An autistic meltdown is characterised as an intense response to an overwhelming situation.
It can happen when an individual is subject to an environment that they cannot handle and will begin to lose control of their behaviour.
These meltdowns are not ‘wilful displays of bad behaviour but an intense response to overwhelming situations’.
Bright lights, unusual noises, crowds, smells, queues, darkness, new people and places can all bewilder and overwhelm those with ASD.
Once control has been lost, they may express themselves verbally and physically, lashing out, shouting, crying or screaming.
In some cases, they may also become violent towards themselves or others.
An autistic meltdown can be a scary, and often lonely, experience that people of all ages with the condition will go through.
Despite this, autistic meltdowns in children are often mistaken for a temper tantrum by parents and, more commonly, by other people.
It can be difficult particularly, for parents and carers, when a child has a meltdown in a public setting because the emotional turbulence they are experiencing is also felt by those accompanying them.
Unfortunately, a child’s behaviour in public more often than not directly reflects on the perceived competence of a parent or carer.
As stated by Spencer Cahill:
“Through smiles, glances and other subtle indications, other adults continually remind children’s public caretakers that their charges’ public behaviour is a reflection of their own moral character.”
A lack of understanding from others in public can be distressing, but it is important to remember that autistic meltdowns are not the same as temper tantrums.
It is not a display of bad behaviour or defiance and should not be treated as such.
When a person becomes so overwhelmed and is unable to express themselves in a conducive manner, it is likely that the outcome will be a meltdown.
However, a meltdown is not the only way in which a person with autism may express that they are feeling stressed.
There can be less explosive responses, such as withdrawing from those around them and refusing to talk as a method of coping.
What should you do when someone is having a meltdown?
When someone is having a meltdown, it is likely that they will be unable to respond to you and will need time and space.
Every person is different, and will respond differently, but in general these are effective ways to help in the moment:
Try to create a space that is safe and quiet without loud sounds or bright lights. This can be particularly difficult when in public spaces, but trying to eliminate as many overwhelming stimuli as possible will be helpful.
Give them the time and space they need to regulate their emotions and recover from an intense sensory overload.
Although it can be stressful for parents and carers, try to stay as calm as possible and ask them if they are ok whilst suggesting things that might help them to relax.
Signs of a meltdown
Meltdowns are often preceded by several warning signs, which are sometimes referred to as rumblings or ‘the rumble stage’.
During this time, they may begin to exhibit anxiety by flicking their fingers, clapping their hands, pacing, asking questions repetitively or showing other physical signs.
Anxiety and other mental health issues are prevalent in those who have autism, with 42 per cent of children with autism suffering from anxiety disorders and 79 per cent of adults with autism suffering from mental health issues.
There is, however, a chance during this stage to help sooth the individual, whether it be with distractions or helping them to use strategies such as music or objects.
Removing any potential sensory triggers as well as remaining calm yourself is one of the most effective ways to assist.
Helping to identify triggers and causes
Being able to successfully identify situations that may cause a person to have a meltdown can be useful.
Unlike a tantrum, a meltdown can often be predicted and you will notice that patterns emerge over time.
It may be a certain time of day, a particular place or sound, that can be a precursor to the person becoming overwhelmed.
Everyone is different, but if there is a way to minimise these potential triggers, you will start to notice a reduction in meltdowns.
Try to be mindful of mental health issues such as anxiety, changes in routine, sensory overload and finding ways to communicate effectively.
Many people with autism will experience meltdowns, but by understanding the condition more deeply – as well as the individual and steps to take to help them – you can make a difference.
Being able to anticipate meltdowns, identify likely triggers while minimising their frequency will have a massive impact.
At OurBoards, we have a vision to support people facing challenged associated with understanding information.
That is why we design and manufacture visual communication boards that assist with understanding and managing 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).
We are happy to help you find the right board for your situation.