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Dealing With the Aftermath of an Autistic Meltdown

5 coping strategies for dealing with meltdowns.

“Meltdowns” are something which many people with autism experience and which they may have experienced since childhood. Meltdowns can be distinguished from “tantrums” on the basis of having no end-goal in sight. You don’t have a meltdown because you want to achieve something from it (the same goes for both kids and adults). You have a meltdown because you have absolutely no other way of responding to a situation. In terms of emotional regulation, you’ve completely lost your ability to maintain control.

Artur Szczybylo, 123rf
Source: Artur Szczybylo, 123rf

Meltdowns may result in you screaming, crying, throwing things, shaking, and/or yelling hurtful comments. They can be scary and damaging to people around you and, when you’ve had a meltdown, chances are you feel pretty bad about it.

So how can you deal with the fallout? The following strategies may help.

1. Accept that you did not want to act in this way.

If you have autism, your brain is wired in a way that makes it more likely to have meltdowns. Meltdowns can be a response to sensory overload, responsibility overwhelm, and even being asked too many questions by someone who is trying to be helpful. Your reaction may have seemed extreme, to you and to others, but it didn’t come from a point of purposefully trying to react in an extreme way. You may not like the way you acted and might resolve to work on strategies to help yourself in future situations, but hanging onto guilt and shame about something which you had little control over in the moment can affect your self-esteem and coping strategies.

2. Have a safe place for the immediate aftermath.

Research has shown that people with autism tend to take longer to calm down and gain control after a stressful episode. [1] It’s important to have a strategy in place that is going to help you during the “calming down” phase—and certainly to have a strategy in place which is going to help avoid escalating things again. Do you need to have a room to go to which is free from kids and partners? Do you need to listen to music or a guided meditation? Do you need to be held by someone close to you? Identify what works for you and ensure you go to this point as soon as you can following the meltdown.

3. Working with those people close to you.

Meltdowns have an impact on people close to you and witnessing someone who is having a meltdown can be a disturbing experience. When you are ready to, it is important to discuss your meltdown with those people who may have been affected by it. It could also be useful to show them some autistic resources which explain the experiences of other people with autism who experience meltdowns, as it can be a very difficult concept for other people to understand.

It’s also important to discuss how people can support you in the aftermath of a meltdown. What do you need from your partner/parent/friend/child? They may think that talking things through after your meltdown is helpful, while you need complete silence for a short period. Or perhaps they completely avoid you, while it would help you if they came to check on you. Some people might need to talk through the meltdown in order to process it. Whatever works for you, discuss it in advance with those close to you so that they know how they can support you.

4. Recognise when a meltdown is coming.

Sometimes, we find ourselves plunged straight into a meltdown situation with little or no warning. But often we can experience "pre-meltdown signs." Are you starting to feel drained and worn out? Are you in an environment that is causing sensory overload? Are you starting to feel confused, frustrated, and unable to express yourself?

There is often a build-up to a meltdown and, with hindsight, you might be able to recognise those early signs. Take a note of what those signs were for you. What triggered the meltdown? What was the point where things were beginning to feel out of control? How would you have handled the situation differently with the benefit of hindsight? Realising the types of situations which can trigger meltdowns, securing support in the build-up period, and taking action (such as by removing yourself from a situation) can all help to prevent the meltdown from happening. Although hindsight is of no use when it comes to the situation which has already passed, it can be useful to take lessons from this situation into future situations that might arise.

5. Taking ownership of meltdowns.

Nobody likes losing control and many people express feelings of shame about their meltdowns. It can be tempting, following the meltdown, to put it on the back burner and hope it won’t happen again—in other words, to ignore it and move on.

However, if you have a history of meltdowns, they’re not just going to disappear simply because you’re not happy with the way you acted or because you want to move on from it. It’s important for you to take ownership of the fact that this is something that happens to you and to explore what you can do to help yourself, using all of the strategies listed above.

Allowing yourself to engage in “stimming” behaviours—such as rocking, rubbing feet, and hand-flapping—can also have a calming effect on people in the pre-meltdown phase. Thinking about the meltdown as a peak in terms of a timeline—one that starts from having self-care strategies, such as ensuring you’ve had enough sleep and are finding ways to manage stress, to the immediate build-up, to the calming down phase can help you regain control. This is in stark contrast to simply hoping that it won’t happen again.

Although meltdowns and autism tend to go hand in hand for many people, it is possible, with the right strategies in place, to reduce their intensity and frequency.

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1. Mazefsky, CA, Herrington, J, Siegel, M, Scafa, A, Maddox, BB, Scahill, L, White, SW (2013) The role of emotion regulation in Autism Spectrum Disorder, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 52, 7, 679-688

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