Autistic meltdown

What is a meltdown?
IN BRIEF

A meltdown is when an autistic person loses control. Often, this is because they have received too much information from their senses or they experienced too many emotions without being able to rest or escape. So it's very important to respect the limits of autistic people. Loss of control can sometimes resemble a panic attack, anger or strange behavior such as unusual gestures. The autistic person can't stop having the tantrum, and there's no point in telling them to calm down or try harder. Don't touch the person or force them to do anything. It's best to keep groups of people away from them so that they can calm down. If the person understands what's going on and we have a solution to help them isolate themselves, we could suggest that they accompany us to a quieter place.

Why do autistic people have meltdowns?

Sensory overload occurs when there is too much information and sensory and emotional stimuli for the brain to cope with. Autistic people can be particularly vulnerable to this experience. If rest is not possible in the short term, the autistic person’s behavior can change, leading to an explosion of emotions and sensations that may manifest as a collapse or shutdown.

Internal sensations before and during meltdown

Just before and during a collapse or a shutdown, an autistic person may experience various sensations related to sensory or emotional overload. Vision may become blurred, the person may feel hot, sweaty, or notice that their cheeks are turning red. Sensations may be felt in the stomach, such as burning or tickling. They may even feel burning on the skin of their chest and back, or have the impression that their muscles are getting stronger or weaker. They won’t necessarily feel all of these sensations during a collapse or a shutdown. However, these sensations should be considered warning signs.

Meltdowns

A meltdown is when the consequences of overload are expressed outwardly. An autistic person experiencing a meltdown will feel as if they have lost control of their behavior. It’s as if all the pressure accumulated from acting as if they were “normal” were suddenly released. This can manifest itself in crying and screaming. The person having a meltdown may behave aggressively towards themselves or objects, or hit surfaces such as walls or floors. However, the person has no violent intent. An  autistic person in meltdown may also move rapidly and chaotically, or swing their body around forcefully. Meltdown can sometimes begin with a physical collapse, meaning that the person in meltdown may drop to the floor.

How to react to an autistic meltdown?

During a meltdown, it’s pointless and even harmful to shout at the autistic person to stop “freaking out”. If they were capable of doing so, they would have already stopped. On the contrary, shouting or speaking with authority can add a stimulus that will escalate the crisis, especially if the person claiming authority is not a well-known person.

Scenario

A rescuer speaks authoritatively to an autistic child who is experiencing a meltdown. Since he is not known to the child, he increases the intensity of the crisis and may even endanger the child, who may be tempted to flee.

However, as someone witnessing a meltdown, it is possible to take action to help the autistic person regain control of their behavior. If communication is possible with the autistic person having a meltdown, simply mentioning that you’re listening can help. The person having the meltdown will be able to give you valuable clues about what’s causing the crisis, such as the sound environment, repeated requests for social interaction, or a change in routine. If you listen carefully, you may find the cause. From then on, it will be possible to restore the situation. If it’s not possible to fix the problem, simply acknowledging that the overload is real can be reassuring. However, too many social demands can cause the autistic person to panic. So it’s best to stick to one or two simple questions. If the collapsing autistic person doesn’t respond, don’t take it personally. The autistic person may be unable to communicate at the moment.

I once had a crisis during a run in the woods while we were on a wooden bridge that made me feel scared. The guide asked two questions: Are you hurt? Did you fall? Despite the fact that I couldn't speak, I managed to nod. From that he understood that it was best to wait with me for my safety, while giving me space. After a while, I managed to move forward, but not to speak. I kept crying, but I wasn't in danger or left all alone on the bridge.

Important

Even once the situation has been resolved, the person in meltdown will remain in a state of collapse, because they've just exhausted their mental and physical resources. They can't be restored with a wave of a magic wand. On the other hand, resolving the last element that tipped the person over the edge into crisis will help to avoid it getting worse. This is often the first step towards regaining calm.

Having a meltdown is already exhausting. When it happens in front of people, especially in a public place, the meltdown can be experienced by the autistic person as humiliating. So it’s best to avoid gathering around the meltdown person. It’s not a show. Depending on the severity of the crisis, one or two people may be able to offer assistance in a calm, safe place. Some autistic people prefer to experience their meltdown alone. Others will want to experience it accompanied. Some will want to avoid physical contact. Others may ask for cuddles or seek reassurance from their pet animal. Everyone is different.

Important

Sometimes, an autistic person experiencing a meltdown will not be able to communicate using their usual means (e.g. speech, sign language, echolalia or speech synthesizer). This does not mean that the autistic person is unable to understand what others are communicating. So it's important not to talk about the autistic person as if they weren't there. It's hurtful to be ignored.

Dangerous situations

Most of the time, even though autistic people’s meltdowns might seem disruptive to others, they are not dangerous. Their crying, screaming or bodily sensations do not endanger anyone. These behaviors are the most common. However, meltdowns can sometimes place the autistic person or others in danger. This is not the autistic person’s intention. Fortunately, it is possible to reduce the risks.

Dangerous Stims

Stims, or self-stimulation, are essential to enable autistic people to calm themselves. During meltdowns, certain stims can put the autistic person at risk. For example, the person might bang their head against the wall, or hit themselves on the head. It is not advisable to prevent the person from making movements with force. This would put both the autistic person and the bystander at risk of injury. It is possible to offer the person soft surfaces (such as a pillow) so that gestures don’t hurt.

Other types of collision with objects and people

In moments of meltdown, the autistic person may move quickly and forcefully. There is then the possibility that the autistic person may injure themselves or others. To the best of our ability, we can create a safe space. We can suggest that the person go into a room where there is plenty of space, and make sure that other people don’t try to physically intervene, and move objects away. Do not lock the person in a small room, especially if the person is a child. This can traumatize the person and make it more difficult to gain their trust in the future. What’s more, it won’t shorten the crisis or reduce the risk of injury. Towards the end of the collapse, or just afterwards, autistic people are more likely to choose to rest in a room by themselves if they trust their environment and those around them.

What to do if you have dangerous meltdowns?

Even if meltdowns are the result of an overwhelming build-up of stress, it’s not a free pass for all behavior. Hitting others or yelling insults will bring negative consequences on yourself. No one deserves to be hit or insulted. So if these violent behaviors are a part of your meltdowns, it’s important to seek help. Help from a psychologist, psycho-educator, social worker or support group can help put strategies in place for when this happens. Violence should not be a part of meltdowns.

Life after meltdown

There’s no shame in meltdowns. It’s just a sign that the autistic person has compensated for too long in an environment that doesn’t suit them. Certainly, after a meltdown, the autistic person may experience all sorts of negative emotions that affect their self-esteem. However, a meltdown can also be seen as an opportunity for learning. The meltdown informs us that a limit has been crossed. Knowing your limits is an essential step in taking care of yourself.

After a meltdown, the autistic person will probably feel exhausted. This is the time to make sure the autistic person has access to the calm and routine their body has been asking for. The autistic person may want to sleep or do a reassuring activity linked to a specific interest or calming stimuli. In all cases, this is a good strategy for allowing the body and mind to recover.

Catherine Bouchard-Tremblay

Science popularizer