Recently I was at the dietitian’s office. My mom and I heard a commotion in the waiting room. It turned out that a grandmother was there with his autistic grandson and the grandson had a meltdown. The dietitian went outside to see what’s going on. The grandmother was outside with her grandson and the kid was trying to flee as his grandmother held him by his arm. My mom went out to help and I saw the commotion from afar. I told my mom to tell the grandmother to take the kid to a safe place for him to calm down. The most important thing is to take the child to a safe place. After our appointment with the dietitian was over, we went outside and lo and behold, the grandmother was there with the grandson and the child was happy and calm. The grandmother heeded our advice. I was so happy to help. Even the child gave me a hi-5. The child had his toys and he was okay. I talked to the grandmother and I gave her more advice.
Okay. So you may wonder what a meltdown is. Simply put, a meltdown is loss of control. A meltdown is NOT a tantrum!!!!! Many people confuse a meltdown with a temper tantrum. A temper tantrum is used by a child to get what he or she wants, and if he or she gets what he or she wants, the behavior will stop. It happens in the same way as a meltdown, for instance crying, kicking, screaming and hitting. Meltdowns happen because of something in the environment that triggered it (fluorescent lights, loud noises, crowds, food textures), in other words, sensory overload or sudden changes in plans or routine or triggers/trauma or too much demands at work/school/home. Let me take you down that path of sensory overload.
See above caption. That’s exactly how it feels like. Imagine that your sensory inputs get assaulted every time. Your brains can’t process every sound, smell, taste and touch at the same time. Now close your eyes. Imagine listening to the sound of water rushing into a pool, with volume adjusted at 20. Imagine watching people go by so quickly. Imagine tasting beans and it tastes like sandpaper in your mouth. Imagine a sweaty person touching you. That can make an autistic person lose control (remember: each autistic person is unique. What sensory sensitivities Person A has, may not count for Person B. Keep that in consideration).
I’m going to put this in a parent’s perspective. Close your eyes. Imagine walking in the supermarket with her child. There are a lot of sounds, like the clanging of the carts, the beeping of the cash register, people talking and workers putting items on a rack. There are the fluorescent lights, shining brightly. And it becomes too much for the child. The child presses his hands to his ears or falls down and starts screaming and crying. People start to stare and judgmental people come and tell the parent: “hit the child”, “he’s a spoiled brat”, “give him to me a week and he’ll stop”, “he needs discipline”, “raise your child right”, “he’s rude” and so on. The parent is exhausted and cannot shop. The parent takes the child back to the car. And he’s calm. He’s in a safe place now.
Here’s what to do when an autistic person is having a meltdown:
- Retreat to his or her safe place. A safe place can be a car or his or her bedroom at home or a sensory room or corner.
- If the autistic person stims, LET HIM OR HER STIM!!!! Please, no “quiet hands” or “sit still or I will slap you”.
- Speak in a calm and soothing manner or don’t speak at all. Some can handle speech and some can’t. And that must be respected.
- Respect his or her space.
- Say “if you need help, I’m here for you”. Positive words help a lot.
- Look for the cause of the meltdown (sensory overload, stress at school or work, etc.)
- The autistic person NEEDS his or her me-time. Please respect that.
- Give the child his or her comfort item and/or stim toy.
- And if another person can help, no problem, but don’t judge or stare. Remember to ask first.
- There is a chance that the autistic person cannot speak. Don’t force him or her to speak. Use other forms of communications.
- And in case the meltdown takes place at a workplace, let that person go to his or her safe place (car or the bathroom). Don’t yell, don’t use condescending tone, don’t dismiss that person, don’t call that person names and don’t demand that the person stay and listen to you.
Here’s what NOT to do when an autistic person is having a meltdown:
- Keep being in the stressful environment (loud noises, crowds, noisy classroom or workplace, food textures or tastes)
- Yelling or talking in a condescending tone (ex. “calm down”, “stop it”, “you spoiled brat”, “you’re being rude”, “sit still”, “quiet hands”, “you’re useless”)
- Hitting the autistic person (if you hit an autistic person during a meltdown, he or she may never trust you again).
- Especially for parents (Autism Warrior Parents): DO NOT POST YOUR CHILD’S MELTDOWN ONLINE!!! You will harm your child. The entire world don’t need to know about it (“my life is so hard. My child had another ‘tantrum'”). Only you can address what’s going on by looking for the cause of the meltdown and help prevent it in the future.
- Suppressing stims. Stimming helps your child or the autistic adult to calm down.
- If the autistic person is trying to get away from the environment he or she is in, don’t call his or her name. He or she may not listen at that moment.
- Especially for strangers: Don’t stare and/or give judgmental remarks about the parent and the child (ex. “that child needs a good spanking”, “can’t you raise your child right?”, “you need to control your child. If you can’t control your child, stay home”, “that child is rude”, “you’re a bad boy/girl, you need to control yourself”, “you need to take him to church to let the priest or pastor drive Satan out of that child”, “if it was my child, I would hit him or I wouldn’t take him anywhere until he learns to behave”.)
When you are going out with your child, make sure you prepare your child ahead of time. Tell your child specifically which place you are going and how long you will be at the place. Give your child a warning that it might take a little longer and tell the child why to keep your child at ease. If it’s a new place, you can Google pictures of the place and/or look at videos of the place. If you are buying a new car, and your child is used to your old car, tell your child in advance that you are buying a new car. Take your child to the dealership and show your child the car. Ask the dealer if the child can sit in the car to look at the inside of the car. And look for more information on the internet. Who knows, your new car may become your child’s special interest. If things become too much for your child, teach your child a stop word (ex. STOP or OVERLOAD or TOO MUCH or UH-OH). Make sure your child has noise-canceling earphones or earplugs, comfort item(s) (ex. a teddy bear), stim toys (ex. Tangle, fidget spinners). And shop when the store isn’t so full of people.
Allow me to share my experiences with meltdowns as an autistic adult.
Meltdowns are terrible for me. I lose control and it takes a lot of time to regain it. I had a few meltdowns in the workplace, and I can say it’s so awful that people judge me and speak to me in a condescending tone and tell me I was rude. The worst feeling is to be lectured by my (former) boss on how bad I was behaving. It made me feel lost, confused and downright useless. It destroyed my self-confidence and my self-esteem. It also made me stressed and anxious when some people are around. My meltdowns were contributed by having too much task demands, handling with a lot of people, judgmental and ignorant co-workers, no set schedule, no straight communications and bullies. I still work at the same company and the same department, but I’m away from the ones who helped perpetrate the meltdowns. I’m doing other tasks right now that require no forms of communications whatsoever with the other co-workers. I have a straight communication in between my coordinator, my boss, the other coordinator in charge of one of my tasks, and me. The meltdowns have gone down considerably. I really don’t want to go through that anymore. My wish is for people to be more understanding and more compassionate and less judgmental.
Here’s a link that also helps on looking at the reasons of meltdowns: Meltdown bingo. I hope that this will help autistic parents, autistic children and adults, and also bosses and co-workers of autistic people.