How to Deal with Autistic Meltdowns

Cam Russo
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How to Deal with Autistic Meltdowns How to Deal with Autistic Meltdowns

Autistic meltdowns can be a challenging experience for individuals of all ages on the autism spectrum and those around them.

To offer assistance and ensure appropriate support during these intense episodes, it’s crucial to understand what triggers these situations and how to respond effectively.

This article will provide comprehensive insights into managing autistic meltdowns, assisting individuals with sensory overload, and offering practical coping strategies. 

What is an Autistic Meltdown?

Autistic meltdowns are intense reactions to overwhelming stimuli, often leading individuals with autism to lose temporary control over their behavior.

Expressions of this state can range from verbal outbursts, such as screaming and crying, to physical responses, like kicking or biting.

Unlike tantrums, meltdowns aren’t manipulative tactics but involuntary responses to sensory overload or emotional distress.

Autistic Meltdowns vs. Typical Tantrums

An initial step in dealing with autism meltdowns is accurately distinguishing them from conventional tantrums.

While seemingly similar, the underlying reasons and manifestations differ greatly.

Tantrums, unlike meltdowns, are often triggered by a child’s frustration or inability to get what they want or express their needs effectively.

They’re usually strategic and cease when a child’s demands are met.

Meltdowns, however, are involuntary and uncontrollable responses to sensory overload and can’t be halted by fulfilling some demand.

Autistic Meltdowns vs. Shutdowns

An autistic shutdown is a different response to overwhelming stimuli. It involves a withdrawal or internalization of reactions.

During a shutdown, individuals may become unresponsive or less responsive to their environment and struggle to communicate, move, or engage with others.

Shutdowns can resemble a form of emotional and sensory “shut down,” where the individual retreats inward to cope with the overwhelming input.

Shutdowns can be triggered by the same factors as meltdowns and might occur when an individual’s sensory and emotional resources are exhausted.

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Causes of Autistic Meltdowns

Identifying the causes of autistic meltdowns is essential in formulating strategies to minimize their frequency.

Triggers can vary greatly, but common ones include sensory sensitivities, routine changes, anxiety, and difficulty communicating.

Sensory Sensitivities

Many individuals with autism have heightened or decreased sensitivity to sensory stimuli.

For instance, over-sensitivity to touch, sound, or light could lead to sensory overload and trigger a meltdown.

Considerations should be made to adapt to the environment or provide sensory equipment to manage such sensitivities.

Changes in Routine

Routine and structure are critical for individuals with autism, and any deviation can be distressing and potentially trigger a meltdown.

Strategies such as visual supports, reassurances, and structured transitions can help manage the impact of unexpected changes.

Anxiety

The unpredictable nature of the world can be extremely challenging for autistic individuals, leading to anxiety and potential meltdowns.

Developing strategies to manage anxiety, such as relaxation time and self-management tools, can help in meltdown prevention.

Communication Difficulties

Communication challenges can lead to frustration and meltdowns.

It’s important to support the individual in understanding and expressing their emotions effectively and adapting communication to be more easily understandable.

The Rumble Stage (Early Signs of Meltdowns)

Recognizing early signs of an impending meltdown, often called “rumble stage,” can offer an opportunity to prevent a full-blown episode.

These signs may include pacing, repetitive questioning, rocking, or becoming unusually still.

Recognizing these signs and implementing calming strategies can minimize potential triggers.

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Coping Strategies for Meltdowns

While managing autistic meltdowns can be challenging, several strategies might help de-escalate the situation.

Creating a Safe Environment

During a meltdown, creating a quiet and safe space can be beneficial.

Reducing stimuli, such as turning down loud music or dimming bright lights, can help minimize information overload.

Offering Comfort and Understanding

It’s crucial to approach the individual non-judgmentally during a meltdown. Patience, understanding, and time are vital.

Asking them calmly if they’re okay while giving them more time to respond than usual can make a significant difference.

Meltdown Diversion Techniques

Distraction and diversion techniques can sometimes help to steer away from a full meltdown.

This may include listening to calming music, using fidget toys, or removing potential triggers.

Developing a Meltdown Prevention Plan

Preventing meltdowns can often be more effective than managing them once they’ve begun.

Identifying triggers, maintaining routines, and teaching coping strategies can form the basis of an effective prevention plan.

Identify Sensory Sensitivities

Understanding and respecting the individual’s sensory sensitivities can aid in preventing meltdowns.

This might involve avoiding loud noises or bright lights or providing sensory equipment such as noise-canceling headphones or weighted vests.

Maintain Routine and Structure

Consistent routines and structures can provide reassurance and stability.

Any potential changes should be communicated clearly and in advance, and extra support should be offered during transitions.

Teach Coping Strategies

Teaching coping strategies when the individual is calm and receptive can help them manage future meltdowns.

This could include breathing exercises, meditation, or calming tools like fidget toys.

Supporting an Individual During a Meltdown

Supporting someone during an autistic meltdown involves empathy, patience, and understanding.

Here are some effective strategies:

Remain Calm and Patient

Keeping your composure during a meltdown is critical. Your calmness can help the individual regain their equilibrium.

Ensure Safety

Ensuring the safety of the individual and those around them is paramount. This might involve creating a safe space or removing potential hazards.

Avoid Overloading with Information

During a meltdown, the individual may be unable to process complex information. Keep communication simple, clear, and minimal.

After the Meltdown: Recovery and Reflection

Recovering from a meltdown can be slow, requiring patience and understanding. Reflecting on the episode can provide valuable insights for future prevention.

Provide Reassurance

After a meltdown, providing reassurance and comfort can help the individual recover. Let them know that they’re safe and loved.

Reflect on the Meltdown

Reflect on the meltdown to identify triggers and patterns. This could involve keeping a diary noting what happened before, during, and after each episode.

Adjust Strategies

Based on your reflections, adjust your strategies to prevent future meltdowns better.

This might involve changes in routine, environment, or communication methods.

Use an Autism Meltdown Kit

An autism meltdown kit containing sensory tools or toys can be a helpful resource for preventing or managing meltdowns.

This kit could include fidget toys, noise-canceling headphones, a weighted vest, or favorite items that the individual finds comforting.

Managing Meltdowns in Different Settings

Meltdowns can occur in various settings, including school and bedtime. Each setting may require different strategies for prevention and management.

Meltdowns at School

Coordinating with school personnel to create an effective meltdown strategy is vital.

This might include creating a quiet place for the individual to calm down, packing a meltdown kit, or pre-emptively explaining any changes in routine.

Bedtime Meltdowns

Bedtime can be a common time for meltdowns, especially after a day of overstimulation.

Strategies for preventing bedtime meltdowns can include:

  • Avoiding stimulating activities before bed.
  • Using sleep aids.

Medication

While most meltdowns can be managed without medication, medication might be considered in some cases of extreme aggression or violent meltdowns.

However, this should be the last resort and always under the guidance of a healthcare professional.

Wrapping it Up

Dealing with autistic meltdowns can be challenging, requiring patience, understanding, and tailored strategies.

Remember, each individual with autism is unique, and what works for one person might not work for another.

Therefore, it’s essential to approach each situation with empathy, observe patterns, and adapt strategies accordingly!

Article Sources

  1. Mayo Clinic (2022, October 7). Temper tantrums in toddlers: How to keep the peace. Retrieved August 17, 2023, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/infant-and-toddler-health/in-depth/tantrum/art-20047845
  2. Autism Awareness Centre (n.d.). Shutdowns and Stress in Autism. Retrieved August 17, 2023, from https://autismawarenesscentre.com/shutdowns-stress-autism/
  3. Autism Research Institute (n.d.). Meltdowns & Calming Techniques in Autism. Retrieved August 17, 2023, from https://autism.org/meltdowns-calming-techniques-in-autism/