Storm Troopers: A team approach to handling meltdowns

by Ellen Notbohm

Meltdowns are frequently part of the landscape when you have a child with autism in your classroom or home. Understanding that this behavior is almost certainly a result of a sensory or emotional overload, not deliberate or malicious sabotage, is the first step toward constructive handling of a meltdown. Having a plan in place when one hits is essential to minimizing the impact of these events to both child and environment, whether classroom or home.

Father Robert Tywoniak was no stranger to dealing with crisis when Hurricane Andrew hit his Florida community in 1992. As CEO of Catholic Charities Child Welfare Division, his agency was a frontline responder. They were able to save hundred of lives per day, track all children in the devastated area, rebuild and come back as a stronger agency that before the storm hit. The key to his success? “Good leadership, strategic planning, rehearsal and doing it all together.”


A child with autism in the midst of a meltdown is a little hurricane unto himself. Father Bob’s article “Preparing for Natural Disaster” in the July-August 2006 issue of Children’s Voice cited areas for pre-planning that seem, eerily, to parallel our children’s meltdowns. Look at the following and see if you don’t agree. Father Bob attributes his team’s successful weathering of the storm to the facts they already knew:

  • What a storm (meltdown) is and what it can do (what the child might do during a meltdown)
  • How to address a storm’s (meltdown’s) many challenges: how to detect its approach, how to prevent some of the damage, how to keep children and property safe, steps to recovery
  • That expectations may turn out wrong during the actual event (your Plan A handling of the meltdown is not effective)
  • How each person on the staff (not to mention the child!) thinks and acts, especially under pressure
  • Who within and outside the agency (classroom, school, home) can be counted on
  • That leadership is a chain of command and that you might have to be in command if others are incapacitated (or if Plan A doesn’t work, you want to be able to move swiftly to Plan B, C or D)

Having a plan in place to handle meltdowns is not a substitute for what should be the ongoing process of trying to identify the source of the meltdowns. Frequent triggers include sensory overload, inability to communicate needs, unarticulated physical pain, inability to meet academic or social expectations. But being able to act calmly and compassionately to help the child when the storm does strike is a huge piece of building the trust in both you and in himself that will ultimately give him the tools to overcome such obstacles.

Heed possible warning signs of an impending meltdown.

  • Inappropriate movement: out of seat, moving around room, leaving room, walking away when someone is talking to him
  • Destructive behavior: tearing books or paper, breaking pencils or rulers, kicking over chairs
  • Abusive language: swearing, shouting, insulting others, making threats
  • Physical signs: crying, hyperventilating or holding breath, sweating, loss of balance or orientation, skin flushes or goes pale
  • Covering ears or eyes
  • Pushing persons or objects away
  • Hurting self or others
  • Intense stimming

Designate one or more “safe haven” recovery areas. These would be sensory-friendly areas where the student can go to regroup and calm himself, such as a sensory corner of the classroom with pillows, bean bag, rocking chair, head phones, books, fidgets. Other possibilities might include a quiet office (principal, nurse, counselor) or room in the house, an outside area (with adult supervision, and only if the child can be contained and kept safe), or another area of the school (gym, cafeteria, resource center).

Marshall the support team. Establish a chain of command and a de-escalation process so that the child is never being double or tripled-teamed by multiple adults who are all talking at him at once. This makes it impossible for him to comply and may actually escalate rather than defuse the situation. All team members should be familiar with the de-escalation plan, as any member may be called upon to step in at any time. In the school setting, the chain of command for intervention might look like: paraprofessional, teacher, special educator, another teacher familiar to student, counselor or school psychologist, principal, other school staff.

Once the team and the plan is in place, a periodic rehearsal or dry-run will ensure your readiness on a moment’s notice. We all remember what it’s like to be shown how to change a tire in Driver’s Ed, only to encounter our first flat tire ten years later and find that the knowledge has lain dormant for so long as to be effectively gone. Good planning must include regularly “hitting the refresh button.”

Teach him steps to rejoin the class. Engage the child in pre-taught stress reduction techniques. Never try to teach when a child is angry or otherwise distraught. When the meltdown subsides, let the student know he may rejoin the class or family when his voice is quiet like yours, his body is under control and he is able to follow directions from his teacher or parent. Check for comprehension of these conditions.

Help him make restitution. He can:

  • Restore disrupted areas
  • Repair, replace or dispose of broken items
  • Apologize if appropriate: saying “I’m sorry,” writing a note, drawing a picture, using an “I’m sorry” card

Follow up

With the child: at a time when the child is calm (but not too long after the episode), review the incident in a supportive – not punitive – manner that ensures he understands 1) what he did wrong, 2) how he can handle it differently next time (present information visually if possible), and 3) what he did right! “That was a nice note you gave to Teddy. He knows you didn’t mean to hurt him and now he feels better.” Talk about or create a short story with visuals to help the child identify and understand his own feelings, how our feelings affect our behavior, and how everyone – not just him – experiences and must cope with these types of feelings at times.

With the team: one of the basic tenets of social work is that you must take care of yourself if you are to be able to effectively care for others. Dealing with meltdowns is stressful. Team members’ support of each other is important.

  • Meet as a group and review what worked and what didn’t. Brainstorm any new ideas that may have arisen as a result of the incident. When you handled it well, give yourself credit.
  • Air personal feelings. Adults and children both push each other’s buttons without realizing it. Internalizing these feelings may be natural, but ultimately the team will be stronger if such feelings can be put on the table and acknowledged in a constructive manner.
  • Know when to ask for outside help. A fresh set of eyes or a different expert skill set may offer new perspectives. It sometimes is hard to see the forest for the trees.
  • Encourage each other to build self-care into your life. Many teachers are parents too, and go home to a second shift similar to what they have been doing during their work day – nurturing and teaching. And all parents are teachers too. It’s important to take time to nurture yourself too.


2008, 2013 Ellen Notbohm
Photo: micromonkey/Dollar Photo Club

Ellen Notbohm is author of one of the autism community’s most beloved books, Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew and three other award-winning books on autism. Her work has informed, inspired and delighted millions worldwide in more than twenty languages. She is a longtime columnist for Autism Asperger’s Digest and a contributor to numerous publications, websites, classrooms and conferences worldwide.

Contact the author for permission to reproduce in any way, including posting on the Internet.