“Meltdowns” are something which many people with autism experience and which they may have experienced since childhood. Meltdowns can be distinguished from “tantrums” on the basis of having no end-goal in sight. You don’t have a meltdown because you want to achieve something from it (and the same goes for kids and adults). You have a meltdown because you have absolutely no other way of responding to a situation. In terms of emotional regulation, you’ve completely lost your ability to maintain control.
Meltdowns may result in you screaming, crying, throwing things, shaking and yelling hurtful comments. They can be scary and damaging to people around you and, when you’ve had a meltdown, chances are you feel pretty bad about the fallout.
So how can you deal with the fallout?
Accept that you did not want to act in this way
If you have autism, your brain is wired in a way which makes it more likely to have meltdowns. Meltdowns can be a response to sensory overload, responsibility overwhelm and even being asked too many questions by someone who is trying to be helpful. Your reaction may have seemed extreme, to you and others, but it didn’t come from a point of purposefully trying to react in an extreme way. You may not like the way you acted and might resolve to work on strategies to help yourself in future situations, but hanging onto guilt and shame about something which you had little control over in the moment can affect your self-esteem and coping strategies.
Have a safe place for the immediate aftermath
Research has shown that people with autism tend to take longer to calm down and gain control after a stressful episode1. It’s important to have a strategy in place which is going to help you during the “calming down” phase and certainly to have a strategy in place which is going to help avoid escalating things again. Do you need to have a room to go to which is free from kids and partners? Do you need to listen to music or a guided meditation? Do you need to be held by someone close to you? Identify what works for you and ensure you go to this point as soon as you can following the meltdown.
Working with those people close to you
Meltdowns have an impact on people close to you and witnessing someone who is having a meltdown can be a disturbing experience. When you are ready to, it is important to discuss your meltdown with those people close, who may have been affected by it. It could also be useful to show them some autistic resources which explain the experiences of other people with autism who experience meltdowns as it can be a very difficult concept for other people to understand. It’s also important to discuss how people can support you in the aftermath of a meltdown. What do you need from your partner/ parent/ friend/ child? They may think that talking things through after your meltdown is helpful whilst you need complete silence for a while. Or perhaps they completely avoid you, whilst it would help you if they came to check on you. Some people might need to talk through the meltdown in order to process it. Whatever works for you, discuss this in advance with those close to you so that they know how they can support you.
Recognise when a meltdown is coming
Sometimes, we find ourselves plunged straight into a meltdown situation with little or no warning but often we can experience the pre-meltdown signs. Are you starting to feel drained and worn out? Are you in an environment which is causing sensory overload? Are you starting to feel confused, frustrated and unable to express yourself? There is often a build up to a meltdown and, with hindsight, you might be able to recognise those early signs. Take a note of what those signs were for you. What triggered the meltdown? What was the point where things were beginning to feel out of control? How would you have handled the situation differently with the benefit of hindsight? Realising the types of situations which can trigger meltdowns, securing support in the build up period and taking action, such as removing yourself from a situation, can all help to prevent the meltdown from happening. Although hindsight is of no use when it comes to the situation which has passed, it can be useful to take learnings from this situation into future situations which might arise.
Taking ownership of meltdowns
Nobody likes losing control and many people express feelings of shame about their meltdowns. It can be tempting, following the meltdown, to put it on the backburner and hope it won’t happen again, to ignore it and move on. However, if you have a history of meltdowns, they’re not just going to disappear simply because you’re not happy with the way you acted or because you want to move on from it. It’s important for you to take ownership of the fact that this is something which happens for you and to explore what you can do to help yourself, using all of the strategies listed above. Allowing yourself to engage in “stimming” behaviours, such as rocking, rubbing feet and hand-flapping can also have a calming effect on people in the pre-meltdown phase. Thinking about the meltdown as a peak in terms of a timeline which starts from having self-care strategies, such as ensuring you’ve had enough sleep and are finding ways to manage stress, to the immediate build-up, to the calming down phase can help you regain control. This is in stark contrast to simply hoping that it won’t happen again.
Although meltdowns and autism tend to go hand in hand for many people, it is possible, with the right strategies in place, to reduce their intensity and frequency.