To the untrained eye, an autistic meltdown may appear as temper tantrums or manipulative behaviour; however, they are neither. An autistic meltdown isn’t a calculated response; instead, it’s a loss of control where the logical part of the brain shuts down, leaving individuals operating from their older reptilian brain—the part that controls the fight, flight, or freeze response. In contrast, a tantrum typically ends once a person gets what they want, making it a behavioural issue.
Triggers and Warning Signs:
Meltdowns don’t occur out of nowhere; rather, they have triggers. Some triggers can be avoided, while others cannot. By becoming aware of them, we can at least minimize the potential damage they can cause. Triggers vary from person to person; as a result, it’s crucial for those around you to understand and support you as best they can. However, ultimately, it’s up to us to find what works best and create a plan to share with others when meltdowns aren’t imminent.
Common Triggers and Warning Signs:
There will always be triggers and early warning signs of an approaching meltdown or shutdown. By taking the time to learn what yours are, you are giving yourself the opportunity to gain back control.
Stimming: If you’re autistic or part of the neurodivergent community, you’ll know that stims (self-soothing behaviours) are essential for self-regulation. Autistic individuals stim to manage anxiety, fear, anger, excitement, and other strong emotions. Stimming also helps handle overwhelming sensory input. Stimming is not something that needs to be stopped; however, when stims become destructive or harmful, it’s essential to address them.
I categorise stims into three levels:
Harmless Stims: Stims can be as simple as twisting your hair around your fingers, tapping your foot, fidgeting, grinding your teeth, chewing your nails, picking at your skin, crossing your legs tightly, wiggling and flexing toes, eating, or making a fuss of a pet for pleasurable sensations. Recognizing these stims offers clues about how an autistic individual is coping.
Pay Attention Stims: By paying attention to things that are raising attention you have the potential to minimise dangerous stims. Pay attention stims may indicate a problem. Examples include bouncing around, pacing, slapping or pinching at oneself, flapping of hands, spinning in circles, stuttering, changes in language, becoming verbally abusive, losing control of speech volume, or scratching the scalp until it bleeds.
Dangerous Stims: These tend to occur when one has lost control or is on the brink of losing control. These can include banging one’s head against the wall, punching oneself, lashing out verbally or physically, swallowing dangerous objects, or self-harming such as cutting, burning, or biting.
Identifying Your Triggers:
Triggers vary from person to person. Learning what pushes your buttons is an opportunity for positive change. Sensory-related triggers are among the most common causes of autistic meltdown. New environments, unfamiliar sounds, smells, routines, and changes in routine can be overwhelming. Accept that everyone’s experience is unique, and embrace it as a chance to learn.
How to Avoid an autistic meltdown:
By understanding your triggers, you have put yourself in a highly advantageous position. If your triggers are noise-related, have earplugs or ear defenders available. If you’re able to tolerate music, use it. If someone irritates you, simply have your earphones in as a signal. If you enjoy hugs, seek one out; if not, try a weighted blanket that mimics the sensation of a hug and releases serotonin. Connect with nature by taking a walk, a powerful yet underused antidepressant that’s freely available. Schedule rest days or enjoyable activities into your weekly routine to avoid constant stress.
How to Help Someone in autistic meltdown:
Use simple and clear language when assisting someone in a meltdown. Ask what they need and be patient for their response. Don’t assume physical touch is comforting; it may be painful during sensory overload. Remember that everything feels amplified to them. Be kind and don’t take it personally. After the episode, ask what might have helped and work on a self-care plan together.
If you’d like assistance in creating a plan to navigate overload, overwhelm, and the factors contributing to meltdowns, consider joining my free Facebook group