Understanding Meltdown Triggers in Children with Autism

If your child or someone you know has autism, chances are good that they’ve exhibited some challenging behaviors at some point and maybe even suffered a so-called “meltdown.” While autism itself doesn’t cause the behaviors, these meltdowns often are the result of underlying conditions associated with the disorder, according to Autism Speaks.

Knowing that a meltdown could lurk just around the corner can add an extra level of stress to every situation. Once an autistic child has hit that meltdown, it’s difficult for him or her to gain control again quickly.

What sets off a meltdown in autistic children?

While no two children on the autism spectrum will necessarily behave the same, they often struggle with some common meltdown triggers. Understanding what can set off that loss of behavioral control can improve everyone’s reactions and sometimes can help parents entirely stave off the situation. Eileen Bailey, co-author of the book Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, lists the following common triggers, noting they are often based on the child’s fear of his or her world’s safety and security being threatened.

Common triggers for children with autism

Sensory overload. Children with autism can be sensitive to sensory stimulation. In a setting or situation—such as a store or a crowded event—all of the noises, colors, lights, and activity around them become too stressful. They might feel overwhelmed and panic.

Difficulty communicating. For a nonverbal child or one with limited verbal skills, the frustration of not being able to communicate can set off anger or a meltdown.

Information overload. Too much information coming in too fast or from many different directions can be overwhelming. Children with autism often have delayed information processing and need more time to process each piece of information.

Changes in routine. The need for predictability is high for children with autism. Sudden changes can create panic, stress, and meltdowns.

This list is certainly not exhaustive and the risk of these behaviors can increase when—as with any child—an autistic child is overly tired, hungry, or stressed out from another situation.

The more parents and other caregivers can become aware of a child’s triggers and the information they reveal about the child’s needs, the more they can try to minimize stressors and help the child cope. It can be a long road to reach that point. Learn more about how to help families and autistic children cope with challenging behaviors with this guide.