What is a Meltdown?
According to Research Autism, a meltdown is an ‘intense response to overwhelming situations’. It happen when an autistic person is overwhelmed by something. They are not something that can be controlled. How do you know if you’re having a meltdown? Well, in the situation you would feel a sense of loss of control and you may do some of the following things:
- Lashing out
- Throwing things
- Rocking and other stims
- Talking to yourself
You may feel some sensations as well such as a tight pain in your chest and maybe even a fiery rage. Your other autism traits may become more exaggerated such as communication difficulties and stimming. One of the worse things is the lack of control and if you’re aware of this at the time, it makes you feel absolutely awful- like you’re trapped in your own body.
Even if the situation that caused the meltdown has stopped, it can still be difficult to stop having the meltdown. Meltdowns do end eventually, and by the end it’ll make you feel absolutely exhausted and terrible. You might feel embarrassed because of how you acted. You may have forgotten things that happen before or during the meltdown. It’s very taxing and very uncomfortable.
Meltdowns can have different levels depending on how overwhelming you feel. For example, when I have a low level meltdown, I may cry, talk to myself, and walk off, but if it’s high level, I would either be on the floor crying, or throwing and breaking things.
What causes Meltdowns?
Meltdowns are caused by anything that causes you to feel overwhelmed. Commonly this is sensory issues. This is called sensory overload. Maybe the lights are too bright, or there are too many sounds and colours. Sensory overload occurs because of sensory processing disorder- an difference in the way a person processes sensory stimuli like sound, sight, etc.
Other times meltdowns can be caused by things that cause frustration, such as a change in plan, losing an object you need, having too many demands, or having an emotional overload.
How do I Deal with Meltdowns?
Meltdowns cannot be stopped once they have begun. They simply run their course. There are two main ways to deal with meltdowns: put things in place to reduce the likelihood of one and try to avoid entering a meltdown.
Reducing Meltdown Frequency
The most important thing to do is to make a note of things that cause your meltdowns and avoid them. If it’s sensory issues: carry something around with you to help avoid sensory overload. E.g. sunglasses, earplugs, etc. If it is something that might be caused by another person, let them know about meltdowns and how that thing might cause you to go into a meltdown.
Another way to reduce meltdown frequency is to take better care of yourself. Get enough sleep, eat well, drink enough water, take breaks, engage in special interests often etc. Anything to get your general stress level down so that you’re less likely to get frustrated or overwhelmed. If you’re stressed, you could enter burnout and that’ll increase your likelihood of having a meltdown. Mental health problems can also contribute to meltdowns, so getting them under control can really help.
Catching a Meltdown before it Happens
Often you can feel a meltdown about to start. Here are some things you may experience:
- Racing thoughts
- Talking too much
- Chest tightness
- Difficulty breathing
If you notice any of these along with an increasing sense of a loss of control, you need to take yourself out of the situation if possible, get to a safe place, and try to calm yourself. This can be through deep breathing, stimming, engaging in a special interest etc. If it makes you feel better, you can have someone else be there with you to soothe and calm you.
How can I Help someone having a Meltdown?
If you know someone who is autistic and prone to meltdowns, there are some ways you can help during a meltdown. The best thing to do is to speak to the person beforehand and ask what kind of support they would like in the case of a meltdown. Every person is different. Some autistic people would prefer to be spoken to, soothed or touched, whereas others would hate it and may even prefer to be alone. Someone may just prefer to have someone there but not doing anything.
If you have not spoken to them beforehand or you don’t know them, you can help them get to a safer and less stimulating space (e.g. dark quiet room) if they let you. If you know anything they like to stim with, you can give that to them. Give them time and space to let the meltdown run its course. You can try talking to them to ask if they’re okay or if they need something. They may not be responsive or able to communicate verbally or at all due to the stress of it all. You can try providing another means of communication such as a notepad or a phone (e.g. using texts).
If the autistic person or the people around them are at risk (e.g. aggressive or self-harming behaviour) it’s best to get them to a place where they can’t get hurt or hurt others. Call someone else for help if you need it.
If a loved one having a meltdown is screaming abuse or hurting you, please understand that they likely don’t mean it and they’re having a really difficult time controlling their behaviour and they may (and should) apologise afterwards once they feel okay enough to function. Most importantly, make sure that you keep yourself safe and okay and ask others around you to help with meltdowns when you feel you are unable to.