Six top tips for managing meltdown triggers for autistic pupils in school

with @Cherrylkd, Special school assistant headteacher

Twitter seems to be a popular hangout for teachers, and I'm pleased to see many proudly specialising in SEND. @Cherrylkd is a popular SEND tweacher who has been an assistant head at a special school for many years. She has also been a specialist leader of education for children with additional needs and has also written books for Bloomsbury and Jessica Kingsley to help others working with children with SEND. 

Before summer, Cherryl tweeted about some successful strategies for working with autistic children that she has developed in her own practice and I'm delighted that she's expanding on them for us today in an article on SNJ.

We really believe in sharing good practice across the SEND sector, so whether you're a parent with great ideas or a teacher or setting proud of what you do, let us know.

How can we help avoid meltdown triggers for autistic children? by Cherrylkd

As adults, we are aware that children need rules and consistency to help them to lead happy lives. Rules help everyone to conform to the norms of society and teach us what to expect in our lives. Rules help children to learn what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. Rules are therefore important.

There is a group of children for whom rules and consistency are even more important. For autistic children, rules are vital for their well-being. They often have rigid patterns of thinking that mean their day needs to be predictable. They may struggle to cope in situations where they don’t know what to expect and where they don’t know what is expected of them. Rules, structure and consistency are therefore important for autistic children.

Behaviour is communication

Autistic pupils may also be prone to an emotional meltdown or displaying what looks like challenging behaviour. This behaviour is often the result of a lack of understanding of what is expected of them. It may be the result of an unexpected change in routine or a lack of communication. A meltdown is often their only way of expressing their frustration as many autistic children are limited in their ability to communicate effectively. Meltdowns, oppositional, and challenging behaviour need to be avoided for the sake of the child with autism and for the other children in the class.

Many autistic children attend mainstream schools, which can sometimes compound the difficulties they face. Special school staff are usually equipped to deal with these behaviours and are trained specifically to work with children with autism. In mainstream, teachers are willing to help but many are inadequately trained to do so and have so many other pulls on their time. However, there are some relatively quick fixes that teachers can use that will make life easier for autistic children, whichever setting they are in.

1. Visual prompts

The first thing to mention is visuals. Visuals are a great way of explaining things at a glance without the need for words. The most obvious one is the timetable. We all feel better when we know what is coming next in our day and the child on the autism spectrum is no different. Structure their day for them in a visual timetable and this will help. There are many different ways of producing a visual timetable and as the teacher or teaching assistant, you can easily produce the best one for the needs of your child.

2. What makes them tick?

The next thing will cost you nothing except your time. Get to know the child, become familiar with what makes them tick. By doing so, you will be able to learn--and therefore anticipate--the things that might induce a behavioural meltdown. For example, if you learn that the child cannot cope with a busy corridor between lessons you can allow them to leave your classroom a few minutes earlier, avoiding avoid the noise in the corridor.

Noise is something many autistic children struggle with. It might not necessarily be loud noise; it could be high-pitched or low-toned noise, or many competing noises. This is because children with autism often have sensory issues and may be hyper-sensitive to noise. If this is the case, then noise-cancelling ear defenders might be the answer. They help the child to block out the extra sounds but still allow them to join a conversation. If funds will not allow the purchase of ear defenders a set of earmuffs will also help.

3. Timer prompts

Another relatively inexpensive aid is a timer. Timers come in many shapes and sizes and can be set for various times and are invaluable for helping children with autism to keep calm. They can be used to count down to the end of a favoured activity so that the activity is not removed without warning. They can be used to show how long is left until the end of the lesson or break time, and they can be used as part of the build-up to a reward.


4. Be aware of sensory meltdown triggers

Assembly is a well-known trigger for inducing an autistic meltdown. As previously discussed, sensory issues often go hand in hand with autism. Assembly is usually held in the school hall, which can also be used as both the dining hall and a PE room. There may be the smells of cooking, the sound of chairs scraping on the floor, the sheer numbers of children and staff all in one place and all this may bring about a refusal to join the assembly. In this case, we need to ask ourselves if their attendance in assembly is vital. If not, maybe we should not insist on them joining assembly. We are not in the business of normalising children, we are respecting their diversity and helping them to cope in a given situation.

A sensory diet is another favoured approach for autistic children. This works best under the guidance of an occupational therapist if possible. If not, you can incorporate parts of a sensory diet to suit individual needs. This might include a circuit around the school playground, a five-minute bounce on the trampoline, or anything to release some pent-up energy.

Similarly, distraction techniques are helpful. If you can see the child becoming frustrated, a quick mission to the school office might just be enough to change their mood and avoid a meltdown. Time out of the classroom for a few minutes after work has been completed is often a good strategy and releases some sensory tension. The child will often return to class in a much better position to join the learning with their peers.

"We are not in the business of normalising children, we are respecting their diversity and helping them to cope in a given situation."

5. Avoid surprises

Predictability and knowing what is coming next is key to keeping an autistic meltdown at bay. "Now and Next" boards are quick and easy to make. They show the child the activity they are doing now and the activity they will be moving on to next. These boards are incredibly useful for keeping children focused, especially when combined with a timer. 

As we know, children with autism often have communication difficulties and may struggle to understand information regarding a new situation. Social stories are a way of explaining an event and what to expect. It is possible to buy ready-made social stories but it is best to write a personal one with the child in mind. Speech Therapists are always happy to help with this task and will advise on the correct structure of the story. 

6. Listen to parents

The last thing I would like to mention is parents. Always take advice from parents. They are the ultimate experts on their autistic child/young person and know far more than we as teachers can ever know about the individual child. Try to establish a good working relationship with parents and exchange information about what works at home and at school. After all, aren’t we all united in wanting the best for the child? 

In summary, we are working towards avoiding a sensory meltdown from the child with ASC. When compliant behaviour happens remember to reward the child as it might have taken great effort to achieve it. Always remember, rules and consistency are key to a successful day.

Twitter: Cherrylkd

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