. I was concerned at first to offer a fragranced stimulus during a meltdown, but he responds very well with it. We tried several scents, but find blends with mints seem to work best for him.

  4. Anna says

    Just recently found your blog and I am enjoying your posts about your son. My daughter is turning 3 in 1 month and she is scheduled to see a neuro-development specialist in about 5 weeks for possible sensory issues. I am finding that even though she is my 5th child I do not understand her and I find her quite aggravating most of the time because I just don’t get how she ticks. Nice to know that I’m not alone and I will try harder to be calmer and more quiet and see how she reacts.

    Thanks so much for you blog I have learned a lot and am very grateful for your printables they are really coming in handy.

    • says

      Welcome Anna!

      I am sorry that your daughter is dealing with these issues. Three was a very difficult age for my children with Aspergers.

      I am so glad that you are finding some help and encouragement here, though. Please feel free to comment or ask questions any time!

    • says

      That is a good question Cheryl. I am not always successful, but I have pulled each child away individually before hand and explained that I need their help when their sibling is having a problem. I remind them when we are in a meltdown situation, and they are usually good about getting quiet and letting me handle it. If I can’t get everyone quiet I try to take the child with Aspergers aside to a quiet location. Some days it works better than others.

  5. says

    Wow. You are the first person to put into words what my 3.5 yr old has been doing.

    It was recently suggested to me that my son might have Aspergers and I have always suspected a slight sensory disorder. When you said “He froze when he needed to move because he didn’t know what to do. His brain could not process the information and he actually became very angry.” That hit home. That is my son. He is very smart, extremely aware, funny, athletic, and LOVES to play with other kids. But several times a week he has these severe meltdowns and nothing reaches him. I ask him tons of questions, and he can’t even answer yes or no. I try to hug him or hold him and he doesn’t want me to, but if I leave the room to give him some quiet space he cries for me. It is extremely frustrating and heartbreaking to see him go through it.

    I checked out Aspergers sites and he doesn’t really have the symptoms they suggest except maybe the prolonged eye contact difficulty which even seems to be getting better the last week or two.

    I know he is only 3.5 yrs old but these really don’t seem to be normal meltdowns. I couldn’t figure out how to describe it other than “he’s not listening” but with your words I can better describe the situation and start down the path of finding an answer and maybe a diagnosis.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • says

      I am sorry to hear about your son Holly. My niece had similar issues, but the doctors never decided on a definite diagnosis. Two things that really helped were “brushing”–a type of occupational therapy and getting a trampoline. I pray that you can find some help. :)

      • says

        Thanks Kimberlee! Originally, I thought it was just “treacherous threes” as he really is a great kid but I do believe it is more than that now. I am checking into therapists and will ask about the “brushing” type of OT you mentioned. I am going to try the essential oils thing too that Loree mentioned to see if I can “break through” the tantrums in the short term. Thank you for the suggestions!

  6. Jami says

    One helpful book for kids with sensory integration disorder that every parent of an SID kid should read is The Out-of-Sync Child. It will help you understand what your child is going through. It helped me to see my own sensory issues (we all have some) and by seeing my own issues, helped me to understand my now 13 year olds issues. It’s so tough. My family doesn’t understand him, the kids at school don’t understand him. He has been evaluated for Aspergers but they keep saying he doesn’t have it. My son is ADHD and SID. Which do have symptoms very similair to Aspergers. Sensory Integration therapy is usually not paid for by insurance companies after the age of 7. (If you can figure out how to get them to pay for it, please share…my son needs a “tune up” but we can’t afford $100 a session) The brushing helps as does a weighted blanket. Southpaw Enterprises has been the best website to find sensory items. My son now knows when he needs his weighted blanket and will often sleep with it. I wish there was a support group in my area for moms who deal with kids with sensory issues but to date, there isn’t. I would highly recommed finding one in your area (if there is one) and checking it out. I have found it really help to talk to other parents who are dealing with similiar issues. I wish you all the best and sincerly appreciate all yoru gluten free coupons. (My daughter is gluten/dairy free)

    • says

      Hi Jami!

      Thanks so much for the book recommendation. Another thing that my sister has found helpful for her children on the Autism Spectrum is jumping on a trampoline or mini trampoline. We had one a few years ago, but sold it when we moved. I am hoping to get another one soon.

      I’m sorry that I don’t know of any other resources for affordable therapy. If anyone else does, please share them with us.

  7. Alisa says

    Kimberlee….was just recommended to your blog today. Have a wonderful son -age almost 15, diagnosed ASD just before he turned 13 – oldest of 7. I don’t usually comment but I have found something that works for us that may help Holly. As probably so many have found…much of what we all do is trial and error…but when we find something that works….we’re more than willing to share it with others to see if it helps them out! When my son goes into a meltdown he is totally non-verbal. My efforts to get him to communicate and tell me what was wrong (prior to diagnosis) would typically trigger a rage (so frustrating…and I was only trying to help!). And then I figured out by holding both hands gently, and quietly – with as little emotion as possible – ask him binary (this or that) questions, which he could answer with a squeeze of my hand….he could communicate…I could determine the cause/trigger of the meltdown…and I could begin to ease him out of it. This process could still take a really long time (over an hour) but was considerably better (as in life-changing for the whole family) than rages which lasted many hours….. At almost 15 yo, there are still meltdowns, and the hand-squeeze communication allows us to work out of them…and without any more rages. Hallelujah for tools that work! Hope this may be a blessing for another mama out there trying to open a door of communication……. Oh, the first question I always start with..”Are you frustrated with a person or a situation?” And the answer has always been “-squeeze-” a situation. One more thing….our kiddo is very high functioning….almost everyone he knows would never guess he is even on the spectrum (which can be frustrating in a different way)…except for those of us who live with him and love him dearly everyday.

  8. gloria clark says

    Wow, yes I know the exact thing, a series of events leads to an explosion….while we try to prevent the events from happening, teach, coach, and love our children-we can not stop it all. My son turns 12 tomorrow…last night and the night before he had huge melt downs, name calling, throwing things, breaking things and finally threatening me and throwing things at me with intent to hurt.
    This was heart wrenching to think that he was that angry at someone or thing that he felt the need to hurt someone who he knows loves him each day regardless of the behaviour.
    Working with professionals each day for my son, does become trying-they think they know it all and remind you to follow the steps to prevent the explosions…if I knew how to stop the school from having bullies, or having testing that he cannot do, or to stop his computer from not working properly do they not think I would do so…
    Working in the field myself with adults each day has provided me with some wonderful coping skills; staying calm during the situation, using the CPI training and the ASSIST training are some of the tools I use…My son each time there is an explosion wishes he was dead or that he would like to shoot his head off…help for a 12 year old is limited…

  9. kathy says

    Can you share what coping skills you are teaching and how you are teaching coping skills specifically for your Aspie son?.

    • says

      There is some information here: I primarily try to teach him ways to gain self-control such as leaving the room to get quiet, using ear phones to keep out distracting noise (sometimes works, sometimes not) and helping him to be aware of eating and sleeping on a regular schedule. You will have to be more proactive with a younger child, but since my son is a teen I am trying to teach him more about how to do these things himself.

  10. says

    As a 30 year old woman with AS I just wanted to say that meltdowns never go away, but I have learned to notice the warning signs in myself that I might be becoming overstimulated. My loved ones get me out of situations when I tell them I need to leave immediately! It took a lot of time and practice to see those signs in myself, but it has helped a lot to learn that.

    (great idea on the ear phones for limiting distractions! I sometimes carry a kit of items like earplugs and gloves because I’m sensitive to air on my skin)

    I also know myself well enough now that when someone suggests going to an all day, outdoor concert, I know that won’t be a good scenario for me!

    The hardest thing about being an adult with this disability is that people don’t see it and so they expect you to be like other adults. If you say that something is beyond your capabilities they think you are making excuses or being lazy.

    There’s a lot of positive, though. I value the way that I see the world and how different it is from the norm. It gives me some unusual talents.

    • says

      Thanks so much for sharing your insight as an adult with Aspergers. It is good to hear that life can be managed even though there are difficulties.

  11. linda smith says

    Our 15 yrold daughter has aspergers along with bi-polar, challeging for sure. Can not be dealt with like typical children

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