This is something which I feel is worthy of discussion, because at some point, anyone around a person with autism is going to encounter ‘behaviour which challenges’; i.e. meltdowns.
Meltdowns can take many forms, frequently the can be aggressive or appear to be a ‘temper tantrum’. Quite simply the person simply cannot process something; now this might be a major thing or a minor thing. This might result in violent behaviour, such as banging their heads or punching themselves, throwing things or what would appear to be wilful acts of destruction.
The main difference between a meltdown and a tantrum is that a tantrum is wilful behaviour: ‘I’m not getting my way, so I will respond in a fashion which punishes or embarrasses, so as to get my own way in future, or to get my own way now, to avoid continuation of the behaviour’.
Meltdowns put quite simply aren’t something we have a great deal of control over. I’m personally high-functioning and I don’t tend to throw things, kick things and so for. I do, however inter alia scratch my skin, rub my head and generally get incredibly irritable.
Now a meltdown is physically and mentally exhausting.
Research identifies 6 stages in a meltdown: –
Everything is normally happening.
Something will trigger the start over a sensory overload. This can be a great many things, again, we’re all different.
The individual will show signs of distress, this may include ‘visually stimming’ and any self-soothing behaviour or repetitive movement (rocking, banging their head, flapping of hands etc.).
This takes various forms, but in all examples the individual will display signs of extreme agitation and distress.
Essentially ‘coming down’ and normalising your senses. Sometimes a dark space or generally a quiet and safe space will help with this process.
Normalising behaviour. This in some cases can be the point at which fatigue can hit.
At times of extreme stress, I go into ‘shut down’ at which point, I almost fail to do or say anything and any actions taken by me are generally controlled by my auto-pilot system. This will be done in silence.
So, how do we, or those around us avoid or solve these incidents?
This is an incredibly difficult question to answer as anyone living with a person on the spectrum needs to remember, the condition is very ‘person specific’; what helps me, may not help another person*.
If I am going into what I know to be a stressful environment, I find wearing compression clothing can help me; something tight pressing against my chest or legs has a comforting feeling for me.
Likewise, a heavy blanket can be a comforting thing to have at home. Personally, I’ve always favoured a heavy quilt as it helps me sleep, even though I will, if hot have appendages sticking out at random.
For those people who like sensory distraction, there are various things that can be created at home, from simple craft materials which may help the individual to feel less overwhelmed. I recommend Barbara Sher’s excellent book Everyday Games for Sensory Processing Disorder for ideas on this.
I also keep some kind of fidget toy in my pocket, or something else I can click. If this has more than one purpose, this suits me in even better. With the weather turning bad and street lighting becoming equally abysmal as part of some Government policy, presumably to kill off the poor, sick, disabled and anyone not funding the Conservative Party I have taken to carrying a small torch in my pocket. I can click this on and off in my pocket if I’m anxious and it also serves it’s primary purpose; plus, I’m a torch and penknife geek (it’s just almost impossible to legally justify carrying a penknife whilst, say, going to the supermarket, in the U.K., unlike in Switzerland, where everyone does and they manage to not go around stabbing each other!)
*I am not a clinician, doctor, nurse or other expert in the field of treating autism. I am simply, an expert on being me. I am a person with autism, who reads a lot and tries to offer advice and assistance where I can.