Not Socially Acceptable: Learning to Manage Meltdown Behaviours

We all learn from a young age how to behave, especially in public places: Don’t point. Don’t shout. Don’t interrupt. Stand up straight. Keep your voice down! Sit up straight, don’t slouch. Get up off the floor! Don’t run around. Look someone in the eyes when you speak to them. Shake hands.

The consequences of breaking any of these unwritten ‘rules’ are not usually severe, we may receive judgement from strangers; strange looks, head shakes or under-breath mutterings. How many of us have witnessed the judgments of strangers looking down upon the child having a tantrum on the floor while they silently condemn the parents? Maybe you have been the frustrated and embarrassed parent in this situation? Maybe you have been the judgemental onlooker, irritated at the disruption to your day?

Having an autistic child can be especially challenging in public for these reasons. How do you tell your child that they can’t flap their arms, yell, cry, spin in circles, or lay down on the floor? They may or may not understand that these behaviours aren’t socially acceptable; but they do know that they need to regulate their bodies, and this behaviour feels the most natural way to do it.

As an Autistic person, when we experience the dreaded meltdown in public, the need to express our frustration, our panic, our anxiety and stress overcomes the need to appear “normal”. Our bodies are so stressed that we cannot “calm down” and “behave ourselves”, and trying to make us do this will often make the situation worse, not better. I was once in a busy shopping centre and felt my anxiety levels rising. I needed to leave but I had arrived with someone else, who was busy shopping and unaware of my situation. I started crying uncontrollably and banging my head with my hands, unable to relieve the rising pressure in my skull. I needed sensory deprivation, to go home and lay under my weighted blanket in the dark until I regulated myself again, but I couldn’t. I was not in control, and this made me frustrated, angry and irrational. I could feel the stares of the adults and children watching a 33-year-old woman sitting on the ground, crying and hitting her palms against her temples, and I knew that I was not behaving normally. I was embarrassed, but the emotion and frustration continued to overflow unabated. If I am an adult and cannot control this behaviour, imagine how a child experiencing meltdown feels when they are being told to behave ‘normally’?

My sister, whose son is autistic, describes a typical public outing:

“He’s feeling overwhelmed, so the ground starts to feel unstable like he’s on a boat. So he needs to lie down on the ground to regain his balance with the world. So I’m telling him to get off the ground cause it’s dirty and the behaviour looks naughty and doesn’t ‘fit in’ to what society expects. But he needs to regain his balance with his surroundings. From now on, I’ll kneel down with him until he’s ready to get up.”

The thing to remember with these social etiquette rules is that they are completely arbitrary: completely made up. They are a collection of behaviours that we perform for peaceful cohabitation; to lessen the burden on others; to make other people comfortable by creating a “normal” space, where everything is comfortable because it follows an expected pattern, where people can act and react in predictable ways. Break this pattern, and you create an unexpected, unpredictable situation which throws people outside their comfortable, predictable path and forces them to think, act and react on their own. Nobody is going to throw you or your child in jail or otherwise penalise you for breaking them, yet how many of us are more worried about breaking a social etiquette rule than the law? If you litter, go over the speed limit, run a red light, you are breaking the law and can be penalised, but how many of these behaviours are considered preferable to the judgemental stares and eye rolls of a complete stranger when our child exhibits embarrassing behaviour?

The most important thing to remember when your autistic child is overloaded, shutting down or experiencing meltdown is that a stranger’s opinion or judgement of you and your child does not matter. Your child, their safety, and what he or she needs to relieve their stress and anxiety is more important. Disregard the expectations of society and make sure your child has your support to help them manage their situation, because this will help them and you in overcoming it quickly. Here are some tips to manage these meltdown behaviours:

  • If they need to lay down, let them. Sit with them quietly until they are ready to get up.
  • If they need to cry, let them. Give them space if they need it, hug them if they need it.
  • If they need to spin, flap their arms, bounce against the wall, let them. Do it with them, if you can. Support them by doing.
  • If they cover their ears, let them. Take them somewhere quiet where the noise won’t hurt them as much.
  • If they need an iPad or game to distract them or immerse themselves in to escape the stress of being in public, let them. This is a genuine technique that I often do myself to focus myself from the constant sensory input I experience in public.
  • Don’t talk to them (unless necessary). Don’t ask them questions. Don’t repeatedly ask if they are ok. As an autistic, I can tell you, this hurts. Just be there and give them what they need, quietly.

I am not advocating bad behaviour; autistic children can be naughty just like all children can be naughty. The key is learning the difference between being wilfully naughty and experiencing overload/meltdown, and adjusting your responses to suit the situation. Learning more about the needs and behaviours of autism will help you in your choices. Some autistic children, more commonly girls with autism, may not exhibit many external overload or meltdown behaviours that are immediately noticeable. They may go quiet and withdrawn, and often require a trained eye to notice they are experiencing overload. I will be going into more detail on this in the future on my blog.

And lastly, the most important thing of all:

Your child is unique. Encourage them to be proud of their individuality and the traits that make them a unique person. Their behaviour is not wrong, just different. Teach them to embrace their differences and be proud of who they are. They don’t need to fit in or be like everyone else, that’s what being special is all about.

This week’s blog is by our guest contributor, Catherine from

everyday autism