Occasionally, parents refer to a child’s tantrum as a ‘meltdown’.
However, the real definition of the latter is quite different.
An autistic meltdown is characterised by an intense response to an overwhelming situation in which an individual is unable to exhibit control.
It can result in crying, screaming, kicking, biting and other negative verbal or physical behaviours.
What does a meltdown look like?
An autistic meltdown is more emotional, prolonged and harder to manage than a typical ‘temper tantrum’.
They differ in many ways, not least because they can occur for a wide variety of reasons.
However they can often be predicted ahead of time.
Autistic meltdowns can be characterised in the following ways:
A tantrum is often a manipulative ploy a child has learned can secure what they want if they scream, shout and cry.
A meltdown, on the other hand, has no underlying intention to gain anything from a situation and instead cries are from a place of genuine upset and distress.
Autistic meltdowns are not solely exhibited by young children, which is the case with a typical temper tantrums.
Children, teenagers and adults that have been diagnosed with autism can suffer a meltdown at any time.
Even the most high-functioning adult with autism can experience a meltdown if they are exposed to high levels of stress.
Unlike a temper tantrum, which most parents agree come from nowhere, an autistic meltdown is often preceded by distinct indicators of distress.
They are referred to as ‘rumblings’, and can be obvious or subtle.
An example could be when an individual becomes less responsive, visibly uncomfortable and requests to be left alone.
Alternatively, there could be less discrete physical signs such as placing their hands over their ears – particularly in an overwhelming sensory environment.
Rumblings can sometimes include, or develop, into stimming which is short for self-stimulatory behaviour.
It is also sometimes called ‘stereotypic’ behaviour.
It may present itself through rocking, pacing, hand flapping, spinning, finger flicking or word repetition.
These techniques are used to calm themselves in an attempt to regulate their anxiety or control their sensory input.
Typically, when these signs are exhibited, it is an indicator that the individual is feeling overwhelmed and stressed and could be headed for a meltdown.
However, in some cases, stimming can occur if they are feeling excited because this is another emotion that appears overwhelming and needs to be regulated.
How to manage a meltdown
If you can detect the ‘rumbling stage’ in an individual with autism, you may be able to intervene before it develops into an uncontrollable meltdown.
Children with autism can often become overwhelmed by excessive light and noise, but if they are quickly removed from those environments and given time to calm themselves, a meltdown can be avoided.
Equally, meltdowns don’t always occur from sensory overload and it could be because of anxiety – something 42 per cent of autistic children suffer with.
Situations in which they are feeling particularly anxious can develop into a meltdown, but with clear guidance and support it can be avoided.
However, if you are unable to intervene in time and the situation is not resolved, a meltdown is inevitable.
The overwhelming nature of the situation can result in a whole host of responses, from shouting to stamping feet.
However, it can also lead to behaviours that are more concerning such as self-harming and being violent.
It is not only a frightening time for the individual, but also those around them.
Occasionally, a scenario can become dangerous if they cannot be physically restricted.
Once a meltdown is in progress, it can be difficult to deal with.
That said, the safety of a person, and those around them, should be of paramount importance.
Moving them to a quiet and calm space is recommended in these situations so that they are away from harm.
It also presents an opportunity to regulate emotions afterwards.
During those moments, it can be difficult to remain calm if you are caring for the individual having a meltdown.
However it is important to always remember that this situation is out of their control.
The individual should be treated with respect, empathy and understanding throughout and time should be taken afterwards to talk through what has happened.
At OurBoards, we design and manufacture visual communication boards that help individuals to understand and manage their environment, thoughts, behaviours and emotions.
Parents and carers have reported a significant reduction in autism meltdowns by using the Weekly Visual Timetable as well as our Now and Next Board (also known as a Routine Board or a First and Then Board).
If you would like to find out more about any of our products, or have any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our team on 0560 285 0569.
We are happy to help you find the right board for your situation. 😂