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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang

26 Sensory Integration Tools for Meltdown Management

This post is part two of a three part series called A Crash Course in Meltdown Management Series by Karen Wang.

Part One: How to manage and prevent a Temper Tantrum
Part Two: Sensory Meltdowns: 26 Sensory Integration Tools for Meltdown Management
Part Three: How to manage and prevent a panic attack 

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.

Sensory Meltdowns

Sensory Meltdown

Sensory meltdown at my cousin’s wedding in 2004

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:

  1. Sunglasses
  2. Baseball cap or wide-brimmed hat
  3. Ice-cold water bottle with a sport cap for sucking (or an ice-cold juice box with a straw)
  4. Chewy snack, such as beef jerky, raisins or granola bar
  5. Hand lotion or lip balm
  6. A piece of soft fabric such as velour for rubbing on hands, or a stuffed animal
  7. Squeeze ball or koosh ball
  8. Soundproof headphones (we bought ours for $10 in the gun section at Wal-Mart)
  9. Change of clothes (a long-sleeved t-shirt or sweatshirt and long sweatpants may be needed for tactile input)
  10. 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)

At Home

When my son has a sensory meltdown at home, usually at the end of a busy day, I bring out the heavy artillery:

  1. Mini-trampoline
  2. Body Sock
  3. Silly putty, play dough or play slime
  4. Weighted blanket (ours is 8 pounds with a soft flannel backing) or vest
  5. Heating pad (very calming when placed on the back of the neck)
  6. Back rub or massage seat
  7. Ear, hand or foot massage
  8. Rocking chair, swing, slide or climbing structure
  9. Handheld massage ball
  10. Wooden foot massager (we keep ours under the dining room table to encourage sitting during dinner)
  11. Giant exercise ball for sitting and bouncing
  12. A favorite video or song (works best for under-sensitive people – I recommend the video Biocursion for its abstract images and music)
  13. Lavender essential oil or chamomile essential oil (one drop behind the ears)
  14. Chamomile tea (I mix in a drop of honey for my son)
  15. Massage jet for the bathtub ( Pick one up on
  16. Deep hugs or sandwiching between two body pillows
Sensory Smart

Sensory-smart at Cedar Point in 2011

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.

Exquisitely Sensitive

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.

Karen Wang

Written on December 13, 2011 by:

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"
  • This is fantastic! I am definitely sharing this! Thank you soo much!

  • Hi Karen,
    Do you have a printable/pdf version of this article that you would be willing to let me share with my clients?  I’m a therapist and I see mostly kids and families using play therapy.  I refer many many clients to a wonderful OT person here in Lansing but this article would be a WONDERFUL resource for many of my parents!  If you’d be willing to send me a printable version (with your name on it of course!) I’d be really grateful! My email is [email protected] if you’d like more info about me please feel free to visit my website at
    Liz Danowski

  • Wow, this is a great resource!! My son is almost 5 and we just found out about Sensory processing disorder summer 2011. We have been battling with insurance and doctors to get the help our family needs. In the meantime I have been scouring the internet and books to learn everything I can about it and try to help our family. I also started my own blog a couple of days ago to teach my friends and family about SPD and what we go through daily.

    So thank you so much for your article, I plan to incorporate a lot of what you suggested.

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  • Tzvi
  • Rachel Godlander

    thanks so much..we have most of these things at home…not a trampoline thought i know she would love one. my daughter is 3.5 years old and we found out about her possibly having spd  last fall but we have been wondering all along about her behavior  etc.

  • Monica

    My son is 10 with Aspergers and SPD, his OT told me some tools to use for him but none of them seemed to help.  I’m going to try the ones you have listed here.  He has an OT in school that uses a trampoline for him, he LOVES it and she says that it really works!  Thank you for writing this article!

  • Bassie Shemtov

    Part 3 of Meltdown management posted:)

  • debi

    can you please tell me where you got your weighted blanket? been looking for one but not happy with those i’ve seen yet. thank you!

  • We purchased our weighted blanket from Dream Catchers:  The quality of the blanket is excellent, superior to all the others I’ve seen, but the customer service at Dream Catchers was awful.  For this reason I suggest buying one of their pre-made blankets instead of a custom-made blanket – the custom-made blankets take longer and require more interaction with the home office.

  • Lukefamily

    Thank you for this article. Our 4.5 year old boy, Bradley was diagnosed with SPD last June. It has been a rollercoaster journey! My sister is an OT specialised in this condition but as she lives in South africa and we’re in the UK she’s only been able to offer telephonic support. However my sister and I fundraised for her airtickets and she’s just spent 2 weeks with us. She observed Bradley at home and school and she offered some really useful tips. Her comment to me at the end was that she thought that I was doing really well as she thought Bradley was aan extremely difficult child to manage/reason with!  It was very reassuring in a way that she thought he was challenging as often I get comments that he’ll grow out of it, or that all 4 year olds act that way! People don’t seem to understand that SPD is a real condition that requires help and support! I am going to put a lot of your ideas into practice, thanks again.

    PS I have recently started my own SPD parent support group that meets once a month at my home and it has already proven to be a great area of support to me and the other mum’s who attend!

    Jenny Luke

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