Ways to Calm a Child With Autism

Posted on November 03, 2016

This blog is the fourth in a support series for parents by Marci Lebowitz, occupational therapist and autism specialist. Find out more about how Marci supports autism parents and professionals at www.marcilebowitz.com.

I want to give you a few more suggestions of simple steps to calm your child.

In past entries, we’ve looked at:

  1. What Causes Meltdowns May Be Different Than You Think…
  2. Can You Really Tell The Difference Between A Tantrum and A Meltdown?
  3. Tips For Calming Your Child With Autism – Calm Yourself First!

I want to encourage you to remember (if you can!) that before you go to calm your child, to please calm yourself first. If you have ever read the safety card on an airplane it says, “In the unlikely event of losing cabin pressure, a mask will automatically drop. It is important to put your own mask on first and breathe before attending to anyone else.” It is the same process to calm your child.

The starting point for calming is the same whether you child is tantrumming or in a meltdown. To calm yourself first. However, the actions you need to take for your child will differ depending on whether they are experiencing a tantrum or a meltdown. Let’s do a quick review of the tell tale signs for each and then we will discuss specific suggestions, okay?

Evidence of Tantrums:

Your child will be:

Looking for your reaction.
Trying to get out of something or get what they want.
Watching you.
Safe and not hurting themselves or others.
The tantrum stops when their need is met or child becomes clear they cannot get what they want.

Evidence of Meltdowns:

Your child will:

Have no regard for the adult’s reaction.
Experience distorted senses and reasoning.
Breathe in their upper chest in a labored way.
Rapidly escalate.
Become unsafe to both themselves and others around them.
Appear as if they are panicking, will be extremely revved up and anxious.
Respond to any new stimuli in an extremely heightened way that seems to escalate their anxiety.

The meltdown stops when the autistic can breathe more calmly and more rhythmically. To help the child may involve techniques that help them relax by opening up deep belly breathing and deep pressure.

Tips for Tantrums

Tip #1: Distraction During Tantrums
Sometimes when a child is tantrumming, you can actually distract them, to take the awareness of the child somewhere else. For instance, you can play games with them, move away from them and “pop out” from behind a piece of furniture or doorway.

Tip #2: Ignore the behavior you do not want them to be doing and reward the positive behaviors.
This helps them to begin to learn how to get your attention in positive ways.

Tips for Meltdowns

Tip #1 – Calm yourself first.

Tip #2 – Raise the child’s arms up and place their hands on their head. This process opens up the airway and can begin to promote diaphragmatic breathing. During meltdowns they have a very difficult time breathing and all their breath can be caught up in their chests. When the arms are raised, this lifts and opens the diaphragm so they can naturally relax.

Tip #3 – Instruct them to gently breathe with their arms raised and hands on head. Make sure you are breathing calmly and from the diaphragm. Unconsciously your child will mirror your breathing patterns.

Do not tell your child to take deep breaths. Trying to take deep breaths when one feels anxious is happening in the upper chest. When a person does not breath from the diaphragm, it can cause more anxiety. If they are an upper chest breather, you will see them try to take a hard inhale, and the breath will seem pressured.

Encourage them to take small, gentle breaths, focusing on the exhale, not the inhale.
To make it even easier for them, you can offer them a straw to gently breathe through.

Tip #4: While having their arms raised, hum the child’s favorite song. You may find them humming or singing it along with you. The humming or singing will help them to breathe and soothe them simply by the nature of them hearing something they like. This also allows them to focus on a stimulus, which makes them feel safe, and in control too.

Tip #5: Limit your talking.

This may seem paradoxical, but for those whose primary language is not verbal, talking to them may overstimulate them more. I would NOT suggest telling them to calm down. We’ve all done it, including me when we don’t know what to do. I’ve learned that you have to provide directions and methods to calm, versus telling someone who doesn’t know how. If they were able to they would. If you can’t figure out how to calm yourself and someone does not give you the method to calm, it can make you more anxious and feel more out of control.

Tips for Calming in Public

Sometimes it is helpful to have a “first aid kit for calming” that you carry with you at all times. Items may include:

A favorite toy or object.
Straws for deep breathing (for both you and the child).
A recording of a favorite tune on a portable player.
Snacks and water.

Many of these children need frequent small meals and encouragement for proper hydration. When they are dehydrated or hungry, this creates a neural process that can contribute to meltdowns, or for those with epilepsy, they may experience seizures.


I hope this four-part series has given you both encouragement and super simple tips to use in your everyday life. Your state of calm is key for your child. It is one of the first things that can help your precious child become less anxious and relax.

I would love to hear from you and staying in contact with me is also super simple! Please feel free to contact me at www.marcilebowitz.com to stay updated on how to understand, relate to, and communicate with your child with autism! I would love to stay connected with you!

Marci has been an occupational therapist for 28 years and an autism specialist for over a decade. During her expansive career, she has worked in schools, private outpatient practices, hospitals, a prison medical facility, and skilled nursing facilities.

Known as “the Mary Poppins of Autism,” Marci has developed effective behavioral management systems, sensory calming strategies, and alternatives to physical restraints and seclusion.

Marci is a dynamic speaker and loves educating autism parents, extended families, and professionals about the underlying causes of challenging behaviors; distinguishing between tantrums, sensory overload, and meltdowns; and how to have fun with children with severe autism! Find out more about how Marci supports autism parents and professionals at www.marcilebowitz.com.

A MyAutismTeam Member said:

My 9 also has asthma. And when he's in a meltdown you can't touch him or talk him out of it . If I catch it early we can but most of the time it's zero… read more

posted over 2 years ago


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