Study Says We Might Be Wrong About What Causes Meltdowns in Children with Autism

(Note: The study we’re referencing used the term “tantrums” to describe what people with autism go through. However, we’re going to use the term “meltdown” here because it seemed like that was what they meant.)

It has commonly been said that those with autism have frequent meltdowns because they struggle with communication; therefore, with increased language, speech, and overall communication skills, challenging behaviors like meltdowns will be reduced.

A study published in the Journal of Development and Physical Disabilities, however, indicates this might not be the case. Instead, meltdowns might be caused by low tolerance to frustration or other emotional regulation struggles, though scientists don’t know for sure, as the research didn’t delve into any alternative theories.

Adobe Stock/Sergii Kondrytskyi
Adobe Stock/Sergii Kondrytskyi

The study, conducted by researchers at Penn State College of Medicine, studied 240 children on the spectrum, ranging in age from 15 to 71 months (if you’re drawing a blank on that last number, you’re not alone; I did too, and according to my calculations, 71 months is close to 6 years).

They evaluated these children’s IQs as well as language and speech capabilities and then looked at how frequently these children had meltdowns. For the record, language here means the ability to understand verbal speech, whereas speech means the ability to…well, speak—and do so clearly so that others can understand.

They found that speech and language issues were not linked to more meltdowns; that reasoning accounted for less than 3 percent of them. Those with higher IQs and better language and speech skills had meltdowns just as frequently as those with fewer skills. Additionally, those with the speech capabilities of a normally-developing two-year-old tended to be more prone to meltdowns than those with fewer skills in these areas.

Adobe Stock/Lydie
Adobe Stock/Lydie

“We should stop telling parents of children with autism that their child’s behavior will get better once they start talking or their language improves, because we now have enough studies to show that that is unlikely to happen without additional help,” said the study’s lead author, Cheryl D. Tierney.

Again, we don’t know for sure what is the largest cause of meltdowns in children with autism, as the study didn’t look into it. But researchers think ABA therapies that teach flexibility and socially acceptable ways to get needs met could help improve these behavioral issues. In any case, we look forward to hearing more on this fascinating subject in future research!

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