Can Distress Tolerance Skills Help Prevent Autistic Meltdowns?

Finding ways to prevent autistic meltdowns is always on the minds’ of parents of kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

A lack of emotional control and amplified responses are characteristic of ASD, but these behaviors have not been well understood, historically. In fact, adolescent autistic meltdowns are often perceived as defiance or acting out. In reality, however, they may occur due to your child’s inability to regulate his or her emotions.

When ASD kids learn distress tolerance skills, they can better regulate their emotions, potentially helping to mitigate autistic meltdowns.

distress tolerance autistic meltdowns

The Role of Emotion Regulation in Autistic Meltdowns

Emotion regulation (ER) is a term used to describe the conscious and unconscious skills we use to control our emotional responses to life experiences.

Many adolescents with ASD lack a stable, adaptive level of emotion regulation, causing them to exhibit seemingly inappropriate or extreme reactions to external stimuli. As ASD parents well know, literally anything can trigger these extreme reactions — typically in the form of tantrums, outbursts, aggression, etc. — and they can (and do) occur any time, anywhere, without warning.

Without a functional level of ER, kids can quickly become irritable, anxious, aggressive or impulsive, potentially causing injury to themselves or others.

Distress Tolerance Skills Help with Emotion Regulation & ASD

Historically, parents who wanted to avoid autistic meltdowns were encouraged to steer their children clear of environments and events that led to distress and outbursts. Today, we know there’s a better way.

Many of the behavioral and emotional reactivity issues associated with ASD can potentially be moderated by the development of distress tolerance skills. By developing their distress tolerance, adolescents and teens with ASD can learn to control their behavioral responses in a variety of emotionally distressing scenarios.

Autistic meltdowns are not temper tantrums, despite the outward similarities. A meltdown (sometimes called an autism outburst) occurs when the central nervous system can’t process the child’s sensory overstimulation.

With improved ER abilities, adolescents can regulate sensory inputs before they reach the point of meltdown.

Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT) & Distress Tolerance

Dialectic behavioral therapy, or DBT, is known today to be a highly effective approach for developing distress tolerance, emotion regulation, mindfulness and interpersonal effectiveness.

Essentially, DBT uses self-discovery to help adolescents develop a set of real-world tools they can deploy when confronted with what could become a crisis situation.

The Peers Academy at the Heritage Community provides an environment designed to help adolescents with ASD develop critical life skills. Our program is unique in that we engage with our students where they are, developmentally, and tailor their treatment specifically for their individual needs. Our research-based, neurodevelopmental approach uses DBT to help your child develop their distress tolerance and emotion regulation skills.

We understand how exhausting, frustrating and embarrassing autistic meltdowns can be, and we can help. Contact Peers Academy today to learn more about our skills-based residential academy. We look forward to showing you how effective improved distress tolerance and emotion regulation can be for helping your adolescent avoid and manage autistic meltdowns.