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.
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.
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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
The Education (K-12) Blogs and Special Ed Q & A are written and maintained weekly by Lisa Rogers with Educating Diverse Learners. Lisa received her M.A. in Special Education with an endorsement in the area of individuals with severe disabilities. Mrs. Rogers has also created products that have been used throughout the state of Texas for training purposes. Through the Association for Texas Professional Educators [ATPE], Ms. Rogers has produced an online course that targets the importance of visual strategies for student with autism spectrum disorders and just released her highly anticipated book titled: Visual Supports for Visual Thinkers.
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