#SOL17 – Day 3 – Strategy: Catastrophic Thinking

Hi Everyone! On Fridays I post a strategy that can help students on the autism spectrum or with ADHD.

Today’s post will discuss “catastrophic thinking.”

It was a colleague at work, the Director of Special Education, a wonderfully wise friend, who termed this for us. We had been experiencing it since Liam could talk, and probably before, but it just looked like a temper tantrum at that time.


Whenever Liam gets hungry, or frustrated (which often happens when he is asked to write, or complete a task that overwhelms him – something he does not think he can do or that he doesn’t know how to start) he will melt down. He is also a perfectionist by nature: something that he probably could do, could still cause him stress if he feels he’s not doing it to the standard that he or (he perceives) others expect.

The catastrophic thinking comes when he is melting down and starts to say: he hates everything, everything is stupid, or that he can never do something. One time he said he hated school, which was shocking from a kid who wished there were no weekend, holiday, or summer breaks. Truly, things seem irreversibly bad to him when he starts to talk like this.

One thing we learned is that many adults going to “talk to him” to help calm him down usually has the opposite effect. Since social skills are difficult for Liam, all of this talking actually continues to overwhelm him.

Usually, it takes about 15 minutes to “bring him back.” He starts of the road to “balance” with a break from whatever and wherever it was that started the problem, and possibly one individual to listen to him and keep his thoughts grounded. Are you hungry? Why don’t we get a drink of water? Let me know when you are ready to get back to [the task]?

I’ve also advocated for “when… then” statements. This strategy was shared with me for Kieran’s ODD.

“When you write your introduction, then you can take a break to read your book.”

“When you finish cleaning up from the activity, then you can erase the board.”

As a former educator and current administrator, I do not recommend that those preferred “rewards” be something that is not school-approved (such as get to play video games). It needs to be a privilege that fits within the school setting and will not seem “unfair” to the other kids (remember that if other kids perceive that the child is getting something that seems out of place in school, they could resent it and the child – who already has social difficulties).

One time, due to a series of melt downs around writing, one of Liam’s teachers recommended that he take his standardized test on writing in a small group setting. He had completed many tests before, high stakes and curriculum-based, within the classroom. I didn’t want to set up a new routine that would take Liam away from his peers, unless it was absolutely needed. I asked his seminar teacher (who had given him some high-stakes placement tests before), if he had previously exhibited “catastrophic thinking” during testing. She replied that he had not. He was usually excellently behaved during testing. (This is a kid who said in 3rd grade that he loved (and missed) the math state standardized test).

I was able to go back to share with the teacher that giving Liam strategies for how to approach a “difficult” task, such as writing, making sure that Liam knew the expectations and what to expect in testing situations, and making sure that he was not hungry or tired (those were also my responsibilities), would help him stay at an even keel.

While catastrophic thinking comes only once or twice a year now, it is an overwhelming time. I need to listen to Liam and learn what triggered his feeling overwhelmed and stressed. Sometimes it’s truly physiological and I recommend to him that he eat or nap. Other times, he perceives that something is very unfair and that he cannot be successful, such as with too much homework (you know how school projects all seem to come at the end of a semester?). I have been most successful in making sure that he chunks all of his long term assignments, that I process with him how he will complete group projects with others (who may or may not hold up their end of the work), and remind him (and even have him visualize) how he has navigated “tough” situations in the past, successfully.

Adding in this element of meta-cognitive thinking can work wonders in staving off a melt-down, and helping him see that he really is in control.

8 thoughts on “#SOL17 – Day 3 – Strategy: Catastrophic Thinking

  1. I am continually amazed at how much you have learned and are so willing to share. “When…then” statements can work in many situations (even for me when I am avoiding a difficult task!)

  2. Aileen, your post is so helpful. I have a grandson who I adore who, at age 7, could be helped by when…then. We are spending this weekend with him. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

  3. Such support in this piece, Aileen. I can make immediate use of when…then thinking and language. “Catastrophizing” is something we say in our family to manage our reactions to stress when our reactions seem to have sailed over the edge. Thank you for sharing how Liam handles those sorts of thought spirals.

  4. Thank you so much for this post. Very helpful. Important things to remember as a teacher.

    You are incredible.

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