Preventing Meltdowns: Outsmarting the Explosive Behavior of Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders

By Judy Endow, MSW

Preventing Meltdowns: Outsmarting the Explosive Behavior of Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Meltdown behavior is quite common for those with Autism Spectrum Disorders. And, indeed, the most frequently asked question by parents and educators is: “What do I do when my child has meltdowns?”

When the meltdown is occurring, the best reaction is to ensure the safety of all concerned. Know that explosive behavior is not planned but instead is most often caused by subtle and perplexing triggers. When the behavior happens, everyone in its path feels pain, especially the child.

Stages of Explosive Behavior

So, what exactly is explosive behavior? In my book Outsmarting Explosive Behavior: A Visual System of Support and Intervention for Individuals with Autism Spectrum (Endow, 2009), explosive behavior is defined as having four distinct stages, followed by a clearly defined recovery period. In addition, the physiological fight/flight mechanism is triggered immediately prior to the explosion.

In this model, the four stages of explosive behavior are the same for all experiencing explosive behavior and are depicted by four train cars called Starting Out, Picking Up Steam, Point of No Return, and Explosion. The idea is to try to prevent the train cars from hooking up because when they do we have a runaway train that ends in explosion.

Working backwards, the Explosion is the stage where the meltdown behavior is evident. Immediately prior to this is the Point of No Return, which is exactly what it implies — there is no going back from the meltdown because this stage is where the fight/flight response is triggered. The pupils dilate, and breathing and heart rates increase. Physiologically, our bodies respond as if our very lives are at stake, and we automatically behave accordingly: We fight for our lives. It is entirely impossible to reason with anyone in this survival mode. As soon as you see the child’s identified Point of No Return behavior you can know the Explosion is coming and need to do your best to quickly create and maintain a safe environment.

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