Meltdowns – Sensory NOT Behaviour

Children have an inherent desire to please. They don’t intend to be naughty or mean.

I work with many children who are punished at school for acting out or being ‘naughty’ however their ‘behaviour’ is actually in response to sensory overload. It’s important to put on our detective hats for these children to determine the cause of their behaviour and how we can help the child be more comfortable with their bodies and environment. An Occupational therapist trained in sensory integration can help.

For children with sensory processing disorder, the demands of school can be over stimulating resulting in a meltdown.  During this time, their nervous system enters a fight-or flight response as a protective measure.  Noises can be too loud, lights too bright, classrooms too busy with ‘decorations,’ kids sit too close, it’s hard to sit still, and large spaces such as gyms or playgrounds are overwhelming.  Dealing with this all day long often results in a meltdown either at school or by the time the child gets in the car or home.

Check out this wonderful diagram on Facebook’s Autism Discussion Page describes ‘Stress Overload at School.

So, how can children be helped?

During a meltdown, find a quiet retreat where the chid can calm down.  This may be a corner of the house or class with pillows, fidgets, or a beanbag.  It could even be under the teacher’s desk.  Do not treat it as behaviour!  Here are some ideas of quiet spaces.

To pre-empt a meltdown, try:
-Providing breaks for movement and proprioceptive inputs during the day.  Have your OT help figure our what works for the child.
-Help the child identify when they start to feel overstimulated.  What is the trigger? Touch, sound, novel activity, going to the cafeteria?
-Teach the child how to label their emotions so they can verbalise when they feel stressed.
-Provide forewarning when possible to prevent anxiety or stress (eg. Review schedule in morning.)
-Good sleep and nutrition (another subject in itself)

Here is a brilliant handout to share with teachers and professionals about sensory overload and meltdowns.

This article helps explain children, stress and learning.