This post is part two of a three part series called A Crash Course in Meltdown Management Series by Karen Wang.
In the Part One of the Crash Course in Meltdown Management, I explained some basic rules for helping a child through meltdowns: managing a child’s meltdowns by modeling respect and empathy, and searching for the cause of a meltdown. Different types of meltdowns require different approaches. I also examined the classic temper tantrum and its purpose in child development.
Today I’ll discuss sensory meltdowns, the type usually associated with autism and other neurological conditions.
I love to attend wedding ceremonies, but I have always hated wedding receptions – even my own wedding reception. At my cousin’s wedding reception in 2006, I was the guest who asked the DJ to turn down the volume on the amplifiers. At another cousin’s wedding in 2004, my family didn’t even get inside the reception hall because of the noise level — we had to leave immediately after the family photos were taken outdoors. I am highly sensitive to sound, light, taste and movement, but my son is even more sensitive. I know that if my ears are buzzing and my head is hurting, then my son is experiencing even more pain than I am. After the pain come nausea, dizziness, confusion, trembling and panic. That’s meltdown territory.
The Role of Self-Regulation
Both sensory-seeking and sensory-avoidant individuals may spiral into a sensory meltdown due to difficulty with self-regulation. Co-authors Karen Smith and Gouze reflect on the role of self-regulation in their book The Sensory Sensitive Child: “Impaired processing produces impaired output…Difficulties with emotion regulation and self-calming only exacerbate the dysfunctional patterns of information processing, making it less and less likely that the child will be able to correct the problem himself.” The good news is that a person can learn how to work through and divert sensory meltdowns with loving support.
Sensory Integration Toolkits
A sensory meltdown occurs when there is some type of discordance in at least one of the senses: smell, taste, sight (light or color), sound (either too much noise or an irritating type of noise), touch (texture or temperature), balance or spatial awareness. I also include meltdowns caused by low blood sugar levels in this category, because the lowered blood sugar heightens all sensitivities.
When a meltdown starts, it is necessary to remove a person from the intolerable sensory input and to replace that with calming sensory input.
Away from Home
I suggest carrying a portable sensory toolkit for situations that may be stressful. Depending on an individual’s unique sensitivities, some items in the kit may include:
- Baseball cap or wide-brimmed hat
- Ice-cold water bottle with a sport cap for sucking (or an ice-cold juice box with a straw)
- Chewy snack, such as beef jerky, raisins or granola bar
- Hand lotion or lip balm
- A piece of soft fabric such as velour for rubbing on hands, or a stuffed animal
- Squeeze ball or koosh ball
- Soundproof headphones (we bought ours for $10 in the gun section at Wal-Mart)
- Change of clothes (a long-sleeved t-shirt or sweatshirt and long sweatpants may be needed for tactile input)
- Carrier for child under 40 pounds such as Ergo or Beco carriers (ergonomically designed to distribute child’s weight to parent’s hips – my 4 year old says it feels like a big hug from me every time he rides in it)
When my son has a sensory meltdown at home, usually at the end of a busy day, I bring out the heavy artillery:
- Body Sock
- Silly putty, play dough or play slime
- Weighted blanket (ours is 8 pounds with a soft flannel backing) or vest
- Heating pad (very calming when placed on the back of the neck)
- Back rub or massage seat
- Ear, hand or foot massage
- Rocking chair, swing, slide or climbing structure
- Handheld massage ball
- Wooden foot massager (we keep ours under the dining room table to encourage sitting during dinner)
- Giant exercise ball for sitting and bouncing
- A favorite video or song (works best for under-sensitive people – I recommend the video Biocursion for its abstract images and music)
- Lavender essential oil or chamomile essential oil (one drop behind the ears)
- Chamomile tea (I mix in a drop of honey for my son)
- Massage jet for the bathtub ( Pick one up on Amazon.com)
- Deep hugs or sandwiching between two body pillows
At Playdates and in School
Many of these items can be incorporated into playdates or even a school classroom to prevent meltdowns. A caregiver must explain to the child during a calm moment why these tools are necessary and how to request them. Different tools will work on different days as the sensory needs change.
Over time, the child will learn how to use the tools when needed. A person is successfully self-regulating when he or she is able to choose the correct tools for sensory integration. As sensory integration develops, a person will be able to tolerate increased sensory input. My son usually calms down when I have him lie on the sofa with a weighted blanket, heating pad for his neck/back and an ice-cold water bottle to drink. As for myself, you will find me on almost any day of the year snacking on dried cherries and wearing a velour sweatsuit with dark sunglasses.
In his book Empowered Autism Parenting, William Stillman writes, “The phrase ‘inherently gentle and exquisitely sensitive’ may best describe the autistic experience.” I know that this is an excellent description of my own son. It reminds me of a duet titled “Sensitive” (see video below) recorded by actor-musician Jack Black for the Miracle Project in 2009. This song playfully captures the urgency of a sensory meltdown, the need for compassion and the exquisite sensitivity of the human mind. Working through a sensory meltdown is always a duet for the caregiver and the person who needs support.
Part 3 of the Crash Course in Meltdown Management will address panic attacks and review methods of prevention for all types of meltdowns.