As an autistic adult and a mother of autistic children 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 a queue, that’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.
Cause and effect anger will be involved in an angry meltdown, smashing ripping and throwing, possible self injurious behaviours to show outwardly the pain internally.
How do I know this? Because as an autistic person, it can take me missing throwing something into the trash 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 utter frustration.
There’s also the depressive meltdown, the one that makes you feel like you’re nothing, you’re worthless, and the world would be a better place without you.
There’s no rationalising with an autistic person in either of these meltdowns.
If you tell us it’s ok, it’s not. You are trivialising our distress, and that will make us worse.
Telling us to “Stop” or “Get a grip” will also trigger us, as we would if we could: No one wants to feel this way!
So: If your child is self injuring, maybe guide the hands down to a firm surface to hit.
If they are biting, grab a chewy or clean washcloth for them to fasten on to, they may need to feel the pressure of the bite to ground them. Or 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 for some autistic people to help regulate, as does a weighted body warmer. If these work for your child, offer them if you see a meltdown is on its way.
Rumbling can be another sure sign of an incoming meltdown, as is pacing up and down or verbalising aggressively. When you see these signs, and if possible, redirect your child to a safe quiet area.
If you are out when a meltdown occurs, the child may run. This is because we literally need to get away to somewhere quiet, and our sense of danger may fly out the window. If you need to get your child somewhere safe, then do so. Print off a few cards detailing your relationship to your child and the fact they have autism and are having difficulties, as the sight of an adult carrying a screaming struggling child can be mistaken for an 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 to them. Sensory overload is also a massive trigger. The school should be making accommodations for your child, i.e., sensory breaks and allowing the use of ear defenders/noise-canceling headphones, tinted lenses, and/or a chewy if needed.
Also check to ensure your child is not being bullied, as they may not even realise that you don’t know about the bullying, and may feel resentful towards you for taking them to a place where they get bullied.
Lastly only hold your child back 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 due to their fight or flight mechanism.
Too often I see posts on Facebook and articles by parents moaning how terrible it is to cope with an autistic child’s meltdown and how hard it is for them, when in reality they have no idea how hard meltdowns are for their autistic child.
So, please: Autistic meltdowns are about your child, and how bad they are feeling.
Please don’t punish or berate your autistic child for how they have reacted during meltdowns, as their actions are not willful, or even conscious. Maybe they even blanked out completely, as during a full blown meltdown this can happen—leaving us bewildered at the devastation around us.
A cool drink, a dark room, and clear short sentences can all help your child feel better.
Remember, there’s always more to a meltdown than a sandwich.