All children have to learn how to appropriately respond to stimuli. But some children have much more trouble with this than others; although it’s not an official medical diagnosis, these children are often identified as having sensory processing disorders, or SPD. These disorders affect between 5% and 16% of all schoolchildren. Autistic children, too, often have trouble in this area, with more than 90% of children with autism spectrum disorders also having atypical sensory behaviors. Given that autism affects 3.5 million Americans, that’s quite a few children who will face sensory challenges.
If you’re a parent or caretaker for one of these children, you probably already know that they frequently have meltdowns when they get overstimulated. Here are five strategies you can use to try to ameliorate those meltdowns:
Calm Yourself First, Then Respond
Remember that a meltdown is not a tantrum; it’s a symptom, not misbehavior. That means it’s important that you take a moment to calm yourself first so you can move on to working to calm your child. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you have trouble staying cool -- no matter how much you know about autism or SPD, meltdowns can be frustrating. Just keep trying new strategies until you find what is effective for you.
Keep Directions Short and Sweet
It may be tempting to try to talk your child through a meltdown, but that probably won’t help if sensory overload is the cause of the meltdown in the first place. Instead, try to keep your tone soft but your directions short and clear. This should help you navigate whatever space you’re currently in and quickly remove your child to a quieter one.
Pull Out the Noise-Canceling Headphones
Sometimes you just need to cut the amount of sensory stimulation your child is receiving. And if there’s no way to change the environment your child is in, then noise-canceling headphones can be extremely helpful. These are a particularly good idea if you have no choice but to go somewhere loud or crowded, such as an airplane.
Create a Cozy, Private Space
Especially if you’re someplace unfamiliar (staying with friends or family, for example), then having a pop-up tent to create a cozy and familiar space can help children focus in and regain control. You can always improvise by draping a sheet over some chairs or building a pillow fort, but a pop-up tent is an easy and portable solution.
Try Weighted Sensory Blankets
Many parents have found that weighted blankets for autism and SPD can help calm their children when a meltdown is in progress or even head meltdowns off before they occur. If your child also struggles with sleep disruption, common in people with both autism spectrum disorders and sensory processing problems, a weighted blanket can help there too; among the many benefits of a weighted blanket are falling asleep faster and staying asleep better. (It’s also worth noting that while we tend to talk about weighted blankets for kids in regard to autism and SPD, weighted blankets for autism are not limited in usefulness by age. Adults with these same disorders can benefit as well.)
Have you thought about using weighted blankets for autism or SPD? Discuss in the comments.