What a plastic 5p taught us about dealing with meltdowns

techniques for managing meltdowns in children with autism


Saturday morning started with a game of playing shop with my 5yr old Son and 2yr old daughter. It was all going so well, until my daughter had to pay for her shopping.

My son, the shopkeeper, had determined that the total cost was 15p and my daughter only had a 20p coin. No big deal - she pays with her 20p coin and he gives her 5p change. WRONG!



Melting down over a plastic 5p coin

Giving change was not in our Son's plan of how the game should be played, and our "changing the rules" resulted in him getting really upset and trying to grab the shopping basket to take back the shopping.

My attempts to try get him to give change to his sister, rather than trying to grab the shopping and start again, only caused him to get increasingly upset. Soon he was beyond upset, screaming out and not willing to listen to anything being said. Talking was only making the situation worse, and what had been a fun game had quickly turned into a nightmare.


I realised that we on our way to a meltdown when he started throwing toys around, tried to push me out of the way, screamed that I was not listening to him and demanded that I be kicked out of the family as I was being unfair.

What is a melt down

Before going on, I should probably explain what a meltdown is for those that are not sure

Meltdowns are an involuntary physical and emotional reaction to being placed in an overwhelming situation from which there is no easy escape. The person isn’t in control or trying to get attention, in fact they’re often unaware of things happening around them. Put simply, it is a state of neurological chaos where the brain and nervous system overheat and stop working properly.
  -- Snagglebox


Before I would discipline the negative behaviour

Just a few months ago I would have insisted that he say sorry and play nicely, or face a form of punishment such as time out, having his favourite toys taken away or not being allowed to watch TV for an specified period of time.

These situations would usually escalate and result in a stand-off which could last for well over an hour with me getting increasingly annoyed by my son's lack of willingness to listen or behave, and his behaviour would get steadily worse. Frequently this escalation of negative behaviour would include hitting, kicking or even biting.

All over a plastic 5p coin.

This time I tried a different approach

Knowing about meltdowns, and that the behaviour is due to anxiety of not being in control of the game, I was able to identify that we were heading for a meltdown, and knew that I needed to take action to help reduce the anxiety rather than reprimand him for not playing nicely.

So I quietly guided him out of the the playroom without saying anything, and took him to sit with his Dad in another room in the hope that removing him from the situation would help him to calm down.

How it ended

For the first 10 minutes he continued to be agitated, roaming around the room trying to find something to take his frustration out on, and shouting out about how unfair everyone was being.

After 20 minutes he had calmed enough for us to talk to him, and he was open to the suggestion of heading to his room to play with Lego (a favourite activity of his) with his Dad. Initially this involved bossing his Dad around on which piece to put where, however you could visibly see him calm down as he focused on doing something that he enjoyed.

Within 40 minutes he had calmed right down, rejoined his sister and I, and the game went on. From his side it was like nothing had happened, and he was happy for the game to go on. He was even happy for her to have her 5p change.

As for myself I tried to call on my own methods for remaining calm, including trying to be Mindful, controlled breathing and putting on some music to soothe my thoughts. 

The whole scenario was still incredibly emotionally draining for me, as these meltdowns are far from easy, however  having a better understanding of what was happening made it a little easier to get through the situation without making it worse.

What I learned from that 5p coin

  • Not punishing negative behaviour is not the same as condoning it
  • It is important to understand what my Son's anxiety triggers are
  • I need to be aware of when his anxiety levels might be starting to rise
  • When a meltdown seems imminent, I need to take action and remove him from the situation before it escalates further
  • Getting reinforcement from his Dad, can help to divert attention when I am the focus of his frustration
  • When he is in an agitated state I need to remain calm (at least on the outside), and we need to sit with him in a quite space so we can help him calm down
  • Once he has started to calm down, engaging him in an activity which he enjoys can help to distract him and help him to unwind
  • I need to find my own ways to manage meltdowns, so I don't end up having one of my own as a result of not being able to manage my Son's behaviour

We are just beginning to understand about meltdowns and how to deal with them as a family, hopefully with time and practice we will all be able to recognise the signs sooner and can work together to minimise their occurrences and the impact they have on our daily lives.

Have you got any tips on strategies that work for you when dealing with meltdowns? 
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