Meltdown, what do I do?


Before autism joined our story, I used to carry a wide array of toys in my purse for P.  We did not know that we were making our own sensory kit.  We didn’t see why the little trinkets fascinated and calmed the little boy down.  I would carry pipe cleaners, little light up toys, matchbox cars and figurines.  We were not always attuned to what would cause P a shift in his mood from happy to on the brink of a meltdown, but our makeshift sensory kit helped us out more than a few times to say the least.

The first time P had a public meltdown we were not prepared for it all.  The screaming, the crying, the kicking, the lashing out all because we were in the grocery store was completely unnerving.  Like I said, we were complete newbies and our reaction showed it!  It was a lot of fumbling around of what do we do, why is he crying, why won’t he stop crying, and who will take P to the car and who will finish the grocery run.  My husband and I were both stressed and upset not knowing precisely what happened.  After it was all over, we rehashed the events including the comments and stares from other shoppers.  It took us time to realize that P was most sensitive to the noise of the crowds.  Once we were able to dissect the root cause or causes of the meltdown, we were better able to be prepared to handle public outings.

This is how we learned to help P and ourselves manage social events that are an inevitable part of our days.  I hope to give you some ideas to feel empowered instead of defeated saying, “Meltdown, what do I do?”  We learned through trial and error and help from several terrific therapists that were great at giving useful practical advice that was easy to convert to daily use.

What we did first with P was to practice public outings with him.  There was not always a time when either my husband or I could stay home with him while the other ran errands.  We needed to go to the grocery store?  We’d go early in the morning when the number of shoppers was on the low side.  P would have his own shopping list of a few things spread throughout the store so he could have something to focus on.  Our family likes to go out to eat on occasion.  Once again, we would practice going out to eat either at lunchtime or early supper hour while the lighting was still bright and the music was not loud.

If the outing got to be too much, we were careful to not draw attention to it.  Our goal for P was for him to tolerate being out of the house in a public setting for a specified period of time.  We did not want him to think that if he cried right away, we would take him home.  If we saw P was struggling, we would break out some of the sensory toys that were staples to us in those years.  P would have a chance to self-soothe, calm down, and return to the outing.

Of course, if that did not work, we knew it was time to remove P from the situation before it would evolve into the full-blown public meltdown.  That was no fun for any of us.  My husband and I would both feel the stressed.  Maybe that meant, stepping away into a quieter area to calm down.  Or stepping outside to get a breath of fresh air.  The first time we had to abandon our shopping cart in Target I was embarrassed thinking I was somewhat less of a mom.  After the first time, I knew I was doing the right thing in keeping P safe.


When we were home, and P was safe (usually napping from wearing himself out), and we were still feeling frustrated and stressed, we knew it was OK to let ‘er rip and vent our frustrations.  Sometimes it was cursing, yelling, taking a walk, calling a friend or family member.  But, it was important to let out the feelings, so they did not hang around the next time we tried to go out in public.

Some of our favorite sensory tools that we have utilized in our different sensory toolkits:

1.  mint gum 

2.  pipe cleaners

3.  silly putty or play doh

4.  color spinners

5.  slinky

6.  light up fidgets

7.  chewable necklace

8.  matchbox cars

9.  liquid motion timer

10.  cards

You can make your own inexpensive sensory toolkit by shopping clearance aisles or dollar bins at your favorite local store.  When we travel, I like P to pack some of his current favorite sensory tools in a pencil box.  If it were up to the boy, he’d pack everything!  P has some responsibility for making the decision in choosing what to pack.  I may try to pack a few in my purse to use as backups just in case.

I wonder what you have tried to tame the meltdowns that are bound to happen from time to time?  What is working for you?  What is working for your child?  What is frustrating you?  What is may be frustrating your child? Do you need to vent?  I would love to hear from you because you are not alone in this journey.  We are all in this together.  Leave me a comment with your thoughts.


All my best to you,




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