Many people may witness little Mr having a meltdown and instantly think ‘what a naughty child’. I’m sure many of you reading this can relate to that situation. I’m not sure that many people who have not experienced a meltdown have the understanding of what a meltdown is, and how it’s different to when a child is being naughty and having a tantrum. They are two very different and distinct things.
However, people can see a child having a meltdown in a public place, thrashing and stamping and all the others things they may do. They may see this and you know they jump to that wrong conclusion, giving you glares and stares and the rest – I love the comment I have heard so many times of ‘O, someones not happy’…
This really comes from people not knowing what a meltdown is and how it isn’t something being done when the child is being naughty, but when the child (or adult) has become completely overwhelmed by their current situation and just loosed control of their behaviour.
What is a meltdown?
So, before I start talking about the strategies we use when little Mr is having a meltdown; given the statement I made above, I wanted to spend a moment and examine, talk about what a meltdown is, and what it is not.
There is a fantastic page on The National Autistic Society on Meltdowns which I refer to quite often. In fact, the following quote from their website really does give a great definition of what a meltdown is
A meltdown is ‘an intense response to overwhelming situations’. It happens when someone becomes completely overwhelmed by their current situation and temporarily loses behavioural control. – The National Autistic Society.
I think that is a perfect definition really. It goes on to say that a loss of control can include things such as expression verbally (so screaming, shouting, crying, etc) and also physically (such as kicking, hitting, biting). In our experience, it tends to be both.
It’s not the child being naughty or bad, wanting their own way or anything like that. It’s just being so overwhelmed with the current situation. For little Mr it’s usually sensory, the wrong lighting, smell, colours and so on. It could also be because we’ve told him and arranged to do something, then something stops us as a place is closed or some other restriction.
Both these situations overwhelm him and it builds up to a point where he just can’t handle or contain it anymore and we get a meltdown.
Meltdowns are not the only way a person on the autism spectrum may express feeling overwhelmed. – The National Autistic Society
So, not being naughty, just overwhelmed with something or everything.
What can cause a meltdown?
As I said above, a meltdown is caused, generally, by being overwhelmed. The difficulty, sometimes, is to figure out what is overwhelming them.
Sometimes it’s so obvious what it could be. However, sometimes it’s certainly not. The thing is, sometimes it’s not even about the current environment. Sometimes there could have been a changed in their daily routine and then over time during the day, the change has built up to a point where they are suddenly overwhelmed by it.
Sometimes it is easy to anticipate what may cause a meltdown and other times not. If you can anticipate, then you can use things such as a social story to describe and put into context before the change happens. This is something we are putting into place for little Mr before he flies again, the first time in 3-4 years at that point.
Other times you can’t anticipate when or what may cause it. These are probably the most difficult times as you can’t work out what may have caused the meltdown.
What can you do?
If you are a third party who see’s someone having a meltdown, maybe with a family member, carer, etc; you may wonder what to do. There are a few things that you can do that I know would be really appreciated.
- The first thing is such a small thing but makes such a difference. It simple is – Don’t judge them. This can make the world of a difference to someone with autism or their carers.
- Make some space. What you could help is to help provide a safe space. Somewhere quiet. Simply ask people to move along and not stare, to turn off any loud music or bright lights. Anything you think could reduce the information overload.
- Give them some time. It takes time to recover from sensory or information overload – so simple give them that time.
- Finally, simple calmly asking them – or their carer or friend, are they are OK. Please bear in mind though that it could take some time for them to respond.
These may sound like simple things that you can do if you see someone having a meltdown. It can, however, make a big difference in helping them.
Strategies to try for calming a child in Mid-Meltdown
I also wanted to talk about some strategies we try, and potentially you could, when trying to calm down a child in Mid-Meltdown.
Keep in mind that we are the child’s parent – so this wouldn’t potentially work if you were not known by the person having the meltdown.
- Calm yourself first. This is, to me, the most important thing to do. When little Mr (or your child) is having a meltdown – well, it’s stressful.You have to remember, it’s not a tantrum. It is a symptom of autism, they aren’t doing this on purpose – there is a reason for the meltdown. Calming yourself first will help you when trying to calm down your child.
- Create a safe, private space. This is especially important if in an unfamiliar place. We try to move little Mr somewhere he can feel less overwhelmed with what’s around him. If out and about, the best place is in the car. Though it could be in a particular aisle in a shop – we like the clothing isle as generally it’s got less sensory input there.
- Short and calm direction. So, it’s tempting to try and talk your child down from a meltdown, but we certainly found this was not helpful with little Mr. Something I read once hit a nerve with me, it was to try and keep the tone of your voice soft and to make directions short and clear. This is certainly useful if you’re trying to navigate your child to a safer and quieter place. Personally, I just think that a calming voice with short and clear directions seems more calming to hear.
- Weighted blanket. If you have it with you, and if your child likes a weighted blanket then you can use that. Personally, we don’t use a weighted blanket, we use another stimulus that little Mr likes – he likes to sprinkle (as we call it) items while watching some YouTube nursery rhymes. We find this grabs his attention enough when having a meltdown – although it does take time.
- Noise-Cancelling Headphones. For us this doesn’t work as little Mr doesn’t like items on his head. This may work for some people though as it is removing one of the sensory items that could be causing the meltdown.
- Hand wipes or Scented hand lotion. This is something I read but have not tried. They suggest the tactile feel of the hand wipes or the scent a prefered smell may help calm.
- Sunglasses. Again, something I have read but not tried, mainly as little Mr would not keep them on his face. It’s again about reducing the sensory input; light this time.
Some of these we use ourselves, some we have heard of and not tried and others we know at the moment wouldn’t work due to little Mr not wanting to keep them on. This hopefully gives you an idea of what you may try. What is good is to keep with you a portable sensory toolkit just for meltdowns. Something small enough to carry with you, but large enough to contain all you would need.
Hope this has give you some help
I hope that this has given you some insight and help when it comes to meltdowns. They are never nice to witness and even less fun to try and calm down your child. However, I hope that you can take something away from this that will help you when you next experience one.
Also, if you have any other suggestions, then please do add them in a comment below as I know all of us would love to try anything that could help.