A meltdown is scary and lonely. A change in routine can be enough to tip the scales in sensory input and cause what is titled a “meltdown” where a person with autism or asperger syndrome temporarily loses control due to emotional responses to environmental factors. They aren’t usually caused by one specific thing.

Triggers build up until the person becomes so overwhelmed that they can’t take in any more information. In previous blogs, we have addressed the complex topic of meltdowns. While the main message is to have a plan to PREVENT a meltdown, we must also be prepared if a meltdown does occur.

Portrait of unhappy screaming teen girl

I will start by outlining what NOT to do. I think this is best said coming from someone that has lived through a meltdown with neurological implications.  The following is an excerpt from a message from Mr. John Scott.

Meltdowns: What Not to Do

My meltdowns can be very frightening and confusing for those around me. I work very hard to appear as capable and composed as possible throughout each day, so when I finally lose it, people are shocked to see me act so “autistic.” I cry, scream, break things, flap my hands, and pound my fists against my head. I haven’t found the perfect remedy for my meltdowns, but I do know what makes them far worse… 

If I am having a meltdown… 
– DO NOT become angry with me or raise your voice. 

Autistic meltdowns may be frightening to observers, but at their most intense, they are nothing less than pure psychological torture for the person experiencing them. I feel as if I am caught in a war zone, terrified for my very life. My senses are on fire and I have very little control over myself. I may feel threatened by intense emotional displays. This is very dangerous. 

– DO NOT attempt to restrain me. 
I understand that my tantrums are scary, as I’m well over six feet tall, but you must remember that I am far more frightened than you are. I would never intentionally hurt anyone, but if you approach me in a hostile manner, or attempt to use any force without my permission, I may lose the last bit of self-control I have. 

– DO NOT ask me what is wrong. 
Trust me, when I’m banging my head into the wall I do not want to discuss my emotional triggers. 

– Most importantly, DO NOT tell me to “snap out of it.” 
Trust me, I would if I could. Don’t patronize or belittle me by acting as if I could control myself if I only tried harder. This is a good way to make the situation ten times worse.
You may know me from my column here on WrongPlanet. I’m also writing a book for AAPC. Visit my Facebook page for links to articles I’ve written for Autism Speaks and other websites.

CLICK HERE  for the entire posting.

I would like to add one more . . . this is not the time to say “Use your words.”  As the brain escalates in a meltdown, the ability to be rational and articulate diminishes.

So now for what TO DO?

  • During a meltdown a child most needs the opportunity to relax. Therefore, you should respond patiently and compassionately as you support this process. Offer choices of relaxing activities, perhaps through the use of a choice board. If the person is not able to make a choice, then simply present a pre-determined calming activity. Often, this might be an activity that incorporates a strong interest [e.g. video of SpongeBob or favorite song/music].
  • In some cases, it might be best to offer a way out of the situation through escaping the current stimulation of the environment. Again, a pre-determined location might be another room or other safe place [e.g. chill zone, motor lab, etc.].  However, it might be difficult for the individual to transition to another location if the meltdown is at its peak.
  • If there are others in close proximity, then it should be part of the plan to move them to a safe place.
  • Most importantly, do everything possible to keep the individual safe from him or herself. If they engage in head banging, protect their head by placing a pillow or bean bag between them and the floor or wall.

As you can see, there is little to really do during a meltdown. Again, all efforts should be made to PREVENT a meltdown.

by Lisa Rogers

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  1. I have a son who has Aspergers. I’m quite proud of him, as he has been taking university courses, has been certified with many information technology hardware, programs and services, and is currently a System Administrator. It’s a very demanding and stressful position to have. He loves his job, but he gets a bit overwhelmed. Unfortunately, he takes the stress home with him (since he is a salary employee). If there is more stress at home he tends to have a meltdown and lashes out at anyone who happens to inadvertently talk back or speaks their opinion to him. Of course, the other person gets the brunt of his anger vocally and expects an apology. He doesn’t stop to think that maybe he was in the wrong for lashing out. It’s rare for him to apologize, but when he realizes he was wrong, he’ll do things to make up for his behavior. Now he’s trying to do something to take his mind off of work stress and relax before interacting with others. There are still times where he has a meltdown, but I try not to escalate the situation by letting him rant over work and wind down before interacting with him. It seems the best way to handle the situation. What do you think and feel about the way I’m handling this situation?

  2. Love your article, please send info on how to help siblings deal with a sister that has ASD during meltdowns.

  3. Hi. My wife and I have recently separated. Apparently this has triggered our sons onset of aspergers meltdowns.
    Nobody is recognising the fact that this has also coincided with him hitting puberty and the transition to secondary school, which has been a very traumatic experience for him.
    Although he has not had a definite diagnosis, there are a lot of people that believe he has aspergers. (None of these people are qualified to say this but my wife believes this to be true)
    Unfortunately due to our separation and my wife’s lies regarding my behaviour, I have been totally frozen out of our sons treatment. My wife has been advised that when he has a meltdown, she should tell him quite firmly to go to his room otherwise she will have to call somebody. ( ie. The police). I have witnessed that this only makes him worse. On the odd occasion I have been allowed to try to deal with it in my way, which is a lot more relaxed and calmer. Please can somebody advise what is the best way to deal with these situations as I try to tell my wife that no two people are the same and you can’t say “this is how you deal with it. It’s the only way. I know best because that’s what I’ve been told”.
    These people that ate advising my wife are NOT qualified. They are merely speculating, but unfortunately they are teachers, social workers etc….. but they are not qualified to diagnos or suggest treatment / strategies.
    Any advice would gratefully received as I am at my wits end.

  4. I have an adult son with asperger’s syndrome. He is very high functioning – and is currently a college student studying computer science. When he’s extremely stressed, he occasionally has meltdowns where he can become violent and threatens to harm himself. If you could send me more information on meltdowns that would be helpful for him and myself, I’d really appreciate it!

  5. I have a niece who has this. I’ve never heard of it. But my sister who is going to be 69 in November is going to be taking the responsibility of her granddaughter. I don’t know her e-mail address but after reading this, I found it so helpful. I’d like for her to receive this literature as well. I’m not so good with computers. Can you please send this to me and then I can get her e-mail address and send it to her. We need to educate ourselves with this disability in order for proper care for this young lady. She is 18 and her mother hasn’t done very much with her and that’s why she is with her grandma. Thank you for taking the time in reading this. Wanda

    1. Author

      Hi Wanda, I just sent this and some other information on meltdowns to your email. Please let me know if you receive the message. Thank you and all the best to your and your sister.

  6. This is excellent! How do I follow your blog?

    1. Author

      Thank you so much for your interest! Just stay tuned to this website as this is the only site that I post articles. I hope you find others helpful as well. All my best, Lisa

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