What a meltdown feels like for an autistic person.

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It’s never just a sandwich.

As an adult on the spectrum and a mother of children with autism, I am often asked about meltdowns and how they feel. I can tell you how it feels to have a meltdown from my perspective and how to help your child.

When you have a meltdown, it’s as if the world is ending. Everything is too much and you feel like an overwhelming darkness has engulfed your very being. Irrepressible anger that may seem completely irrational to an outsider can be inwardly devastating us internally.

When your child suddenly explodes because their sandwich has been cut at the wrong angle or another child has won a game, or even because they have been jostled in line, it’s the catalyst. It’s the last straw on the camel’s back. It’s not the sandwich, necessarily; it’s a build-up of things that may have happened during the day or even previous days. That sandwich was the last thing they could control and once that erred, their world crumpled. The last bit of control over their universe disappeared.

Smashing, ripping and throwing might be involved in an angry meltdown, as well as self-injurious behaviors to display outwardly the pain they’re experiencing internally.

How do I know this? Because it can take me missing throwing something into the bin or my PIN failing to go into my online banking properly and I will puddle, literally explode/implode and sob like my heart will break. It will be because of a build-up of things, and frustration will be the reason.

There’s also the depressive meltdown, the one that makes you feel like you’re nothing, worthless, and like the world would be a better place without you.

There’s no rationalizing with someone in either of these meltdowns. If you tell us it’s OK, it’s not. You are trivializing our distress and it will make us worse. “Stop” or “Get a grip” are also triggers, because we would if we could; no one wants to feel this way.


Young girl indoors crying

If your child is self-injuring, guide the hands down to a firm surface to hit.

If they are biting, grab a chewy or clean washcloth for them to fasten onto; they may need to feel the pressure of the bite to ground them, so wind a cloth around their hand so they can bite their hand without breaking the skin. If they head-butt, get crash mats and a safety helmet. A weighted blanket works well to help regulate, as does a weighted body warmer. Offer these if you see a meltdown is on its way.

Rumbling is a sure sign, or pacing up and down or verbalising aggressively , so redirect to a safe, quiet area, if possible.

If you are out and a meltdown occurs, the child may run. This is because we literally need to get away to somewhere quiet and sense of danger will fly out the window. If you need to restrain your child and get them somewhere safe ,do so. Print off a few cards detailing your relationship to your child and the fact they have autism and are having difficulties coping, as the sight of an adult carrying or holding down a screaming, struggling child can be mistaken as abduction.

If your child has violent reactions before school or after, it’s more likely anxiety and frustration at not being able to communicate what’s happening. Sensory overload is also a massive trigger. The school should be making accommodations for your child, like sensory breaks and allowing the use of ear defenders, tinted lenses and a chewy if needed. Check that your child is not being bullied, as they may not even realize that you don’t know that they are and may feel resentful toward you for taking them.

It’s never just a sandwich.

Lastly, only restrain your child if they are a danger to themselves or others, as a touch can feel like an electric shock and may cause them to strike out with a fight-or-flight mechanism.

Too often I see posts on Facebook and articles by parents moaning how terrible it is to cope with a meltdown and how hard it is for them; they have no idea how hard a meltdown is.

It’s about your child and how bad they are feeling. Please don’t punish or berate your child for how they have reacted, as its not willful or even conscious. Maybe they even blanked out completely, as in a full-blown meltdown. This can happen, too, leaving us bewildered at the devastation around us.

A cool drink and dark room, as well as clear, short sentences, will all help.

Remember, there’s more to it then a sandwich.

 

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Comments

  1. Kelly  August 12, 2015

    Thank you for this post. I feel so bad for my little when she has a meltdown; usually in the middle of the night. I never know what to do as nothing seems to calm her beyond just sitting through it with her and trying to keep her from hurting herself. I wish she didn’t have to go through such a difficult experience.

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  2. Desirae Olsen  August 12, 2015

    Thank you! This is amazing, and I about cried reading it. My son is HF ASD and many people don’t realize how district some situations can be for him. I Wilkinon be sharing it in the hopes of helping those I love understand someone else I love. Thank you again!

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  3. Tanya Wilden  August 12, 2015

    Well done. I love clear considered descriptions. My son is 8 now and quite verbose so after a meltie as we call them ” half way to a full blown meltdown” he is often able to give me a list of all the things that lead to his overwhelm. This really helps as a preventative tool. Hats off for getting the word out in a positive way. Alot more people than like to admit are affected by Sensory overload and we all need to remember what a fast pace life we are all living.

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  4. Neil Kendall-Cheese  August 14, 2015

    Seen from the perspective of an adult with autism, this is so true. I am incredibly lucky to have s network of friends who understand me. They are all on speed dial as, in my case, a reasurring voice can help if I melt down in a public place.
    I almost had one very recently but with the quick thinking of my wife on the other end if a tablet it was averted. She typed a message to show a member of staff in a restaurant to find me a safe place and help me order food and drink. It was an absolute charm. We are going to make laminated cards for the future.

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  5. Kim Fechter  August 14, 2015

    I am a 31 year old female with high functioning autism. When I was a little kid, I’ve had some meltdowns when things didn’t go my way. I try almost everyday to work on ways to reduce the chances of meltdowns, like if I’ve irritated someone, and they get upset with me, then I should just leave them alone and do my own things.

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  6. Tony Turtle  August 31, 2015

    Thank you, this has given me so many ideas for helping me cope with my granddaughter when she melts. Fortunately, most of the shops and cafes in our neighbourhood know about her and that we may do wierd things. I make sure I have headphones and music on my phone or tablet for her to calm down to oh, and the most important thing – plenty of cuddles.

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  7. Denise  July 20, 2016

    I have, in the past 33 years, developed many coping skills to help my Son thru many meltdowns over the years. You learn each time more and more what “works” best. We removed ourselves from the area and with much calmness and eye contact I would “get him back” and we just sat quietly until he was ready to carry on so to speak. Also as your child grows older they deal in different ways, and yes, you learn to help them cope differently. I have always been very patient and calm during the “episodes” as we call them. I think I have learned a few things from him over the years as well. Love, patience and understanding.

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    • Emily  January 27, 2017

      Are you forcing eye contact with your autistic child?

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  8. Rosie  July 22, 2016

    I liked this a lot because sometimes people forget their are adults with autism too. It is easier to accept this to be the case for children but adults still go through this too.

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  9. Rick M.  July 24, 2016

    I’m an adult Aspie page on Facebook and I tend to write a lot of notes or just lengthy posts about my experiences with aspects of my autism. Interestingly, I now get to say to you something that has been said to me on my page multiple times:

    “Thank you for putting into words something that helps explain what it is I’m often feeling.”

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  10. Rick M.  July 24, 2016

    Errr… I’m an adult Aspie who runs a page on Facebook, rather.

    (Also, depressive meltdowns are some of my most common. Or if I have a rage meltdown, often it’s directed at myself with just some wash-over to others.)

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  11. L  August 27, 2016

    Remember, when they say “danger to themselves and others”, they don’t mean self-injuring. Danger to oneself or others in this context means running into a dangerous place or attacking others, not biting themselves, scratching themselves, or hitting themselves on the head. If an autistic self-injures, redirect them or give them something to block or weaken the response (say, a chewy for biting or a pillow to block their punches), don’t restrain them. I’m saying this because people may class self-injury of any kind in the “danger to themselves and others” category and restrain them.

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  12. Denise  November 8, 2016

    Thank you for this post. My son is 10 yrs old with asd and adhd. when in meltdown he can hit out or self harm. I have been the parent that shouts and screams. Mortified at my child’s melt downs in Tesco when he does want to do the shopping. For me this I a little insight into why my sons behaviour is the way it is. we have good day and we have very bad ones.this post has given me some tips to try with him

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