How I Cut Down Meltdowns For My Child With Autism

There are a lot of clever things we say when trying to describe people with autism. As the father to a non-verbal child, I have heard many during my time over the last ten years.

If you meet one person with Autism…you’ve met one person with autism.

Do you get it? They make you think they’re gonna say the ol’ “you met ‘em all” line, but they don’t. They say you met one person with autism because, as is the case, each person with autism is unique. Despite having the same diagnosis, triggers and sensory issues for one might be opposite for another.

Here’s the thing, though. That is more than just a good line about people with autism. It’s a good line for people in general. We are all special. Mr. Rogers sang about it decades ago.

Every person is unique in their own way. Sure, certain personality types might pop up now and again that resemble each other, but if you’ve met one person…you’ve met one person. Period.

It is for that reason that I always make sure to preface these posts with a disclaimer. What my son has accomplished and succeeded at is different than what others might have reached. On top of that, the way we’ve worked things out and grown to reach those milestones aren’t a step-by-step textboos for everyone. It is our textbook. You might be able to use it. You might not. I’ve come to realize that most will be able to use some, but maybe not all. 

I also want to specify that there are many forms of “meltdowns”. Some are complete mysteries – like the car thing for us. Happily sitting in the back seat, Lucas will start to whine and cry if I make a random turn. It’s not every turn. It’s not the same kind of street or unwanted detour either. Occasionally, from nowhere, he just breaks down in tears because the car changed directions. In the end, all I can do is reach back, pat his knee, and say, “It’s OK, buddy.” Those still happen.

The meltdowns that he and I have decreased are those intense ones that would come when something he wants is denied. While those outbursts might still occur in his daily travels, they are ones that I rarely see anymore and, when I do, the severity is much lower than it once was.

They are the body-to-the-ground tantrum meltdowns that are assumed to be a result of unhappiness when not getting his way. Take away the iPad, he responds with a collapse to the floor. Try to make him step away from the food at the table and it’s panic at the disco. I’m talking those kinds of meltdowns.

The reason these battles have appeared to die down is simple. I let him know that, although he’s not getting his way in this instance, I understand what he wants. He’s heard and he’s understood, even if he can’t receive his exact wishes in that moment.


Timing has been a big help in getting that point across. Through the years, my son’s receptive language has grown by leaps and bounds. Today, he understands more words than I ever dreamed he would and, since he and I have been doing hand signals for years, I feel like he gets my meaning in most cases.

Here’s an example. Lucas wants to swipe away on his iPad. First, I need him to brush his teeth. He reaches for the device and I pull it away like a matador. It sets off that slow simmering whine and I say:

Hey. Hey. Wait. (hand up)

First, we brush our teeth (mimmick toothbrushing)

And thhhhheeeeennnnn… (I make a rainbow as a visual representation of time. Abstract, I know.)

iPad. (thumb in the hand, iPad signal)

What follows is usually an annoyed whine and a begrudged teeth brushing. There’s no fussing or fighting. Just what needs to be done.

I know many reading this will think, “Of course he stops melting down if he knows he’s being understood. Wouldn’t you feel the same way if you weren’t understood?”

Yes. Yes, I would. That’s why I gave the example at the start about how meeting one person with autism is the same as meeting one person without autism. In either case, you’ve still met just one person. We’re all different from one another. But, autism or not, we’re also all the same.

To be honest, if anything might have pushed this tantrum-busting discovery of understanding off on my part, it would have been by succumbing to habit. Between a history of inexplicable turn-the-car cries and very recent memories of a time when he had less understanding, the natural instinct to just direct him here or there with no explanation might have taken over. I can understand how some parents would shrug their shoulders, watch their child writhe around on the rug, and say, “Eh. He just hates brushing his teeth.”

You know what? Lucas does hate brushing his teeth. It’s not to the level that would make him throw a fit, but the process makes him unhappy. He winces his face as I help him, hand-over-hand, shine his stubby little chompers. I almost always tell him, “Why do you have to look like I’m murdering you?”

That’s natural. Kids with or without autism hate brushing their teeth. Until they do, they can’t get their devices. Again, this is a universal kid thing. On or off the spectrum, my kid is just like yours. He wants what he wants. He hates to not feel heard. Children are like that.

But, you know what they say. If you meet a kid with autism…you met a kid.




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