Meltdowns are a common behavioural trait for those with autism, but many people do not understand what happens during one.
Nor do they know how it feels.
It can be distressing for parents and carers to observe an individual with autism experience such an intense emotional reaction.
Here, we describe what an autism meltdown is like for a person having one in order to nurture empathy.
What does an autism meltdown feel like?
An autistic meltdown is different from person to person, but most agree that often it is the only way to relieve the mounting tension of sensory overload.
To clarify, a meltdown is not the same as a tantrum and should not be treated as such.
People that experience a meltdown are not choosing to and, in the moment, have no control over their thoughts and emotions.
It can be especially difficult for children that have an autism meltdown because parents and teachers can misinterpret it as a tantrum with the motive of manipulating them into giving the child something.
The difference, however, is that there is no such intention and instead the child is purely upset and struggling to regulate emotion.
A good analogy for a meltdown is to imagine that a child in school is like a bottle of coke that is being shaken at various times throughout the day.
If the lid isn’t lifted to let out a few bubbles every so often, the pressure will continue to build.
Once the child returns home, they no longer have to bottle it up and they explode into a meltdown.
Many people have described a meltdown as feeling their head is imploding – as if their brain is quite literally melting.
They lose control over mind and body, unable to think or process information, and instead they only feel.
Feeling every sound, every movement, and more, happening around them, their head is overwhelmed with a tidal wave of sensory awareness that eventually crashes down.
Each person responds to a meltdown differently, with some breaking down and crying while others become verbally abusive.
Some lash out physically against themselves, or those nearby, and others express their pain in solitude.
However, the sensation of pain and loss of control is a constant.
What triggers an autism meltdown?
Now that we have broadly established the profound emotional toll a meltdown takes on a person, the next step is to understand its triggers.
We all can handle a certain level of stress before it begins to affect us, but people with autism start their day with a heightened sense of anxiety.
That leaves them with less capacity to facilitate – at least mentally – much more.
As such, they will reach a crisis point sooner than others.
There are various triggers that can provoke an autism meltdown, but some of the most common are:
Sensory overload is the most common trigger for people on the autistic spectrum, and occurs when one or more of the body’s five senses becomes overwhelmed.
Processing sensory information can be difficult; some people will be oversensitive, and others not.
An example of this could be when an individual is sitting in a crowded restaurant with its loud chatter, scraping of plates, constantly moving staff rushing around and a strong smell of food.
This environment could easily become overwhelming for that person and cause a meltdown.
Research from the UK’s leading autism research charity states that anxiety disorders affect 42 per cent of autistic children compared with just 3 per cent of those without.
Having anxiety is challenging for anyone, but it can be particularly so for those with autism who do not have the tools to cope.
There are many resources available to help, such as OurBoards’ Now and Next Board which can help manage anxiety and in turn, reduce the frequency of autism meltdowns.
Struggling to communicate
It is widely recognised that socialising and communicating can be particularly challenging for autistic people. Often, they can struggle to read social cues, know when to speak, listen and express what they need.
As a result, they end up feeling overwhelmed and frustrated by an inability to effectively communicate which can lead to a meltdown.
How can you help?
Whether the person is a child or an adult, when someone has a meltdown it can be extremely upsetting to witness.
The most important, and helpful, response you can have is to give them the time and space they need.
Meltdowns are different for every individual; some feel the urge to isolate themselves in a calm, quiet space while others have a more explosive reaction than can become verbally and physically violent.
It can be difficult to anticipate what will happen, or what a person might require, but some of the most effective ways to assist are:
- Above all, stay calm. It can be difficult to keep your cool, especially for parents and carers, but staying as relaxed as possible will help them to realise everything is ok and they are safe.
- As mentioned above, giving them time and space they need to regulate emotions and recover from a sensory overload is key. If you intervene too early, and bombard them with questions, their senses may become overwhelmed again and a meltdown prolonged.
- If possible, try to create an area around them that is safe, quiet, and peaceful. Any loud noises from open windows or TVs, for example, should be removed as well as any bright lights.
At OurBoards, we design and manufacture visual communication boards that help individuals to understand and manage their environment, thoughts, behaviours, and emotions.
By using our Personalisable Now and Next Board (known too as a Routine Board or a First and Then Board) parents, carers, teachers and professionals have reported a significant reduction in autism meltdowns.
If you would like to discover more about how our products can help, or have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with a member of our team on 0560 285 0560!
We are happy to help you find the appropriate solution for your situation.