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Try this nonverbal autism meltdown hack

autism parenting Apr 10, 2023

The biggest hurdle to assisting a nonverbal autistic person during a meltdown is a lack of communication, which results in those around them not knowing how to help.

Recently, I discovered a way to narrow it down with my son. He just turned 12 and even though his communication skills are pretty good compared to peers, he still struggles to tell me why he's out of control. 

This simple communication tool can lead you in the right direction and help the autistic person feel heard. 

First, I begin with something I call the two-fist method. You present the autistic person with two choices, symbolized by your two fists held out to them, as well as a way to indicate a third choice: neither. To select one of the choices, all they have to do is touch the correct hand.

Watch the video above for a demonstration.

With a little bit of practice, many nonspeakers can communicate this way, even when overcome by a meltdown.

One of the reasons ABA doesn't work for my son is that his meltdowns aren't usually caused by an observable, recently-occurring antecedent that neatly fits into the four functions of behavior.

For example, his meltdowns are often caused by physical pain that isn't obvious to others. Either he injured himself and nobody observed it, or he is experiencing pain he may not be able to pinpoint or describe, like a headache, muscle cramp or growing pains.

Other times, he melts down after suppressing feelings about an event that may have happened several minutes, hours or even days before.

So, knowing these things, when my son is having a meltdown, I always begin by asking the question, "Does your body hurt or do your thoughts hurt?"

This simple question narrows the problem down without adding pressure, judgment or anxiety. If it's physical pain, I can give him an Ibuprofen, which dulls the pain and allows him to later communicate where the pain is or was located. Sometimes I'll hand him an ice pack, and he'll instinctively apply it to wherever he's feeling pain. It can take him a few placements to find his true source of pain, but simply providing him with a pain relieving tool and something useful to do with his hands helps reduce the severity of the meltdown.

If he responds that his thoughts hurt, I switch gears and speak to him using soft, sympathetic tones. I tell him I'm so sorry he feels that way and promise him that we'll figure it out together.

This often calms him enough that I can help him narrow his feelings down to mad, sad or anxious. If he communicates that he feels mad or sad, I can ask him if he's mad/sad about something that I did, his Dad did, or someone else. Even if it takes awhile to figure out the details, he feels much better making it known how he feels and who was involved.

If he's anxious, I let him know right away that whatever it is, he doesn't have to go through with it until he's ready. Right now, he's safe and he will stay that way.

This process serves three very important purposes.

First, it helps me remain calm and project confidence, rather than rush to console him haphazardly. My son experiences fear on top of whatever triggered his meltdown because he's out of control and he knows it. My confidence that I can and will help him erases that extra anxiety.

Second, it helps me remember to not take his behavior personally. Special needs parents sacrifice everything - our careers, social lives, personal interests, ability to express our feelings, and more - in an attempt to provide a safe, supportive environment for our kids, no matter their age. When we sacrifice so much and our kids still have meltdowns, we can't help but take it personally. We're only human! Having a better understanding of meltdown triggers, especially when we realize it's something completely out of our control, helps protect what's left of our egos and allows us to authentically project calm confidence.

Third, it gives my son a voice, even if it's still very limited. His physical inability to control his emotions are the catalyst to his meltdowns. However, feeling misunderstood and unheard adds a lot of fuel to that fire. Like, A LOT. Being able to at least communicate that his pain is physical or emotional is a big first step to being able to resolve the problem and regain his well being.

Please forward this post to your fellow special needs parents who may be struggling with aggressive meltdowns, especially if their kids are pre-teens, teenagers or adults. The ability to co-regulate with nonspeaking autistics makes a world of difference in developing and maintaining a trust with them, and creating a peaceful home environment.

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