At one point or another, those around an autistic person, especially their family members, will see their loved one going through what is known as a meltdown. However, not many people know what it is, and sometimes, many think that the person in question is just being a spoiled brat or is throwing a tantrum. When I was in high school and in college, before I learned my diagnosis, that is exactly what I thought it was, and wondered why I still did it, why I couldn’t control it, and why it was always intense to the point that I ended up being physically and mentally exhausted. Now that I know what it is, I hope to be able to explain what a meltdown is, what it may look like, and what steps can be done in order to help someone going through a meltdown.
A meltdown happens as a response or reaction to overwhelming situations. A meltdown happens if there’s too much sensory or external stimuli, too many unpredictable things happening at the same time, or if there’s too much emotional or information overload. When those things happen, our brains aren’t able to process things, and we cannot communicate well at that moment. When it reaches a breaking point, we end up snapping, and then we have a meltdown.
Meltdowns come in various shapes and forms, from yelling, crying, screaming, throwing things, maybe even self injurious behaviors, to completely shutting down from everyone around you. It can also happen anywhere and anytime, from public places to your own house.
These also happen not because of just one thing, but it is usually caused my many different little things or triggers. When those reach the breaking point, that’s when a meltdown occurs.
However, before I move on, I want to make it clear that MELTDOWNS ARE NOT TANTRUMS.
Meltdowns are caused by a build up of triggers, and because we get overwhelmed by things. On the other hand, someone goes into a tantrum in order to get attention and to get what they want. Also, most tantrums end when they are ignored, whereas a meltdown will have to continue until it is over.
All meltdowns are different from each other, and I’ve realized that my meltdown frequency and the way I have a meltdown has changed over time.
When I was a teenager, my meltdowns consisted of yelling, throwing things, banging doors, crying a lot, and headbanging. It was definitely more explosive, and implosive at the same time.
In college, when I was living mostly in a dorm, I was more implosive, and my meltdowns would consist of complete breakdowns in which I just cry and cry until I cannot cry anymore.
Today, the frequency of meltdowns that I have are lower, or I have mini-meltdowns and breakdowns instead of having one big one. When I do have them, I am still a bit explosive, with hints of being implosive. I’m explosive as I still do yell, slam doors, throw things at times, and punch and kick my bed while crying; but I’m also implosive as that is followed by me sitting on the floor or on my toilet, and digging my nails into my thigh while crying (that last bit has gotten less frequent, however).
However, not all of my meltdowns are like this. Sometimes, I’m able to remind myself of what to do to calm myself down, so I can release all my feelings by screaming and punching and kicking my bed while crying, and then I resort to my own unique calming methods so that the implosion part doesn’t get worse or results in harming myself.
One thing is sure for me though- no matter what kind of meltdown it is, once it is going, there is no stopping it, and once I ride that wave, I feel like my brain has been rebooted and that it can start functioning and processing things again.
Another thing is sure- you can actually prevent meltdowns from happening by understanding what the triggers are, and to recognize the signs that a meltdown is coming so that you can start the calming process before the big explosion happens.
It’s good to sit down with your loved who has autism, and help them identify what their triggers are, and what are the external signs that people can see that will signal an impending meltdown.
For me, my triggers some of my triggers include getting constantly irritated for no reason, and abrupt changes in schedule that I am not prepared for. Extreme irritability, sensitivity, my voice getting louder and louder, swearing a lot, and most importantly, the fact that when I get annoyed, I really do feel an actual physical surge of emotion in my body that I cannot control, are example of external signs that can be noticed before I do have a meltdown.
Minimizing those particular triggers will also help curb having frequent meltdowns.
Once the meltdown occurs, it is really best to have a “calming plan” and a plan of action to help them out.
When someone is having a meltdown, do not try to reason out with them or try to talk to them because nothing that you say will get registered at all. Instead, give them time and space. Don’t try to hug them or touch them while it is happening if you know they don’t like being touched often, and don’t tell them to “get a grip” or “snap out of it”. If you have to talk to them, use a clam and soothing voice, and try also to remain calm as well.
Make sure that the autistic person and yourselves are safe and that no one will get hurt. If they have to punch, kick and throw things, like I do, I actually confine myself to my room. I can scream at the top of my lungs, and punch and kick as much as I want provided that I’m punching and kicking my bed. I also tend to throw things, as long as they don’t break. So, when a meltdown occurs, I usually go up to my room, slam my door, and scream and punch my bed and cry for a good solid ten to fifteen minutes or so. This ensures that both the autistic person in question and others around are safe.
Make sure to establish those rules, so that it can be remembered.
Now, if the autistic person is a child, I’m not entirely sure that it would be a good idea to move them if they are flailing their arms here and there. Allow them to ride it out, but keep an eye on them to ensure that there won’t be any self injurious behaviors, and remove things within their reach that can be thrown or destroyed.
Have a “calming routine or plan”, and come up with it with the autistic in question. This way, they will know what they should do especially after being reminded of it. As of the moment, mine includes praying, listening to calming music, shutting myself inside my room, and if that doesn’t work, watch an twenty minute episode of a show that makes me happy.
Wait for them to be okay and don’t talk to them about what happened or what their triggers are right away. Meltdowns are tiring, so after that, we just want to either sleep, or recharge ourselves in the way we normally do. Once we start talking and once we start talking freely about it, that’s when you know that it’s okay to start talking and especially about what happened.
I hope that this little post of mine was able to explain and help make you understand what a melt down is; and what can be done before, during and after one. If you have any questions or need any clarifications regarding this topic, please feel free to say so in the comments below. Also, if there are any meltdown experiences and other tips and calming techniques you would like to share, sound them off in the comments below as well.
‘Till the next time!