May 22, 2023

Neurodiversity and navigating meltdowns

Jane Magnani
Jane Magnani
Neurodiversity and navigating meltdowns

First, a reminder that meltdowns do not only happen with neurodiverse children. Any child and even adults can experience the emotional and sensory overload that may lead to a meltdown.

What's the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown?


When a young child throws a tantrum, the root cause is typically quite obvious - they are longing for something they cannot have. An example is if they cannot get a sweet or a toy from the shop. 

At this moment, their emotions can become overwhelming as children are still learning the complexity of their emotional lives. It can also be challenging for adults - we understand that we are feeling something but are not sure what or how to express it properly. This can lead to escalating levels of frustration resulting in a tantrum.

Although these moments may be tricky, you can help your child maintain some level of control. 

What can you do during a tantrum?

  • If they try to talk while having a tantrum, let them know you cannot hear or understand them until they calm down. 

  • Some practical tactics to try in this instance include having them practice deep breathing or slowly counting down.

  • It is also essential to stay calm, speak to them at eye level, use direct and simple language, and offer them choices. 

When these difficult moments happen in public, it may be hard to resist the temptation to simply give in to their requests - but remember that by doing so, you are teaching them that throwing a tantrum is an effective way to get what they want and get your attention.

Mother and child


When it comes to a meltdown, there is rarely just one trigger to identify. Instead, meltdowns are caused by overload — think of them as a glass of water slowly filling up and getting too full, resulting in overflow.  

They can be caused by sensory overload, loud noises, too much going on, and the inability to communicate.

A meltdown is a physical and mental shutdown. Children can hurt themselves or others during a meltdown, as they do not have control or awareness of their actions and consequences.

What can you do during a meltdown?

  • Give them time and space - remove your child from danger, and try to create a quiet, safe space whenever possible. If safe to do so, move them to a more peaceful area.

  • Give them some time - it can take a while to recover from the information or sensory overload. 

  • Make sure they are protected, for example, by having a large pillow under their head. 

  • Remain close to your child, but at a safe distance, to provide emotional support. Gently sing, hum, or lightly stroke their face or hand if they permit.

  • Ask individuals to move and give you space, lower music, and dim lights to decrease sensory overload.

  • Offer a distraction or give your child something to focus on, such as a toy or a book, something that they love and cherish.

  • Be patient and calm when a meltdown happens, no matter how difficult it may seem; try to take a deep breath, and remain calm. 

Remember, your child is likely acting out due to frustration or stress, and reacting with anger or frustration can only escalate the situation.

As much as possible, pretend you're at home or, at least, alone.

Don't let yourself get caught up in worrying about what people think, and do not react to comments or looks. Stress is inevitable, and children sense it; it will only make the situation worse. Stress is contagious!

Please remember you are doing your best as a parent or caregiver. Don't let the judgment of others corrupt your confidence or sense of self-worth. Instead, focus on what you know is best for you and your child.

Preventing meltdowns

Knowing what triggers meltdowns will help you plan to avoid such situations. Be proactive and prepared.

Identifying the causes 

  • Identify what is overwhelming for them.

  • Observing your little one at play can help you know and understand your little one better, their likes, dislikes, what they can and cannot do, and the noises or sensations they don't enjoy.

  • Complete a diary over a period of time. Record what happened before, during and after each meltdown. Patterns may occur.

  •  You may find that meltdowns occur at particular times, in specific places, or when something particular has happened.

Change in routine

Consistent, predictable routines and structure are very important for children with neurodiversity, and changes to their routines can be very distressing.

  • For an unexpected change, there can be a particular plan in place, such as reinforcement that the rest of the day is the same (if that's the case) 

  • A chance to express any frustration, chewy toys, stress balls, chewy necklaces etc., are great for exerting feelings of frustration.

  • Having a method for them to communicate feelings and needs, such as Makaton and visual aids 

Recovering from a meltdown

Now that the meltdown has ended and your child is calm and happily playing, we must process our own emotions and frustrations.

It is essential to recognise and acknowledge your feelings: Understanding and accepting what you're feeling is important. Label your emotions and thoughts without judgment.

Practising mindful breathing can aid in soothing us and decreasing our stress levels. 

Take a break: Step away from the situation or person that triggered the meltdown. Go to a quiet, safe place where you can be alone, relax, and calm down.


Establishing boundaries for children, particularly those with neurodiversity or special needs, is important. To ensure that our children understand and follow boundaries, it's important to be consistent, set expectations, and be specific when speaking to them. 

Additionally, it is helpful to use positive reinforcement and visual aids. This will create a more secure environment for them.

It is vital to establish boundaries and follow through with them for consistency. All family members should also be aware of and follow these boundaries. 

When setting expectations, be direct and clear with what you are asking of your child. Avoid any unspecific language and focus on being straightforward. For example, say, "keep your hands to yourself" rather than just "behave". 

To reinforce good behaviour, provide praise when they follow boundaries and use specific language, such as "great listening" instead of "good girl or good boy". 

Furthermore, providing visual aids can be beneficial, as this helps to clarify boundaries and expectations.


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