By Trevor Pacelli
Thanksgiving, like most holidays, is prone to overwhelm kids on the autism spectrum. It’s a day of having lots of guests in the house or going to see guests whose rules are different from back home. The kids are also expected to be present and active the whole time around family friends and relatives. Along with the constant socialization and change in routine, there are also lots of new, unfamiliar foods. To help your autistic child enjoy Thanksgiving despite the overwhelming amount of newness, here are some ideas to help:
Schedule- Growing up, I always woke up at the same time, ate at the same times, and went to bed at the same time. I found comfort in routine and predictability. That’s why I needed to know what was going to happen, and when, to enjoy holiday celebrations. Even if I had to stay awake later and eat dinner later, being given an expectation of the day’s events and times helped me enjoy the day. You can do the same with your autistic child by giving them a schedule ahead of time of what Thanksgiving will look like. For example, 2:30 is when guests are going to arrive, 4:00 is dinner, 6:00 is dessert, 7:00 is the family game, and 9:30 is when the guests leave.
Socializing- With my Thanksgivings, the kids often went and did their own thing separate from the grownups. I usually had minimal problems with this scenario since I often already knew the other kids fairly well. However, this wasn’t the case when we visited my dad’s relatives in Arizona, with many cousins I couldn’t name until I was in college. The problem was that I never got a proper introduction to who everyone was or how I was related to them. Thus, my time spent with them, not just for Thanksgiving but any celebratory occasion, was uncomfortable for me. So, it’s helpful to give your autistic child proper introductions to the kids of the host family so they’ll feel more comfortable and prepared.
Food- Across my childhood, I rarely ate anything besides grilled cheese, French fries, macaroni and cheese, and most sweets. No matter how much my parents tried to encourage me to try new foods, I just hated the thought of eating anything new—even cheeseburgers were unappetizing until I was nine. Many autistic kids are hypersensitive to specific tastes, smells, and textures, which can make them even pickier eaters than other kids their age. To help your autistic child eat the given meal on Thanksgiving, give them the chance to taste something like turkey and other dishes a few days before. If they end up liking the food, great! You broke new ground! If not, don’t press on them to eat the unfamiliar foods on Thanksgiving. Let them eat the foods offered that they do enjoy eating and don’t worry if it’s just dinner rolls and cranberries.
Bedtime- First of all, it’s a good thing when your autistic child wants to keep their routine of going to sleep the same time each night, for sleep experts agree that a consistent sleep cycle is crucial. So don’t think that your child is being whiny for wanting to go to bed at 9:00 like always when the party’s expected to keep going for another hour and a half. If you’re the one hosting, simply give your child permission to put themselves to bed at their scheduled time, or step away and help them. But if you’re at someone else’s house, knowing the schedule mentioned earlier comes in handy. Yet if they’re really exhausted and can’t carry on any longer, simply allow them some alone time. Just like how introverts need time to themselves to recharge, anyone with autism would need the same to not get overwhelmed.
Thankfulness- It’s often tradition for people around the Thanksgiving table to share what they’re thankful for. The most common answers are usually, “I’m thankful for my parents” or “I’m thankful for our health and safety.” Yet don’t be surprised when it’s the autistic kid’s turn to share what they’re thankful for, and they say, “I’m thankful for SpongeBob SquarePants!” Most people with autism have a rather low priority for human relationships, especially since they don’t have the tendency to relate to other humans very easily. They find great comfort around fictional characters. If a child wants to say they’re thankful for Spider-Man or Bluey, don’t reprimand them or feel offended. It doesn’t mean they’re not grateful for you or their siblings. But more importantly, don’t force them to say they’re thankful for a person, because if pressured into saying this, they won’t mean it.
Ultimately, the main takeaway is that no matter what your circumstances are like with your autistic child, don’t focus on trying to cover up the inconveniences. Instead, help your child draw attention to whatever excites them. Maybe they would be excited for the yummy cookies? Or maybe the games? Or maybe the movie you’ll all watch together? Focusing instead on what is fun for your child rather than a hindrance will give everyone in your family a chance to enjoy time as a community, forming fond memories that’ll last for years to come.
Trevor Pacelli is a young adult author on the autism spectrum. He is the author of Six-Word Lessons on Growing Up Autistic, What Movies Can Teach Us About Disabilities, and other books.
Guest blog by Jennifer MacGregor
Caring for a child with a disability requires unswerving dedication plus emotional and physical resilience. The unique challenges make parental self-care an overlooked priority.
Here are some strategies to help parents cope:
By Trevor Pacelli
So many people of all ages love Halloween, yet this time of year could also really upset someone on the autism spectrum. Therefore, here are some essential tips that can help anyone with or without autism enjoy this spooky time of year despite the limitations:
1. Prepare for the Scares
Kids with autism have many hyper-sensitivities, and since Halloween is the season of sending chills, an autistic child could turn queasier than usual at the sight of blood, even fake blood. For instance, they might strongly hesitate to step inside a costume shop full of ghoulish lawn decorations. It’s important that a parent is there to be on the lookout for such distressing decorations and guide their kid’s eyes the other way whenever possible.
2. Jack-o-Lanterns and Scarecrows are Fun Sensory-Friendly Activities!
While growing up, my sister and I bought our own pumpkins, drew faces on them, and our dad used a small saw to cut the lines for the faces. Then we put our jack-o-lanterns on the porch right next to the scarecrow we made from clothes full of crumbled-up newspaper with a fabric sheet wrapped around a soccer ball for the head. The saw can be awfully loud, but the child doesn’t have to be in the room while it’s on, and simply cutting into the pumpkin with a knife will get the job done too!
3. Special Interests Can Inspire Costume Ideas
I have fond childhood memories of preparing my Halloween costumes with my mom. One year, she helped me make a costume based on a superhero character I created. Another year, she bought used clothes to cut up, paint over, and distress so I could dress up as Two-Face from Batman. These were fun projects for my mom and me to bond over, and they were inspired directly by whatever I was interested in at the time.
4. My Costume Hurts!
Autistic people often are hypersensitive to certain clothing materials or smells, and that can include the distinct latex odor of a rubber mask. These costumes would be no fun for kids on the spectrum to wear and at times can even be painful. So, parents should think twice about encouraging their child to wear a certain costume just because it would look “so cute.” If the costume is causing them pain, then the Halloween season will be no fun for them at all.
5. Trick-or-Treating Together
Most kids go trick-or-treating in groups every year, yet a child with autism, who often struggles to make friends, might have nobody to spend the evening with besides Mom, Dad, or an older sibling. This can make Halloween a lonely time of year, and it can break the hearts of parents to watch their child go trick-or-treating alone. One solution might be to arrange a meetup with family friends who have kids around the same age as the autistic child.
6. Overstimulation Around the Houses
A kid with autism could hate houses with flashing light patterns or loud sound effects, which could make them even less likely to say, “trick or treat.” A quick way for the autistic child’s parents to explain why their kid won’t make eye contact is to show the questioning parents a small card that explains the kid’s sensitivities. However, it’s not advisable to give that child an “autism” badge or make them carry a blue jack-o-lantern bucket because that could lead to bullying.
7. Will Stranger Danger be a Problem?
Probably not. The kids will be surrounded by plenty of other adults also chaperoning their little trick-or-treaters, and most parents in neighborhoods are friendly. Also, the stories of kids being killed or injured by razor blades hidden in candy are mostly just myths. Any accounts of Halloween candy being tampered with are few, and hardly anything to stress about.
8. Sometimes the Child Would Rather Stay Home
I personally loved dressing up and getting free candy, but when my work on the streets was done for the night, my mom handed the door-answering duties over to me. It was more fun for me to see the costumes worn by the other kids, some of whom were from my class. This could be more comfortable for a kid with autism—no costume to wear, no flashy lawn decorations to look at, no cold weather to walk through, and the only eye contact that needs to be made is with other kids.
9. Know the Limits of Candy
I struggled in the past with just how much food was too much since I lacked the judgment of portion sizes that others had. Kids on the autism spectrum could be the same way, where they don’t know how much candy in one sitting is too much. While any kid would want to eat as much as they can in one sitting, they usually know by instinct when to stop. Yet by the time an autistic child has registered that they’ve had enough candy, they’ve already eaten twenty candy bars.
10. The Child Must Know When to Stop Trick-or-Treating
I was twelve when I last trick-or-treated, which I’d say is an appropriate age to stop. While there are many things in life you shouldn’t feel ashamed of never outgrowing, trick-or-treating isn’t one of them. Autistic kids can lack common sense about whether they’re too old to enjoy something. In my experience, I was still watching preschooler TV shows when I was in third grade, and needed to be told what those shows’ target audience was.
I hope these tips help your child with autism create as many happy memories of Halloween and trick-or-treating as I have.
Trevor is an adult with autism and is the author of Six-Word Lessons on Growing Up Autistic and What Movies Can Teach Us About Disabilities.
When I was in college back in 2014, I created my movie review blog, TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com, because I found during that time how much I enjoyed talking about movies. So whenever I went to see a new movie, I wrote a review on it and posted it on my blog. At that time, it all seemed to be going fine as a hobby, as there was some generally good feedback about it from friends and relatives. Then when I left college, I started working for my parents’ company, Consetta Group, where they worked with me to develop my own personal businesses, which included my movie reviews. I started to get more serious about it and tried monetizing it further, posting a new review every Friday, which likewise meant seeing a new movie in theaters every week.
It was pretty exhausting, especially when I had to see movies I otherwise would never have wanted to see, but this format of reviewing movies motivated me to construct my own elaborate system for grading movies that I continued to perfect and master over the next several years. It helped me improve my ability to assess whether a movie was well-made or not. During this time, I was also heavily dedicated to following the Oscars, which included making predictions each year as to what would be nominated. I kept this up by posting a new review for a new release every Friday even after I left Consetta Group, and for a while, this all seemed quite effective.
But then COVID-19 hit. Movie theaters closed. I couldn’t post a review for a new weekly release anymore. At first, I decided to review older classic films, with some direct-to-streaming releases mixed in, but as the months passed with movie theaters still being closed, I was losing my drive to review movies. Even when the vaccine became available, movie theaters opened back up, and life slowly went back to normal, my old passion for reviewing movies was gone. It started to feel like a chore to have to keep up my commitment to posting a new review week after week, and I hated having to sit through the big popular movies that I already knew going in were going to be bad.
It didn’t help either that I was losing my respect for the Academy of Motion Pictures. I knew already that they nominated films based on campaigns and not based on filmmaking quality, but leading up to the 2022 ceremony, they were making horrifically insulting decisions to try and bring viewers back. Their decision to remove several of the categories from the live show was the straw that broke my camel’s back; I officially decided that for the first time in six years, I was going to boycott the ceremony. Upon looking back, I made the right decision. So that was one more step forward to dropping this hobby that was no longer fun for me.
Yet here’s another thing: having to talk about badly-made movies affected my optimism outside of the hobby. My big “come to Jesus” moment was when I shared a pretty tasteless joke on Facebook about the Depp vs. Heard trial and was called out for it, which convicted me of how writing constant negative reviews for the popular movies was damaging my optimism throughout the day.
So I gave it up. I never again posted on my blog. No longer did I feel pressured to see all the new Marvel movies or Disney live-action remakes. No longer did I have to bring a notepad into a movie theater and struggle to see what I was writing in the dark. I was free to watch what I wanted when I wanted. I was free to watch nostalgic guilty pleasures of mine, such as the 2002 Scooby-Doo movie, or older movies I was interested in checking out, such as Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
I’m also free now to go to the movie theater on my own terms and watch movies I want to see. So out of my own free will, I saw both M3GAN and The Super Mario Bros. Movie; although neither was what I would consider “good,” I had a fun time with both of them. Then during the week of “Barbenheimer,” I decided to go see both Barbie and Oppenheimer. While I hated sitting through Oppenheimer, I was pleasantly surprised by Barbie. So it was worth joining in on the popularity bandwagon this one time so I could then join in on a conversation I wanted to be a part of.
I am currently writing mini-reviews of movies I have seen in the past, and categorizing them to make it easy for people to find something to watch for fun, or other moods. They can be found on Instagram and on our Pacelli Publishing website.
Overall, I can’t even imagine going back to my commitment of reviewing one new movie a week on an elaborate grading scale. I’m much happier this way.
To learn about movies that depict disabilities, check out my book, What Movies Can Teach Us About Disabilities.
The Star Wars fanbase is an extremely passionate bunch, with strong opinions of all extremes. I have learned much about myself and my relationship with social media because of my interactions with this fanbase. I hope my experience as a young adult with autism and avid movie buff will help others navigate some of the ups and downs of social media.
Of the Star Wars franchise, I really love watching the original trilogy, the first two seasons of The Mandalorian, and two out of three films from the sequel trilogy. Now, I’m with everyone else who agrees that the last of that trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker, is hot garbage, yet a vocal majority of Star Wars fans also say the same about the other two sequel trilogy movies that I love: The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, even saying they’re worse than any movie from the prequel trilogy.
Whenever a Star Wars-based social media account posts anything even remotely related to the sequel trilogy, the comment thread is always toxic with hatred for all three of those movies. It presses my need to make my own opinion heard: I believe the first two movies from that trilogy are really good, even better than the entire original trilogy. I realize that putting this opinion out there only starts trouble, as these types of internet trolls are always happy to start fights with anyone who disagrees with them. Yet I just can’t stay away from voicing what I see as the truth, especially with a fanbase as toxic as the one for Star Wars, and I feel an overwhelming need to knock some sense into the idiots in that community, or put them in a position for me to report them and watch them get punished. You can follow this link to read more of my thoughts about all the Star Wars movies that I believe are worth your time to watch.
This type of interaction is also tied to my anxiety: I’m afraid that no matter what my opinion may be, I'm always wrong. It doesn’t matter whether my opinion clashes with a child, a Harvard professor, or a jobless troll on the internet, I always doubt my own judgment. Often, when an internet user resorts to throwing insults, I take it a lot more personally than others do; I wonder if what they said to me is true. One time, someone on the internet called me a creepy middle-aged man (even though I'm 30) and it made me wonder if I really am creepy because I enjoy certain media primarily made for kids. Yet as much as I dislike engaging in online fights, I feel the need to do so in order to convince myself that the other is wrong. This addiction has prompted the decision for me to leave Twitter and Facebook. Looking back, I don’t miss those platforms one bit.
So how then can others on the autism spectrum navigate a toxic world, especially when online, the place where much of our lives happens nowadays?
Well, first off, it’s the duty of a parent to survey their child's internet activity like a hawk. Anyone can get in a lot of trouble online, and not just the illegal kind or the "revealing too much personal information" kind. The internet is full of a lot of scummy people, and the online setting seems to bring out everyone’s worst traits. The anonymity of comments makes spiraling down that rabbit hole of toxicity way too easy. Everyone needs to understand that social media bickering doesn’t do anyone any good. There will never be a winner, only two losers.
Unfortunately, social media is much more attractive to kids on the autism spectrum since they don’t have to struggle to read facial cues. I for one am a slow processor when thinking of words to say verbally, and I often get lonely, so I have resorted to starting conflicts with strangers on social media to at least have some form of communication. That’s why I encourage involvement in social clubs and volunteer groups for more chances to meet with people face-to-face, something that we all need, autistic or not.
However, because some fans’ hatred of certain Star Wars movies is not fully possible to avoid, and for reasons I’m still working on, I have clung to the fear that I should feel ashamed for loving The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.
I have found that I need to constantly remind myself of the great things done well in those movies. Despite my autism, it’s possible for me to find confidence in my own judgment, and you can do the same if you are on the spectrum. If your lack of confidence in your opinion is causing you genuine stress, then it’s time to shove aside whoever’s saying the opposite opinion. That may mean you have to leave social media, but you should do whatever you need to ignore the opposing argument and remind yourself of why you have the stand you’ve taken. I understand that this is not the familiar “be open to other people’s points-of-view” message, but if someone else’s point-of-view is causing you low self-confidence and diminished mental health, then that’s the time to shut off your ears to the other side.
You can see my movie recommendations on our Pacelli Publishing website, and check out my book, What Movies Can Teach Us About Disabilities, which includes a chapter about how autism is portrayed in the movies.
Author Trevor Pacelli wrote about some tips and do's and don'ts for children and adults with autism. See the full article here, and enjoy your summer!
By Trevor Pacelli
In thinking back to my childhood, I don’t recall knowing of any blind people at school or anywhere else; my only exposures to the blind community are limited to three media properties:
The first is a blind girl named Marina from the hit TV series Arthur, who made a couple of appearances as the friend of a character named Prunella. One of those episodes taught kids the dos and don’ts of treating friends with disabilities, such as not trying to be too helpful unless they specifically ask for help.
The second is from Pokémon: Ruby Version; in this game, there were three ultra-rare Pokémon, Regirock, Regice, and Registeel, who needed to be obtained by decoding a series of puzzles with braille descriptions. Being the Pokémon geek I was back in sixth grade, I was so desperate to get to these three legendary beasts that I made my mom drive me to the library to check out a book on translating braille… only to find out the dictionary we had at home already had a braille translator! Whoops!
The last is Toph, the blind earthbender from Avatar: The Last Airbender. She used earthbending (or moving rock and dust with her mind) to create a mental picture of her surroundings by using the ground’s vibrations felt through her bare feet. Back then, I didn’t care much about her, mostly because I was a dweeby tween who believed her blindness made her incomplete. Later as an adult, I rewatched the whole series on Netflix, and Toph essentially became my favorite character, not just because of her rough n’ tough personality, but also because of how she turned her disability into an advantage to become “the most powerful earthbender in the world.”
Ultimately, I was a pretty privileged kid back then who wasn’t able to consider the struggles of the blind community, which was much different from what I’ve learned in my research for this book. For instance, I discovered that when seeking out accommodations, blind people often lack authority when requesting accommodations from schools and workforces. Among those blind people raised by sighted parents, it’s common for their parents to think little of what their supposedly handicapped child can accomplish, in turn depriving them of fruitful experiences.
Read more about the portrayal of blindness in film and media in my book, What Movies Can Teach Us About Disabilities.
--by Trevor Pacelli
I remember loving The Wizard of Oz as a kid. The munchkins scared me back when I was four because at the time I didn’t understand that some people have a condition that makes them smaller than usual. While it wasn’t enough to scare me out of watching the movie, the small people with disproportionate body parts and plastic hair singing like they were on helium left an unpleasant impression on my toddler self. I was always happy whenever it got to the part when Dorothy left Munchkinland because it meant the scary part was over.
Throughout the rest of my childhood, television and film were the sole influences that exposed me to anyone shorter than five feet. I saw so many little people playing roles where their height demanded it that I became numb to it. Such roles from movies I used to love included the goblins from the Harry Potter movies, some of the whos from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Oompa Loompas from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and many funny TV commercials where a little person played an elf, troll, or any other little fantasy creature. Then of course there was the famous, “He’s an angry elf” scene from Elf that still has me on the floor laughing even after the hundredth viewing.
The few times I did meet someone in person with dwarfism, my treatment of them fell much more on the dark side. I remember in my sophomore year of high school when I constantly made fun of a cheerleader who (I guess) had dwarfism, with a shoe size of only two. I wasn’t the only one: one student asked her, “Do you need a ladder to pick up a penny?” She also was teased for being able to fit inside a locker. Looking back, I’m so sorry I stooped low enough to join in on the bullying of her and other peers who were shorter than average. My exposure to various media was a massive influence on my belief that little people should be the butt of every joke, and are only half-human (no pun intended) compared to a person of average height.
My book, What Movies Can Teach Us About Disabilities, sheds light on negative and positive stereotypes and representations of little people in the movies. Check out my book to learn more about how to better understand 10 different disabilities.
By Trevor Pacelli
I’d like to tell you about an autistic man named Kevin. He may be twenty-five years old, but he acts like a teenager. He still lives with his parents in the bedroom he’s had since he was eight. He has a bachelor’s degree in engineering and worked at Taco Time for a few months, but then quit because he didn’t absolutely love the job. That was a year ago, and he hasn’t had a job since then. He never does his own laundry, his mom does all the cooking for him (even making his breakfast), he has no driver’s license, heck, he doesn’t even clip his own nails without his mom’s help. He just stays in his room and plays video games all day every day. He has no expectations for himself. He is convinced that because of his autism, he cannot do any type of job, so his only goal is to complete his newest video game.
There are numerous people with autism who are like Kevin. If they aren’t quite as extreme as him, they’ll still most often settle for part-time jobs like flipping burgers or bagging groceries as career possibilities. Those jobs are fine if they enjoy the work, but I believe everyone has the potential for more, and everyone should be pushed to do more.
But I understand: I too have autism and believed that the weak communication skills that come with my autism limited my job opportunities. That’s where my parents came in to help. In addition to creating a compatible job for my skillset under their publishing company, my parents helped me learn to do other essential tasks growing up, such as getting my driver’s license, doing my own laundry, preparing my own meals, booking my own flights, and moving into my own home. Now, without their help, I have learned to do more: book my own hotel rooms and rental cars, and finding and adopting my own dog. From what I’ve learned, I feel that every autistic child and adult still dependent on their parents would benefit from a “dones” process similar to what I discussed in a previous article. This process should enable the autistic individual to set monthly goals that lead up to one big goal for the purpose of growth and progress toward independence, no matter where they fall on the spectrum. Following are a few examples of the dones process.
Dones Process for Learning to Prepare Meals
Let’s say an autistic adult needs to create a six-month goal to start preparing and cooking their own meals regularly. In the first month, a done could be to compile research on healthy diets. The next month, a done could be to make a list of menus. The next month, they could set up a budget for groceries and practice a few shopping trips. The next month, a done could be to take cooking classes. The pattern continues until the six-month deadline when the autistic adult reaches the goal of buying and cooking food independently from their parents.
Some more examples of these goals could include:
But how could this work with a lower-functioning autistic adult? One who may not be able to speak and can never have the mental capacity to live alone? Then the goals would be simpler yet still challenging. Someone nonverbal on the autism spectrum who gets meltdowns in public may set a done where after six months a new system helps them avoid them happening. In the first month, the done may be to research potential self-relaxation techniques. In the second month, the done may be to find ways to communicate using certain hand signals. In the third month, the done may be to make info cards that help explain the autistic adult’s disability and how a stranger in a given situation can help. Then by month six, the autistic adult is prepared with all the appropriate techniques and equipment.
Some more examples of these goals could include:
This type of system worked for me when I was fourteen. That summer, I still hadn’t learned how to ride a bike, and my parents wanted me to learn. So that was a summer project between me and my mom: by the end of the summer, I would have mastered riding a bike. We first began practicing inside the garage, then progressed to the driveway, then to the parking lot of our nearby elementary school, and eventually, we met our end-of-summer goal. Throughout that next school year, and the year after that, I rode my bike to school a good portion of the time.
The Dones Process for Choosing a University
There was a similar system I used when I had to decide on a university to transfer to while I was getting my Associate’s degree in community college. I laid out a big chart breaking down the things to seek out in an ideal school, like the cost, application requirements, location, and so on. I had a list of fifty or so potential schools across the country, all with the info filled out. By my June deadline, I set a list of six schools to apply to and made sure to submit the necessary application materials before the deadlines were met. Once I received my acceptance letters (four out of six of them accepted me), I had to spend time weighing the pros and cons of each school. Ultimately, I concluded that the one with the best balance of quality, location and promise of getting a job afterward was in fact… Arizona State University. Looking back, this was the right decision, and I’m glad I went through this long exhaustive process of choosing the right fit for me.
The Dones Process for Adopting a Dog
In my adult life, I applied a “dones” process completely by myself when I decided to adopt a dog. It was fully my decision to get one and I knew that in order to reach that goal, I first had to seek out dog owners I knew and ask them questions about what to prepare for. In my research, I learned that (due to my condo rules) the dog had to be small and housetrained, meaning this dog couldn’t be a puppy or any bigger than twenty pounds. Once I felt I had enough research, I began filling out application after application to reliable adoption centers until I finally got a call back to meet a terrier mix named Bijou. The morning of the adoption, I did my Petco run to buy the stuff I knew from my research I was going to need, and that afternoon, I met Bijou, filled out the paperwork, and brought her home. Now her name is Bella, and I’m so much happier today than I had ever been before she came into my life.
These three experiences of mine should prove why setting goals and subgoals to reach that ultimate goal is so valuable to anyone on the autism spectrum who needs the motivation to care for themselves. I wish the best of luck to you and your autistic child as you work through this journey together.
Trevor is an adult with autism and is the author of 6 books about autism and disabilities.
--Guest blog by Vlad Kogan, Nevada Autism Center
Are meltdowns creating a daily struggle in your home? Autistic children can face a more challenging everyday life than typically developing youngsters, especially in the areas of sensory processing and communication.
Meltdowns can occur in children with autism when they are having trouble communicating their needs to others or are overwhelmed sensorially, emotionally, or informationally. Here are five strategies to keep in your back pocket for when things get out of control:
1. Keep your cool. If you manage to stay calm and collected through a meltdown, you have won half the battle. Modeling calming techniques, such as deep breathing or a self-hug, can help your child pick up some tools to help them regulate while taking advantage of your self-soothing methods. The main goal is to reduce high-energy emotions and not add fuel to the fire.
2. Identify the trigger and change the environment. Consider your child’s environment during a meltdown. Because meltdowns can often originate from sensory overload, reducing the triggers for overstimulation can help (think about lighting, loud sounds, or uncomfortable temperatures). If there is an audience to your child’s meltdown, it’s best to get your child to a quiet, calm space where they can regulate alone with your help.
3. Lower the demand. Start with a shorter period of time and visual cues that indicate what activities must be completed before a break is given. Prior to taking a break, try cutting back the demand on their task. Try alternative methods of communicating with your child, and if they can express their need appropriately, allow them the ability to take advantage of it. This can often help them meet the task again in a renewed frame of mind.
4. Redirect. Redirect the child's attention to a more effective approach to achieve his wants. If they've lost the ability to reason, you may want to try to distract them from the situation for a while so you can simplify it and see if it helps them settle. Personal interests, fidget toys, new activities, and other sources of stimulation are great distractions. Even looking out a window can provide some great opportunities for connection and diversion.
5. Address the problem later. A widely held theory dictates that meeting a person’s most fundamental requirements must come first before moving on to more sophisticated objectives. For example, if a child is overstimulated, sitting quietly and listening to an instructor can be challenging. Like children without autism, those who are chronically hungry or exhausted and either don't realize it or can't successfully communicate their needs for food or sleep are not in a prime position to learn anything new or engage effectively with others.
Your child’s physiological necessities must be met before any other behavior can be considered. Trying to logic your way out of their meltdown will be pointless: their fight or flight response has been engaged, and your child will be unable to effectively reason through a problem until the meltdown has passed. It’s important to be patient, not punish, and be present and available for support.
As a parent, you can reduce the frequency of your child’s meltdowns by attempting to meet all physiological needs through practical tools such as sensory therapy, visual aids for communication and scheduling, and environmental accommodations.
Bridge the communicative gap with your child by utilizing visual tools, additional clues, and clear language and by directly teaching them how to convey their needs to others.
Inspiration for Life with Autism
This blog has a variety of articles about people living life with autism, and topics and ideas that can help in the journey. Guest bloggers are welcome. Inspired by Trevor, a young adult film critic, photographer and college graduate on the autism spectrum.