Understanding Autism Meltdowns in Adults and Children

Individuals with Autism may often experience meltdowns. Sometimes, this may be because they hold back their natural instincts to display behaviour that is considered appropriate by society. It may also be due to big emotions that they feel overwhelmed with.

Parents, caregivers, family members, teachers, and therapists play an important role in supporting individuals through such meltdowns. Understanding what a meltdown is will help in formulating a tailor-made solution for managing the meltdowns.

Supporting Individuals Through Autism Meltdowns

Causes of Meltdowns

The cause of meltdowns varies from individual to individual. Meltdowns are generally noticed in situations when the individual is being exposed to new or unexpected circumstances. Some of the triggers  include

–        Sensory overload (Individuals with autism may have hypersensitivities in one or more of their senses. They may also have hyposensitivity in some senses. This can instigate sensory overload with too much stimulation, followed by panic and a meltdown).

–        Emotional overload (Individuals with autism may find it difficult to request for help from others when they become anxious. As they may lack the innate mechanisms to calm down, their emotions become too much to handle and a meltdown follows).

–        Information overload (Individuals with autism may get confused when too much complexity comes at them at once. It can be in the form of too many instructions or demands, or even language that they struggle to understand. This information overload can lead to stress, anxiety, and even physical pain in some).

In some cases, such meltdown could simply be due to a change in their activity / schedule or day-to-day routine. Physical signs of anxiety or confusion are exhibited in the form of fretting, restlessness, or stimming behaviours.

Supporting an Individual Through Meltdowns

Here’s what you can do to manage the meltdowns –

–          Find the cause that triggers the meltdown

–          Note down the meltdown pattern exhibited by the individual 

–         Try and predict the signs of a meltdown well in advance

–          Critically analyse situations and plan for new and unexpected situations.

Meltdowns cannot be avoided entirely. To calm the individual going through meltdown, either assist the person to move to a quiet place, away from the stimulation that may have evoked the overload until the meltdown is over. In public gatherings and outdoor places, the person accompanying the individual with autism must:

–          Plan beforehand (pre-planning that involves knowing where a quiet place / a closest free open space nearby) and

–          Prepare well ahead to tackle a meltdown (i.e., make sure to carry a handy ‘comforting-kit’ that contains the individual’s favourite coping mechanisms (like sensory bottles, sensory balls, sensory bands, etc).

–          Help the individual find and use different ways to understand and express their emotions appropriately.

During a meltdown

–          Give them some time to recover from the overload (be it emotional, sensory or information).

–          Gently ask them if they are OK, but keep in mind that they still might need some time and space. 

Keep practicing staying calm and do not expect perfection. When an individual with Autism observes your calm reaction every time to their meltdowns, they will eventually start to imitate and learn from you. Whether they are a verbal or a non-verbal communicator, learning to communicate their basic needs can reduce their anxieties. Moreover, when they learn to seek help, it results in minimizing the frequency of meltdowns. 

WRITTEN BY

Sujatha. S

Speech Language Pathologist

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