Childs hands in sand.

While it’s often mistaken for a child throwing a fit, misbehaving, or having a tantrum, this is not the case with a sensory meltdown. To properly recognize the difference and respond appropriately, training and education are vital. Let’s take a look at sensory processing and where the meltdowns may stem from.

Child having a meltdown

Understanding a Sensory Meltdown

A sensory meltdown is the fight or flight response one has to sensory overload. Sensory processing issues result from the inability to process information taken in through any one or more of your senses. Children with autism may experience a sensory meltdown when there is a change in their routine or environment, or they are unable to handle a transition. You may also find meltdowns follow sensory overload due to their inability to:

  • Handle new situations
  • Effectively communicate their needs and wants
  • Self-regulate

Recognizing Fight or Flight

Our bodies are wired to recognize dangerous situations and respond in a way that attempts to keep us safe. Our Sympathetic Nervous System sets a quick, involuntary reaction into motion to do so. When a child has difficulty processing sensory information, the environment can appear to be a scary or threatening place, setting off a sensory meltdown while shutting down to all other input. The brain becomes unable to reason or respond while in fight or flight mode. The ability to begin recognizing small signs pointing to a meltdown is critical since many behaviors are mistaken for bad behavior. Many common fight or flight behaviors include:

  • Spitting or biting
  • Running or escaping from a situation
  • Hiding under something
  • Kicking and hitting
  • Covering their ears or eyes in avoidance
  • Resorting to shut-down mode; not speaking or responding
  • Avoiding eye contact

Responding to Sensory Meltdowns with Occupational Therapy

Once the behaviors are recognized as sensory processing issues, the ability to react appropriately becomes more effective. Here at Blossom Children’s Center, our team of occupational therapists collaborates with the therapy team and with you and your family to teach various techniques to help in the event of a sensory meltdown. Combined with our ABA therapy, we will work with you and your child to adopt acceptable coping mechanisms to help regulate your child through these difficult situations.

Collaborating with Occupational Therapy and ABA Therapy

ABA allows us to work with your child to replace an undesirable behavioral response with a more desirable one. Occupational therapy works with your child to addresses sensory processing difficulties that could be the underlying issue of behavioral responses. Occupational therapists collaborate with ABA therapy to help them identify sensory concerns and utilize sensory strategies for preventing meltdowns. Possible strategies for responding to sensory meltdown effectively are as follows:

  • Model deep breathing exercises and have your child breath with you
  • Try not to talk in a way that adds to their sensory overload; use shorter phrases and a quiet voice
  • Maintain control of the situation through a calm, steady voice. Becoming upset or frustrated with or at them will only escalate the response
  • Find a quiet spot, so your child’s environment is free from overstimulation
  • Provide dimmed lights, soothing music, or weighted blankets to help them calm down. Experiment to find what may work well for your child in these moments
  • As your child begins to calm down, acknowledge their feelings and emotions to demonstrate you understand while helping them to label their emotions

Our goal is to work together as a therapy team through effective sensory strategies to help your child learn the most effective ways to respond to and deal with sensory processing overload. Through these sessions, we strive to help create smooth transitions for your child, whether it’s a new daycare, school readiness, academic pressures, or social and emotional situations in general. Find out more about our programs and therapies and how we can support your child.

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