First off I would like to apologize that I’ve been super behind in monitoring/approving comments here and responding to people who have contacted me by email recently as I’ve been dealing with a bunch of stressful stuff and executive dysfunction is kind of taking over my life to be honest. Probably the most frequent questions I get asked through this blog, especially by parents of autistic kids, revolve around meltdowns. For example: what are my meltdown triggers, how to deal with an autistic meltdown, and what to do when your autistic child has a meltdown. I finally decided I will post about this so that when people ask me in the future I can just link them back to this post instead of typing out a reply each time. I don’t have children but as an autistic adult, I remember what it was like being an autistic child, so really all I have to offer on this topic is my own experience. Keeping that in mind, here is my answer. Maybe some other autistic people will respond in the comments also.
For anyone who isn’t that familiar with autism, meltdowns are different for everyone and what each autistic person needs during and after a meltdown will be different and may change depending on the day or situation. For example, one of my friends likes to have someone lay on her when she’s having a meltdown. If someone laid on me while I was having a meltdown at this point in my life, I would probably hit them and scream at the top of my lungs. Another friend of mine likes to be talked to and reassured during his meltdowns, while I really need complete silence or my meltdown will escalate until I’m injuring myself. So it’s kind of hard to answer a question like “how do I help my child during an autism meltdown?” when I don’t know your child or what they are like.
Personally I try to keep tabs on what triggers a meltdown for me so that I can try to calm myself down and regroup before I reach a full on meltdown. The big difference between now and being a kid is that as an adult I have more control over my environment, so it’s a bit easier for me to manage my triggers at least a lot of the time.
As a child, my meltdown triggers usually had to do with too much overstimulation and then people around me reacting badly to the way I handled that. For example, as a school kid in a brightly lit and noisy classroom I was always overwhelmed. People were always talking and moving around, which made it hard for me to try to concentrate. I usually felt like my brain was on fire and I often had trouble understanding and processing what was going on because of this. I was basically always overstimulated to the max, and anything more that happened was like the straw that broke the camel’s back and could lead to a meltdown. Like if the teacher asked me a question and I didn’t respond right away, and then someone laughed at me, I might have a meltdown. In this situation, the immediate trigger was someone laughing at me, but if I had not already been so overwhelmed and overstimulated then the laughter itself probably would not have triggered a meltdown. So the real trigger was the constant overstimulation.
When thinking about what is triggering my meltdowns, even now, it is not always so easy to determine a specific trigger. I work to prevent myself getting overstimulated by bright lights and a lot of noise as much as that is realistically possible, because those things put me on edge and are the ultimate meltdown triggers in that the next little unexpected thing could be too much for me to process.
In general, I know that some things will almost always have the potential to trigger a meltdown for me even if I’m not already overwhelmed or overstimulated by my environment. For me these triggers include being yelled at (or even someone yelling around me, even if they’re not directing their yelling at me per se), having people get too physically close to me if I don’t want them to, certain types of loud noises and noises that startle me (such as barking dogs or people coughing/crying loudly or loud machinery), unexpected changes that are outside of my control (like my landlord showing up unannounced or me getting sick and being unable to do my usual activities), and certain strong smells. As much as I would like to be able to avoid all of these triggers, sometimes life doesn’t cooperate. I try to manage my environment and prevent sensory overload as best I can, for example by wearing sunglasses or wearing headphones, or by trying not to schedule more than I can handle in a single day. That’s really the best I can do most of the time.
Once I’m to the point of a meltdown, for me, it’s kind of too late for anyone to do anything to help aside from leaving me alone. In my situation, my meltdown will run its course and be over a lot faster if people step back and don’t try to talk to me or touch me. As I said before, this is not everyone’s preference as we all have different needs. And I understand that if a child is hurting themselves or something like that during a meltdown that intervention might be necessary. However, I can only respond as to my own experience so it is what it is.
The best advice I can offer parents who ask me these types of questions is to listen to your child about what they need, if they are able to communicate that information. And realize that they might seem fine before the meltdown when actually they have been overstimulated and stressed for hours prior, and that the seemingly small trigger was actually just the final drop in the bucket before the water overflowed.
Sorry for any typos or if something doesn’t make sense. I’m super tired right now.