Meltdowns and the Senses: The Two Go Hand and Hand

My Project 10-001Recently, I noticed my five year old daughter was not screaming and going into meltdown frenzy when I would vacuum. In the beginning, having the vacuum out and getting ready to clean would send my daughter into an instant meltdown. For the last four years, I was only able to vacuum when my husband took her for a walk or a car ride. This out of control behaviour was very difficult for our family.

Many of us with a child on the spectrum at one point or another have had to deal with behaviours that were spiraling out of control. It is important to remember that NO behaviour is without reason or purpose. There are many strategies a floortime therapist and child development counselor can do to help, but parents need to start first by being a detective. It is the therapist and counselor’s expertise in child development and your detective work, which will enable “the team” to figure out why this child is exhibiting such severe reactions to everyday activities.

 Sensory Needs

The senses are how we interpret our world; children on the spectrum suffer in either having an over sensitive or under sensitive sense or senses. For children who have an auditory hypersensitivity, their hearing is extremely acute and the noise from a vacuum cleaner may sound like a 747 jet engine running at full throttle. These feelings may send shockwaves of fear and anxiety through their body, giving them a flight or fight response. Many psychologists term this as the “reptilian brain”, when a child becomes irrational and unable to respond to reason. Figuring out which sense is being overloaded, can help deescalate meltdowns from becoming ones that may cause injury to themselves or others.

 Be Sensitive

If a child had a broken foot and asked you for a drink of water, would you tell him to get up and get it himself? No! This is the same compassion one needs in dealing with sensory sensitivity. A parent must demonstrate accommodation and validation. The child will always feel the way they are feeling, that will not change. But parents can change by validating their child’s fears and make accommodations to help their child cope. For example, I would take the vacuum and place it in the dining room. Then every day I would talk with her about how it would be loud, but she would be safe. If she would scream and beg me to take the vacuum away, the vacuum went away never to be seen again until next week. We would continue this once a week, until one day I heard whispered “okay”. Then I said “Ready, Set…..” and she had the control in saying “GO!”. Since she could not verbalize her fears because of her speech delays, her meltdowns were the only way to let me know how she was feeling. I accommodated her needs because those feelings are valid and true to her, and to me. As her speech improved, she now tells me she will go upstairs and close her door to her bedroom. She has learned to feel in control of herself and her world.

 Who Can Help?

Your occupational therapist can help by providing a sensory profile of your child. Knowing which senses are “hyper” or “hypo” are critical to helping your child become regulated. The biggest help will come from your child development counselor and floortime behaviourist. They may ask you to fill out an ABC Chart. This chart helps you pinpoint what the catalyst is by “A” Antecedent: Asking where the behaviour occurred? “B” Behaviour: What was the behaviour and for how long did the behavior last? “C” Consequence: What was the consequence or end result? They will work with you in providing strategies and other sensory activities that will help in regulating your child.

Meltdowns can put your family into turmoil and not figuring out the reason can lead to even more aggressive behaviours. It will take some time to change the way a child has learned how to express their fears. The important lesson for parents is to be sensitive, accommodating, research sensory needs and call in the child development experts. Then the rest, as they say, shall be history. And in my case, a much cleaner carpet!


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