Autism 'Rumbles, Meltdowns & Shutdowns'

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Autism 'Rumbles, Meltdowns & Shutdowns'

You’re standing in a shop and see a child having, what you think is a temper tantrum….. Members of the public stare, some shake their heads, others tut and make accusatory remarks to the, so called ‘bad’ parent. The parent is looking stressed trying to cope with the child, all the while with an audience looking on. Sound familiar?

Caring for a child, young person or adult with autism has its challenges, however communities (and the public) can make it easier for you and the person if they understood the difference between a temper tantrum and an autistic meltdown. That’s why organisations like SJOG are trying to build not only awareness of autism, but acceptance of autism.

So, we ran a poll and what a surprise.. the topic of meltdowns were the top pick. That scenario above is clearly happening all too often!

So let’s talk about ‘rumbles, meltdowns and shutdowns’. Being able to anticipate and intervene these at an early stage may just help your child / the person you are caring for, to avoid them, or at the very least reduce the frequency.


First of all, you are a great parent and your child is not having a temper tantrum. It’s not that your child is badly behaved, or that you haven’t taught them ‘good behaviour’. Your child is showing you (and everyone else) that they are completely overwhelmed by something, and they are having difficulty expressing it in a way that is less dramatic. This is what we call a ‘meltdown’

Why do they happen?

They often happen as a result of highly stimulating environments. For example, when we go to the shop we take this for granted however a person with autism can find this a deeply traumatic experience: the noises, the smells, the unpredictability of the environment etc etc. Watch this video which helps to explain how meltdowns can happen in the community.

BBC Scotland - The Social - How it feels to have an autistic meltdown and how you can help

Meltdowns occur when the child is highly anxious and unable to escape a situation. I’m sure you have heard of the expression ‘flight, fight or freeze’. So, for an autistic child who is unable to escape, they have two options: ‘fight or freeze’. The meltdown most commonly becomes ‘fight’.

Try to move past just seeing the ‘behaviour’. What your child is expressing is frustration, anxiety, panic and distress to something in their immediate environment. If you know what this could be try and remove it. If you can’t remove it then try and move the child to a place that will not trigger their meltdown further.

Sometimes it’s us that can trigger a meltdown. For example asking something from the child, or moving on from an activity etc. You know your child best so maybe consider writing a list of things that you know will trigger a meltdown and encourage your family to know what these are in order to try to avoid them. Also consider what strategies you could use to avoid the meltdown in the first place. For example:

Trigger Strategy
Unpredictable noises Ear defenders
Visit shops at quieter times
Moving on from an activity Count down to move on
Now and next
Reward with a snack at end of activity

Write them down like the example above and give a copy to friends and family if they are looking after your child for a while.


That feeling of your stomach churning when you realise your child is about to have a meltdown… breathing changes, hands become clammy, and a feeling of dread. Times your anxiety and symptoms by 100 and that is how your child is feeling.

You may see your child pacing, becoming repetitive over something or someone, rocking, heightened stimming behaviours etc. This is known as the ‘rumble stage’.

Firstly don’t panic and remain calm as the child can pick up on your anxieties. You still have time to avoid a meltdown! I often call these ‘negative indicators of wellbeing’. It’s the subtle signs that something is not quite right and I need to act fast. Here are some examples that I often use:

Negative Indicators of Wellbeing Strategies
Shouting at the end of the activity Show now and next board of what is happening after the activity and encourage the child to move the activity picture leaving the next activity on the board.
Beginning to pace while a meal is being prepared Go play in the garden away from the food smells.
Go for a walk while meals are cooking
Offer a snack – carrot to chew on etc
Use a fidget toy
Pressing fingers into ears Put on ear defenders
Use ear pods and listen to favourite music

This can go on but you get the picture… My first go to strategy though, is always to try and remove the trigger.


I mentioned earlier about fight and freeze. Shutdowns are the equivalent to the freeze response. Shutdowns often happen when the child has a number of demands placed upon them. For example when in a social situation and lots of people are talking or want to socialize with you and your child. Times when your child has to do lots of thinking, or when their processing of information has been interrupted etc.

A good way of understanding this is using the analogy of a phone with no battery power… how many times do you try and turn your phone on but it hasn’t got enough power. For a child with autism they can be so overwhelmed with what is happening in their surroundings they cannot function. The abilities are reduced and they struggle to communicate as they normally do. They may look at you but nothing is registering; their power is drained. So, shutdown happens.

What can you do to prevent this?

  • Try and think ahead and plan. Where are you going and what might be the trigger (is it on your list?)
  • Offer the child a visual planning strip which helps them to predict and know what is going to happen.
  • Take the things that are known to help reduce shutdowns e.g. ear defenders, sensory toys in a backpack.
  • Try and give the child space and time to calm themselves down. The more strategies you give them to do this for themselves the better. This is really about allowing them time and space to press the ‘reset’ button.

The key with all of this is to ‘prepare’ and ‘anticipate’. It’s a skill that takes time to develop as your child will change the goal posts. Remember knowledge is power and the more you know, the better prepared you will be.

Handy Hints….

Whenever I talk to people about meltdowns. I work through some simple questions to help understand why the meltdown has happened. These are…

  • What do you think caused the meltdown? (The trigger)
  • How could you minimize this trigger in the future? (The solution)
  • Are there things we can offer the child to reduce the meltdown? (The resources)
  • Have there been changes in the environment? (The consistencies)

Following on from a meltdown, and later, much later after you have calmed down too, consider the questions above as they will help you understand how to deal with meltdowns; or better still avoid them.

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