Riders with Autism Part 6 – Behavior Management and Meltdowns

This is the topic that started my whole research into Autism! I had a rider meltdown, and had no clue what to do… therefore I am so happy to share with you what I’ve learned because it helped me immensely.

What do you do when riders have behavior issues or meltdowns? Please leave a comment!

Riders with Autism Part 6 – Behavior Management and Meltdowns

Again I have to give a shout out to the two main resources that have helped me out the most in this topic: Susan McDowell, M.S.’s seminar “Tools for the Autism Spectrum Disorder Survival Kit” by , and Jed Baker’s book No More Meltdowns!

Understand Why Behavior Issues and Meltdowns Happen

  • Behaviors serve a function: they are trying to communicate something.
    • Ex) to get attention, escape, communicate, vent, play, avoid, express inability to cope, etc.
  • Your role is to figure out what it is they are trying to communicate.
  • Tantrums vs. Meltdowns
    • Tantrums – are intentional and manipulative
    • Meltdowns – are negative emotional reactions to a perceived threat resulting in a fight, flight or freeze response that escalates out of control often causes ones to lose the ability to reason

First, Manage Your Own Behavior

  • Have self-control
    • Don’t take it personally – they are trying to communicate something or are unable to cope
    • Control your own temper – getting angry at them won’t help
    • Avoid power struggles – that won’t help either
  • Have perspective
    • Accept who they are – if they feel rejected it won’t make things better
    • Adjust your own expectations and demands – don’t force them to meet unrealistic expectations
  • Create an encouraging environment
    • Praise, don’t criticize
    • Focus on their effort, which they can change (not their ability, which they can’t)
    • Encourage hard work, which helps them get through challenges
  • Set them up for success
    • Plan for 80% of the work to be something they can do, and 20% to be a challenge
    • Push through behavior issues only when they have been properly prepared and taught coping skills

Handling Behavior Issues

Ideally we would prevent behavior issues, but the fact is they happen! When they do, attempt to handle them somewhat in this order.

  1. Check for physical causes
    • pain, illness, tiredness, hunger, thirst, needing to use the restroom.
  2. Ignore
    • Ignore mild behavior issues
    • Don’t engage in argument – “when you are calm, we will talk about it/play with the ball/etc.”
  3. Validate feelings
    • Make them feel heard
    • “I can understand how you would feel that way” (Baker)
    • “I wish I could make it better” (Baker)
  4. Use Reason and Logic
    • Explain logically – such as from the view of the horse, or for safety reasons, etc.
    • Ex – “Please use a calm voice so we don’t hurt the horse’s ears” (McDowell)
  5. Threat of Punishment
    • Only enforce rules if it leads to behavior change
    • If the individual is past the point of reason and self-control, this probably won’t work, and will only make things worse
  6. De-Escalate (the spiraling loss of control by:)
    • Distraction
    • Give an important job
    • Use a (previously agreed upon) signal to tell them they need to calm down and watch their behavior
    • Refer to a visual schedule so they know the routine or to remind them of the plan
    • Let them vent
    • Create a safe spot where they can go to regroup
    • Have them stand their horse middle of the arena for 2 minutes
    • Soothe – use a calm low voice and few words (Note: for some “it’s okay, you’re alright” might be comforting, but for others it may make things worse by drawing attention to the issue)
  7. Redirect
    • Tell them what TO do (instead of what NOT to do) – Ex) Rider is tapping the horse, say “Let’s pet the horse.”
    • Use “First, then,” with the second thing being something they want to do
    • Say, “No! Do ___________” and demonstrate – Ex) Rider throws the reins, say, “No! Please hold the reins.” Then assist as needed. (McDowell)
    • Give them a choice – so they feel like they have some control of the situation, Ex) The rider won’t hold the ball, so give them a choice between two other objects, then use hand over hand if needed.
  8. Closure & Move On ASAP
    • Find a way for them to complete the task quickly and successfully, then move on to a more enjoyable activity. Try to never leave them with a negative experience! Finding successful closure is critical. Even if it’s just taking their hand to pet the horse then get off. (McDowell)
    • Lower your expectations – from a challenge to something they can do, Ex) instead of making a basket on their own, just toss the ball with help
    • If the behavior is dangerous, a firm “No!” can cause enough pause for you to jump in and redirect them.
    • Ex) Rider gets frustrated and starts hitting the horse. Say “No!” to cause pause, then redirect with “You pet the horse” using hand over hand quickly, then dismount and/or remove the horse to give them space to calm down, and lastly do a different activity. (McDowell)
    • Ex) Rider continuously throws the rings instead of putting them on the T pole. You show him putting the ring on the pole, then give it back to him with the directions. He throws it on the ground again, so have the sidewalker show him what to do, then give it back to him with the directions. If he still throws is on the ground, use hand over hand so he can succeed, then move on.
  9. Be firm and dismount.
    • Try to reach some degree of successful closure first.
    • Dismounting is a last resort – our goal is to keep them on the horse! However, if the behavior is dangerous and not stopping, or you already gave them the ultimatum, dismount the rider. (McDowell)

Preventing Behaviors Issues

Ideally behavior issues would be prevented so you don’t have to handle them during lessons! To work toward preventing them, consider the following steps.

1. Observe and Identify Triggers

  • Try to figure out what causes their behavior issues, aka their “triggers”.
  • Use the whole team – ask their parents, therapists, etc.
  • Record what happens before, during and after behavior issues.
    • Before
      • Ex) sensory issues (lights, noise, texture, cravings), lack of structure, hunger, pain, illness, tired, social expectations, demands, waiting, feel ashamed, embarrassed, losing, making mistakes, being criticized, getting teased, want attention, fear, they misinterpret something (Ex) waiting their turn is taken as not being liked), being with a particular person, certain time of day, etc.
    • During
      • Ex) how they’re handled, others’ reactions, if anyone’s enabling them, etc.
    •  After
      • Ex) getting rewarded, getting attention, getting desired object, avoiding, self entertaining, self soothing, venting frustration
  • Look for patterns in these observations to help ID triggers
    • Note: if you notice their triggers involve volunteers, let them know it’s not personal, it’s usually a sensory or misunderstanding issue

2. Strategize for how to Decrease Triggers

  • Strategize and change the situation to decrease their triggers.
  • Modify the environment
    • make it quieter, lower the lighting, change the texture, give them more or less sensory input
  • Modify the timing
    • don’t schedule lessons when they’re hungry or tired
    • plan more challenging activities when they have the most energy, such as in the middle of the lesson
  • Modify the schedule
    • make the agenda predictable, do a similar lesson plan every time
    • tell them their choices and of any changes ahead of time
    • plan time for transitions – give a 2 minute warning that the activity is ending
  • Modify task difficulty
    • make the task easier, shorter, smaller steps, give visual support such as posters or cue cards
  • Modify the activity
    • make activities shorter, if they have a shorter attention span
    • plan for more activities than you need, in case one doesn’t work
    • if they crave control, give them more riding independence
  • Give them a way to get what they desire appropriately
    • Ex) if they want to chat, set aside specific times during the lesson for chatting and for working
  • Don’t give them info they might perseverate on, or have items showing before they’re used.
    • Ex) don’t tell them about the game until later, if you’re using bean bags hide them until you use them
  • Balance activities
    • Alternate preferred and less liked activities
    • Alternate more and less sensory input
  • Create consistency all across their life
    • Check with other therapies and incorporate the same things they’re working on and behavior management strategies
    • Use things they are already familiar with – red/green light for walk on and whoa
  • Give them choices
    • Make sure either choice works for your lesson
    • Note: too many choices can be overwhelming

3. Teach Coping Skills

  • Teach an alternative behavior that serves the same purpose.
    • It must be just as satisfying to them as the problem behavior.
    • Ex) if the rider pulls hair, give them a fidget toy
  • Teach them how to know when they’re upset
    • Help them learn to identify internal cues and correct responses.
  • Teach them coping skills directly related to their triggers and what calms them down.
    • Common triggers and their coping skills:
      • Challenging work
        • Ask for help
        • Ask for a break
        • Watch how other do it and imitate
        • Negotiate how much work to complete or how quickly
      • Waiting
        • Focus on the payoff – later you get what you want, others will be happy, etc.
        • Focus on the positive – give them reasons to continue self-control
      • Self image feels threatened
        • Learn to identify others’ threats as a reflection of others’ own issues
        • Learn to see it as an opportunity to learn
      • Want attention
        • Teach to initiate play appropriately
        • Teach to self sooth – take deep breaths, count to 10, take a break, do something active, talk, journal, etc.
  • Create a plan and practice using the coping skills.
    • Talk about how to use coping skills next time
    • Practice using coping skills when calm, so they’re prepared for next time they’re upset. Imagine being angry and using the coping skill to calm down.
    • Plan who to talk to for help solving their problem

4. Create a reward/loss system

  • Work toward a reward
    • Daily rewards – Ex) feed the horse a treat
    • Long term reward – Ex) get the horse a present
    • Offer big and little rewards based on how well they do
  • Only use loss as a last resort, if you’ve tried all the above and they still choose bad behavior
    • Lose a privilege
    • Dismount, don’t ride for 5 minutes or the rest of the lesson

Specific Meltdown Behavior Examples

Jed Baker gives TONS of very specific examples of applying the above ideas in his book No More Meltdowns. So you can see how it works, I’m including notes on what I think are the four most commonly seen difficulties in Therapeutic Riding. For more examples, buy the book!

Difficulty Losing

  • Change triggers
    • Play less or no competitive games
    • Don’t play with competitive partners
    • Don’t play if they’re already frustrated or in bad mood
    • Do play competitive games if they just succeeded elsewhere and are in a good mood
    • Choose games they can have success in
    • Focus on good sportsmanship instead of winning. Give trophies for getting along.
  • Teach coping skills
    • Prepare them before the game by discussing the following:
    • Talk about how there are always two sides of a game: the competitive game, and the friendship game. Losing without anger helps win friends, and a success in life often depends more on this. You are more interested in them staying calm.
    • Talk about how no one can be good at everything.
    • Discuss luck, how losing doesn’t always reflect abilities.
  • Reward/Loss
    • Give them points: 1 point for winning, 2 points for losing and keeping control. Then exchange points for a prize or privilege.
    • If they hurt someone, have them apologize.
    • If they make a mess, have them clean it up.

Difficulty Making mistakes

  • Change triggers
    • Remove or decrease distractions that cause mistakes (create a quieter arena, change the lighting, make sure they’re not hungry or tired)
    • Break down the task into smaller parts
    • Give multiple choice instead of asking for recall
    • Use visual support to remember the steps – posters, cue cards, etc.
  • Teach coping skills
    • Teach perspective – it’s okay to make mistakes, it’s how we learn, by asking for help and trying again. You’re not supposed to do it right the first time, that’s why there are teachers. Fear of mistakes can keep us from learning.
    • Model – when you make mistakes, model good coping skills.
    • Teach how to set themselves up well – such as planning before a task, practicing, etc.
    • Practice – ask them to make a mistake then practice dealing with it.
  • Reward/Loss
    • Give points: 1 point for no mistakes, 2 points for mistakes but keeping calm
    • Try not to punish them because they’re already frustrated with themselves

Difficulty transitioning from fun to work

  • Change triggers
    • Make the first activity less fun and the second one more fun
    • Use good timing, at the natural end of the game
    • Use a schedule so they know when transition is coming
    • Prepare them ahead of time, send a schedule home with them
    • Visual support – posters, cue cards, etc.
    • Use a timer so they know how much time is left for activities
  • Teach coping skills
    • Teach perspective – stopping is not forever. If you obey now, you will be trusted with more later. “Because you stopped the game so well, I’m willing to let you play it later.”
  • Reward
    • If they stop a favored game well, let them play it again later.
    • Praise them!
    • Point system

Anxiety, fear, scared of new things

  • Change triggers
    • Change expectations – reassure them they don’t have to fully participate until they’re comfortable
    • Incorporate comforting toys, fidget items, and sensory preferences
    • Use a written schedule of events so they know what’s coming
    • Frontload new activities with lots of explanation
    • Give choices
    • Include special interests
  • Teach skills
    • Teach perspective – the discomfort is only temporary until they feel comfortable, and the more they practice now the quicker they will feel comfortable. Remind them how long it has taken in the past and ask them to predict how long it will take this time.
    • Remind them of past successes.
    • Remind them that overcoming fear will allow them to do things they like.
    • Explain how fear/anxiety works – discuss True Fears (about dangers) vs False Alarms (aren’t dangerous and actually keep us from good things, we tend to fear them until we try them and then it’s not so scary)
    • Explain how to face fears and create a plan – talk about them, watch them, determine the steps to take, participate for 1 minute, take a break, identify feelings and when to take the next step
    • Teach how to relax – deep breathe, exercise, positive self talk, etc.
    • Teach them how to slowly desensitize themselves

I hope that helps!

Coming up next: Adult Riders with Autism

Sources (for this whole series)


Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgment!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *