If your autistic child starts screaming, whether you are at home, in a plane or in the mall, the most important thing is for you to remain calm yourself.
This will help you effectively and quickly deal with the situation. Don’t worry that there are people around or that you are disturbing them. There’s nothing you can do about what they think or feel. Your goal is to help your child calm down.
Here are some helpful tips on how to calm a screaming autistic child.
Identify if it is a Tantrum or Meltdown
Yes, tantrums and meltdowns are different and need to be dealt with differently.
Tantrums are just normal tantrums like those of any 2-4 year old. They arise when your child feels you or someone else has unfairly denied them something they wanted.
It could be candy, a toy, their turn at a game or their favourite show.
A meltdown occurs when there is a sensory overload; too much noise, too bright, too many people and so on.
Because the reactions are usually the same, it is easy to confuse between a tantrum and a meltdown.
Here’s an easy way to tell them apart.
A tantrum often occurs right after an interaction with you or someone else like their sibling.
A meltdown can come out of nowhere. It is usually preceded by telling signs such as tapping their leg, rocking back and forth or putting their hands over the ears and/or closing their eyes.
How to deal with a Tantrum
If your child has started screaming after you denied them something, that’s a tantrum. Here’s how to deal with it.
- If you are at home, the best tactic is usually to ask your child to calm down and then you can talk about whatever’s making them sad. Then walk away or ask them to sit at a corner until they are calmer. This ignoring technique usually works great.
- If you are in public, ignoring them is not always the best idea. Instead, give them some attention. Explain in a cool and calm voice why they can’t have something. A hug usually does wonders to calm them down.
- Try breathing exercises. Take 3 to 5 deep breaths with your child to take their mind of what they are screaming about. If they have trouble doing it, ask them to imagine they are blowing out birthday candles or filling a balloon.
- Distract them. This is not always the healthiest technique but it’s sometimes necessary when you are in public. If you have a few snacks or a toy with you, hand it to them. Once they are distracted and calmer, you can then explain why they can’t have what they wanted.
Whatever you do, do not give in to their request.
This will reinforce the negative behaviour. They’ll get into a screaming tantrum whenever someone denies them something. And why not? They know it works.
By standing firm, they learn early on that tantrums don’t get results.
How to deal with a Meltdown
A meltdown is quite different.
While a tantrum is caused by the child’s inability to deal with their own emotions of sadness and anger, a meltdown is usually caused by external factors.
So the trick to calming them down is removing the trigger or getting away from it and reassuring them that everything is okay.
- Identify what’s causing the meltdown. If you are in a public place, it’s probably all the people, cars and noise. If it is at home, it’s probably a specific sound, smell, the loud TV or noisy siblings.
- Remove the trigger or get away from it. In most cases, moving away to a quiet spot is the best option. Many parents of autistic kids have designated quiet corners that help when there’s too much sensory input.
- If you are in public, move away to a quiet spot. If that is not possible – e.g. in a plane – things like noise cancellation headphones and dark sunglasses can help.
- Give them a reassuring touch. A deep-pressure touch on their arm or shoulder can help reduce the anxiety. Things like a weighted lap pad or blanket can also help.
- A distraction can also work. Try giving them a snack, putting on some music that they love, suggesting a favourite board game, or creating a scent they love (using lotion or essential oil).
Always keep an eye out for approaching meltdowns especially when you are in public. Look out for signs of increasing discomfort.
They might start flapping their arms, whimpering softly or engaging in some other repetitive behaviour.
Use the above tips to calm them down before it becomes a full meltdown.