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Tips from an Autism mom: Managing melt downs

Life can change in the blink of an eye. In the home of family with Autism, this is life, every single day.


When our son Daniel was 28 months old he was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (Pervasive Development Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified). That was the first major “blink of an eye” change, followed by hundreds of others. Even now, six years after that diagnosis, there are times when we don’t know how we will ever keep up with the changes. On any given morning, Daniel can wake up in a fantastic mood, and before we know it, he is in full meltdown mode. We can’t even predict what form the melt down will take – from tears to colossal messes, we’ve experienced it all.

Rather than live on pins and needles, waiting for the melt down, we are just mentally prepared to know it can happen at any time. In fact, we have learned how to deal with the 0-10 meltdowns so well that we are often asked for tips and guidance by fellow Autism parents. Now as any Autism parent will tell you, every child is incredibly different and will respond to certain techniques in different ways. So I prepared a few tips that we’ve found to be successful at home and will be implemented at The Lighthouse Learning and Development Centre. I hope that if you are also an Autism parent, aid or teacher, you may also find them helpful.

  1. Ignore and redirect – This is arguably the most important technique to manage melt downs. Most children with Autism (and even children in general) thrive on attention and they will repeat the behaviours that get them the most attention. When Daniel throws a fit, which generally includes the throwing of some sort of expensive object, and I respond with yelling or screaming I have reinforced his negative behaviour. However, if I ignore it completely, pick up whatever has been tossed all over my house and continue on about my business I am not reinforcing that behaviour, and therefore the odds of him repeating the behaviour are very low. I am not saying this is easy, because it is not, but it is effective. Children aren’t going to continue a behaviour that gets them no reaction – negative or otherwise. 
  2. Use only positive reinforcement – This one goes hand in hand with ignore and redirect. Be sure to reinforce any and all positive behaviour 100% of the time. When a child learns that they receive the most attention from good behaviour, you are going to see more good behaviour. When a child only receives attention for negative behaviour they are only going to behave negatively.  Why should they behave if they get no reinforcement for proper behaviour? Parents, trust me, your life will become so much more manageable if you follow this simple rule: only reinforce good behaviour.

  3. Let the tantrum ride its course – This is the hardest one, but is often the most effective. As a mom it breaks my heart to see my son having a truly difficult time. Occasionally something upsets him so much that there is absolutely nothing I can do to help him through it. In those cases I make sure he is safe, and let him just be upset. While this may seem horrible, it is much better than me getting frustrated, which is guaranteed to upset him more. I stay close to him and offer hugs and comfort. I know that he probably will not accept my mom love in that moment, but at least I know that I am there. I know I am there if he needs me and sometimes that is all I can do.

  4. Downtime – Occasionally days are so long, behaviours are so severe and my patience has run so thin that the only thing capable of getting me to bedtime is a some me time with a magazine, and a glass of wine doesn’t hurt either. Sometimes it’s mom’s best friend!


The most important thing to remember is the day will eventually be over, the house will be quiet once again, and you will be given a new day to start all over.  While you will never know what the new day will bring, the hope is always there that it will be just a little easier than the day you just put to bed. 



Serena Thompson is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Curriculum at The Lighthouse Learning and Development Centre (, a private learning centre in Aurora, Ontario focused on academics for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

a man carrying two children

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