Neurotypical and autistic people have the same fundamental response to stressors. When people recognize something as harmful, they become alarmed. Their brains and bodies secrete combinations of chemicals that people typically recognize as emotions. Those emotions, in turn, spur people to take action intended to face the threat. If these emotions are ignored, then they will build until they prompt the person experiencing them to fight or flee the threat.
Some autistic people report that they feel things too much, but they have trouble expressing those emotions in a way that others can understand. According to psychologists, autistic people can also have trouble recognizing their own feelings, and they may not realize that a strong emotion like anger is building up inside of them. Those feelings can build until they cause an outburst.
Meltdowns and Sensory Processing
If your or your child's meltdowns are often brought on in areas with lots of movement, sound, light, smell or touch, then it could be brought on by sensory overload. Occupational therapy can help increase tolerance of strong sensory input. People on the Spectrum often struggle with places such as airports, grocery stores, cafeterias, crowded areas like railway stations, busy kitchens, school assemblies, and so on.
How Meltdowns Feel
Autistic writer Cynthia Kim describes meltdowns in detail in her article "Anatomy of a Meltdown." Parents may benefit from reading this article.
Meltdowns can be triggered by anxiety, anger, frustration, overload, stress, or fear. The autistic person feels like they can no longer control anything, and may burst into tears, scream, or self-harm. Meltdowns are driven by psychological pain. The autistic person does not enjoy melting down, and hates making a scene so treating it with contempt will only make it worse.
Authors Brenda Smith Myles and Jack Southwick, who wrote Asperger Syndrome and Difficult Moments: Practical Solutions for Tantrums, Rage and Meltdowns use the phrase "rage cycle" to describe what happens when an autistic person becomes angry. "Rage cycle" is somewhat of a misnomer, because meltdowns can occur due to frustration, stress, overload, or anxiety.
Myles and Southwick break down the "rage cycle" into three steps, which correspond (though they don't say so) to the three stages of the general adaptation syndrome;
- Rumbling: Nearby people can tell that something is wrong, and is about to blow. The child shows a build up of emotions with words (screaming, nonsense noises), stereotypical behavior (fidgeting, rocking), and movement (pacing, walking in circles). This corresponds to the alarm phase of the general adaptation syndrome, where the child consciously or sub-consciously recognizes a threat, but does not yet fight or flee.
- Rage: The autistic person loses control. They may start screaming, crying, flailing, or hitting themselves. This corresponds to the resistance phase of the general adaptation syndrome, in which the child takes action to combat the threat posed by the antecedent (such as the parent's aberrant behavior).
- Recovery: After the explosion, the autistic person retreats. They may seek alone time, fall asleep, try to pretend that nothing happened, or apologize. After a meltdown, many autistic people feel shame and guilt for making a scene. This corresponds to the exhaustion phase of the general adaptation syndrome, in which the child can no longer sustain resistance to the perceived threat.
These three stages also exist in adults, but the "rumbling" and "rage" are often more internalized. "Recovery" is much the same.
Psychologists are apt to mislabel autistic people's adaptive behavior as purely emotional, because autism is associated with lower IQ as a so-called "developmental disability." According to psychologists, people with Asperger syndrome can display the same symptoms.
Dealing with Meltdowns (for parents)
- Do not attempt to stop your child from stimming. Stimming helps your child cope with painful sensory stimuli and control his/her emotions.
- Do not attempt to restrain your child. Since your child's flight-or-flight instinct has been triggered, they may instinctively fight back and possibly cause themselves or you serious injury. Autistic children are not inherently violent and are unlikely to harm others if given the space they need.
- Remember that your child doesn't enjoy meltdowns either. They probably feel deeply embarrassed about losing control and attracting unwanted attention.
- Find out what triggers meltdowns and try to minimize those triggers in the environment. If triggers can't be avoided, come up with an action plan to help keep the day fun for everyone.
- If your child engages in self-injurious behavior, talk with them about what could be a less harmful way to stim. For example, head-banging could be replaced with shaking the head vigorously, punching walls could be replaced with a punching bag, and biting oneself could be replaced with biting a chew toy.
- Talk with your child about ways to prevent and ameliorate meltdowns. Would bear hugs help them calm down, or would touch make things worse? What would be a good exit plan if the child feels a meltdown coming on? Discussing strategies with your child will help them feel in control and learn to cope.
- Reassure your child that they are not a burden or an embarrassment.
Dealing with Meltdowns (for autistic people)
- If a sensory environment feels overwhelming, do not attempt to "tough it out." It will make symptoms worse.
- Alter your routines to avoid meltdown triggers when you can. For example, if a crowded grocery store is difficult to handle, try going in the early morning when it is less busy.
- Calming stims such as rocking, pacing, and hand flapping can help prevent a meltdown.
- If possible, remove yourself from the situation and find a quiet place where you can relax. Some autistic people find that sitting alone in a room and listening to their favorite music helps.
- Discuss ahead of time what your needs and triggers are so people around you know what to do.
- Try developing a hand signal with friends or family members to communicate that you feel a meltdown coming on.
- If a meltdown is brought on by sensory overload, it may help to calm down in a dark, quiet room.
- Remember that you are not a bad person for melting down. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with who you are.
- To feel better afterwards, spend some quiet time with a special interest (drawing, blogging, reading about cats, etc.)
- Read How to Avoid Meltdowns and How to Make a Calming Down Corner from WikiHow.
- Understanding autism part three – how to manage a meltdown by autistic comic artist Rebecca Burgess.