Monthly Archive

Before the Meltdown – Sensory, Emotional, and Behavioral Interplay

1st January, 2008

By: Pamela Ullmann, ATR-BC, LCAT
copyright 2010. Pamela Ullmann.
This blog post has been reprinted with express permission of the author as it appeared on her on the Full Spectrum Blog
Most children who are diagnosed on the autism spectrum have difficulty regulating their emotions and maintaining a calm state as we know. Children with autism and special needs go through similar emotional challenges as typical children do, but it takes them longer to get through them and it may take some creative techniques. In addition, it is sometimes difficult to recognize which emotions may be prominent in the child with ASD because sensory needs may look like an emotional or behavioral reaction.
Parents, teachers and therapists can help by recognizing the emotions and offering empathy when behaviors escalate. De-escalation is the key. By learning about the child’s sensory issues, and behavioral triggers we can begin to recognize the signs before hand; and thereby help the child regulate and avoid an emotional meltdown.
If and when emotions become overwhelming to the child, try to acknowledge those feelings and not stop them from being expressed. Tell the child that when he cries it is caused by a feeling and that it will pass like a dark cloud. The sun will come out again, even though it feels like the sky is falling. Help him learn to take a few slow deep breaths when he first begins to feel upset.
In our creative arts therapy groups or in any other social skills or therapeutic groups, we can address these issues both in neutral times, when there is no upset as well as when a child in the group starts have difficulties. We can praise the children when we see them regulating themselves and we can offer mirroring for when we notice that negative behaviors are escalating.
A child may start banging the table and fidgeting, so we need to recognize this behavior whether out of frustration or another sensory need and take it as a “sign”. We may reflect back to the child either verbally, “I see you are banging the table Johnny, sometimes it is hard to stay in our seats…. And you are doing so well…..” Or perhaps, non-verbally bang along with the child and create a playful interchange. (I have offered clay or model magic and that seems to work wonders for frustration control) However, that banging on the table could have in fact been a sensory need to move, or hear sound, or just feel the table against his hands. We may not always get it right, but we are still recognizing the need. In any case, as we get to know the children in our classes or groups we can distinguish their needs, emotions and behaviors.
Taking breaks and using sensory toys and art materials may help a child regulate when frustration levels seem overwhelming within the group. When a child needs that break, have an aide work with them for a set amount of time a little bit away from the group; not leaving the room entirely unless necessary. Then allow that child to slowly rejoin the activity when ready and then praise them for their efforts.
Featured Author: Pamela Ullmann, ATR-BC,LCAT
Pamela has worked in a variety of clinical, educational and business settings. Her passion for the arts led her to become an art therapist in 1996.
Pamela works therapeutically with children and families dealing with medical, emotional , behavioral and special needs issues (now specializing in Autism Spectrum Disorders). Currently, she is working as an art therapy supervisor for Heartsong, Inc, developing new programming for a new nonprofit organization called Healing Arts Family Connection, Inc and works in her own private practice, Colors of Play, LLC. Please support our contributing authors. Visit Pamela’s Blog, Full Spectrum at and her website at:
In addition to her clinical abilities, Pamela has developed administrative and managerial skills which has enabled her to contribute to all aspects of business planning and development. .

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