One of the biggest fears a person can have is loss of control of self. The other is fear of the unknown. For many with autism, the unknown can trigger a loss of control. One great fear leads to another.
There are many sources out there that will tell you why we do what we do. (I have autism). Articles will explain why we cannot handle change. Speakers will express the process of transition. Trainers will teach the need for scheduling and routine. However, there comes a point where none of these suggestions is helpful, and a meltdown still occurs. Like a seizure, it can happen out of nowhere, and it can be very frightening and traumatic for the autistic person (as well as others around them). Especially when the cause of the meltdown is unknown. It is terrifying!
You may be very used to meltdowns that your child or adult child (or friend, or coworker) may have. However, a meltdown can look quite different in another person. Meltdowns can look like any of these actions: withdrawal (where the person zones out, stares into space, and/or has body parts do repetitive movements) or outward distress (crying uncontrollably, screaming, stomping, curling up into a ball, growling, etc.). Since you have experience with autism, you can offer help to that person in distress.
Autism Meltdown Strategies
You may have read or heard about children with autism having meltdowns and kind strangers responding with appropriate support. There was a tale of a child struggling at an airport because of a flight delay. The delay broke the routine and expectation and caused stress to the child, who already felt stress from being in a different situation. The inputs from the airport barraged the senses with sounds, smells, sights… and the brain was already in overdrive in trying to filter out all of those senses so the child could function. A kind stranger approached the child and gave gentle, simple commands to help calm the child as well as provide sensitivity and respect.
A meltdown is scary and lonely. An autistic person’s brain is already in hyperdrive when senses come in. Therefore, a change in routine can be enough to tip the scales in sensory input and cause meltdown. It is like a computer that freezes because too many processes are occurring at once. What needs to be done with a computer? Shutdown, or a manual override of some functions. Same with a person having a meltdown. Let them rest, have time to cool down, and/or manually override their processes with basic verbal feedback.
Many suggest approaching a person having a meltdown with gentleness and simple commands. Since so much is going on in the mind while it is in hyperdrive, only simple commands can be comprehended. Too much talking can draw out a severe autism meltdown, not stop it. Too much talking can be too much additional input and too many things to process.
Other ways to calm a person in meltdown: give them time alone to let the meltdown run its course. Make sure you show them respect. A person in meltdown is feeling trauma in losing control of themselves. It’s not what “normal” people do, and it is embarrassing, frustrating, and horrifying. If you can minimize adding any negative input, try to. It is okay if you yourself feel shock or horror, just do not show it.
To you, it certainly can look horrifying and strange. To the autistic person, it is just horrifying. Whatever you do to help, just remember how hard it is for them. Show respect before anything else. Give space, and give simple, clear commands if they are responsive (or if they need to be safe). Finally, try not to let them feel alone.
Mary Janca was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at 33 years of age after years of struggles, including trying to fit her unique self into various molds. She works as a high school teacher and coach for students who are of all learning and social abilities (including with ASD). She has a Masters in Special Education, a Bachelors in Film & Anthropology, and teaching certifications in various subjects. She enjoys exercise, travel, learning, people, reading, and art.
A Parent’s Perspective on Meltdowns
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