As a Psychologist I work with many young people on the spectrum and their families and teachers – it is an area I truly love to work in. I frequently get asked questions by parents and teachers about why and what to do when a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder experiences “meltdowns”. Now, this a very broad question which I usually answer with a barrage of my own questions to truly understand the type and nature of the overwhelming emotion the child is feeling.

The after-lunch meltdown for children with ASD

A category of meltdown I end up discussing is the “after-lunch, school day, meltdown”. Children sometimes exhibit this at school or may show signs of an impending meltdown whilst there. More often than not, children will save this for home and totally unravel where they feel most safe. Prevention they say is better than cure, so I thought I would run a series of blog posts which offer insight into why these meltdowns occur and how to minimise the likelihood of them occurring before they start.    

Why meltdowns may occur

Every child on the spectrum is different – and therefore may have different triggers for their overwhelm. However, there are particular patterns in their difficulties and when problematic behaviour consistently occurs at school and after lunch we can make some assumptions about what might be happening.

Possible reasons include:

Sensory overstimulation

autistic-child-having-meltdownOne of the frequently seen characteristics of children on the spectrum is their various responses to sensory stimulation. Some children are hypo-sensitive i.e. sensory seeking and many are hyper-sensitive i.e. are extra sensitive to sensory input such as sound, light, textures. By lunchtime, many children’s sensory systems have been flooded with sensory information which they process accordingly. Children with sensory sensitivities have difficulty processing this information and which can then trigger feels of anxiousness or overwhelm. Children with ASD then have the added difficulty of being able to self-regulate these feelings and communicating when it is all too much.

Information overload

Children with autism – even those high functioning –  frequently have difficulties in the area of information processing. They often need more time to process information and can handle fewer pieces of information at once.  Trying to multitask or being asked to multitask can also be difficult. Given that the school environment heavily requires information processing – and all of the important learning takes place in the morning – by lunch time many children with ASD have become overwhelmed with information processing demands. These same children may also have difficulty regulating their emotions and/or expressing their needs which becomes the perfect recipe for meltdown.

Lower frustration tolerance

After lunch most children are more irritable and have less tolerance for annoyances in their environment. It is no different for our children on the spectrum, except they also have difficulty regulating their emotions and have difficulty communicating their feelings – especially when they frustrated!

Understanding the factors which contribute to a meltdown will not on it’s own reduce meltdowns. But, it does give us an excellent base to develop preventative strategies to reduce the likelihood – or intensity – of an after-lunch, school day meltdown. 

Next time…preventative strategies.