- Meltdowns and neuro-crashes occur when one's cognitive or emotional energy consumption has exceeded its limit.
- As a large consumer of cognitive energy, sensory processing pushes many different-minded people past their limits and into a neuro-crash.
- Addressing sensory and cognitive energy needs is perhaps one of the best ways to treat explosive and unpredictable behavior.
- Neuro-crashes, by definition, are not often within the control of the individual who is "crashing." But there are things that we can do to help.
With a term that was first used to describe the meltdown behaviors that can occur for all of us but are often experienced to a greater extreme within individuals on the autism spectrum, Raun K. Kaufman and Kate C. Wilde recently gave us a new term that I love: “Neuro-crash.”
To me, this phrase perfectly describes what happens to so many of the kids and young adults I work with who struggle with reactive and violent behavior outbursts.
Raun explained that an imposed situation so deeply overwhelms an individual’s brain that their coping mechanisms shut down in a neuro-crash. When this happens, the individual can become overwhelmed that they lose the ability to control their behavior with reactions that can be startling, dangerous, or even downright scary. Raun added that agitated caregivers, being pushed, an invasion of personal space, unpredictability, unclear boundaries, and physiological triggers such as foods or chemicals could all trigger a neuro-crash.
While I agree with Raun 100 percent, within this concept, I also believe that something much deeper lies beneath the meltdown behaviors for so many of the kids I see. In short, some kids seem much more hard-wired for meltdowns. So what are these root causes that lead to Raun’s neuro-crash behaviors, and what can be done to help individuals control these?
Before I dive into a deeper discussion on this topic, please bear with me to share a little personal background. About 20 years ago, I sustained a traumatic brain injury. My injury was unique in that it caused an accordion-style sheer within my sensory-motor cortex, and when that happened, my world went truly topsy-turvy. Within my new sensory system, and literally, overnight, I gained heightened awareness and/or altered sensations for sound, peripheral vision, smell, taste, touch, texture, pressure, and motion. It didn’t take long before the heightened awareness dramatically affected my energy levels, personality, and ultimately behavior.
Within three weeks of sustaining head trauma, I experienced what I believe to be a true neuro-crash. For me, this was characterized by a complete mental meltdown where my brain simply stopped thinking, stopped regulating my responses, and lost control of my actions and behaviors.
This happened after a long day at work, followed by dinner with my kids at a noisy restaurant, then finally with something as simple as a balloon hitting me in the back of the head when we pulled out of the restaurant parking lot. For about three minutes, I lost my mind. The way I behaved at that moment wasn’t who I was. After my neuro-crash, I couldn’t remember anything that had happened for about 20 minutes before the event, and I was quite unaware of how I had behaved during the crash, although I knew it was bad.
An outsider would have called my behavior that day aggressive, impulsive, abusive, and out-of-control. But within myself, I can honestly say I was suffering from a neuro-crash. While I’ve certainly been angry, reacted poorly, and lost my temper many times since, what happened to me that day had never happened before, and it hasn’t since.
Within Raun’s new term, I have found an even deeper understanding of what happened that day and why my brain became so cognitively exhausted that I had some “short-circuiting of my system.” At that moment, I had pushed my injured brain one notch too far.
Everybody gets upset, we have all reacted badly at times, and we have all had moments where frustration or anger gets the better of us. In these ways, neuro-crashes are on a continuum like most things. But what I am talking about is something a little different, a little more extreme, and certainly, a lot more out of control. I’m specifically talking about times when it seems like the brain has actually stopped thinking, times when there isn’t any logic or reasoning left, times when the person we are dealing with has temporarily lost full control of their actions.
Within traditional lines of behavior intervention and management, there are some excellent strategies and interventions to address aggressive behaviors. There are also some good preventative interventions for anger management, impulse control, and learning to manage frustration.
But in all of these, we assume that the behavior being addressed is ultimately still within the choice and control of the individual and can therefore be altered through appropriate behavior training and support. Within this paradigm, we also know situations and circumstances when traditional behavior therapy isn’t effective. In these instances, we could do much more to consider the underlying factors causing an individual to move into neuro-crash behaviors.
In my opinion, and especially for our most different-minded populations, such as those on the autism spectrum, those who have suffered head trauma, and those with extreme learning differences, I believe that simply doing the everyday tasks that society expects pushes certain brains too far.
I’ve often suggested that the sensory processing system speaks through behavior. I recognize that kids who need more input seek it, and kids who are overwhelmed, with too much information coming in, avoid, control, and shut down.
I also believe deep and purposeful learning can’t occur outside of the calm and alert state that exists in the middle of these two extremes. That perfect place in the middle, which I call the “calm and alert state,” is elusive or even impossible to find for so many of our different-minded kids. In autism, in particular, I think this happens because of asynchrony and heightened sensory awareness within the ASD individual’s sensory processing system.
So how does processing more and/or differently within the sensory system relate to the concept of neuro-crash? As I learned after my accident, the input, filtering, and engagement with incoming information through the sensory processing system are some of our largest consumers of cognitive energy. For everyone, when energy reserves are low, the system that allows us to deal with new, incoming information from the outside world can become overwhelmed.
Think about your own need to turn off the car radio after a lengthy drive. But for those who have significant sensory differences, too much energy is used up every day. The result is deep cognitive fatigue that doesn’t recover and is more prone to hit the cognitive limit.
When we reach our limit for thinking and problem-solving, we use our biological reserves, which are fueled within our adrenal system. But when that system becomes depleted, especially over time, the result of pushing too far with no fuel left is a neuro-crash.
As anyone with autism, head trauma, severe learning disabilities, etc., will tell you, being different-minded is exhausting. Cognitive energy is used for processing differences in the sensory system but think about all other cognitive energy consumers who bleed dry the energy reserves for different people.
So, in addition to using Raun’s tips and strategies, which are all excellent, by the way, this leaves us with the question, “How can we help those kids who are especially prone to meltdown behaviors due to sensory difference and cognitive exhaustion?”
The following suggestions are a good place to start, at least for our asynchronous ASD kids.
- We all need proper rest, nutritious food, and opportunities daily to move and exercise. These should take precedence over all learning activities.
- Kids with sensory differences require understanding and support to know how to advocate appropriately to meet these individual differences and needs.
- When kids are cognitively exhausted, they must be allowed to take a break and rest, even if exhaustion occurs first thing in the morning.
- When kids are melting down often, the strategies offered by Raun and others to address these behaviors within more than a behavior management lens need to be considered.
- Cognitive exhaustion and sensory overload lead to more serious physical and mental health conditions when left untreated. Therefore, these need to be addressed in new and alternative ways within biomedicine, mental health, and education within more holistic approaches when treating kids with meltdown behaviors.
- We all need to recognize that being different-minded, especially in today’s world, comes with added frustration, exhaustion, overwhelm, and even meltdown. So be understanding.
- Learning within one’s passions and interests takes the least amount of cognitive energy and is the most effective for retaining learned information. For this reason, kids with high occurrences of melt-down behavior should be directed to pursue their interests and passions within their learning environments as a means of prevention and not only as a reward for not having a melt-down.
- Last, if we can do nothing else, be kind. Our different-minded friends are working hard to fit in, meet expectations, and keep it together.
If you would like to learn more about this topic, be sure to visit us at the US Autism Association. We’re featuring Raun’s first recorded video on this topic, plus we’ll be discussing neuro-crashes and their relationships to cognition, sensory processing, sound sensitivity, auditory processing, breath awareness, and the legal aspects of neuro-crashing in public within our upcoming videos.
Kaufman, R. K. ( 2021, May). Your Child is Having a Neuro-Crash, Exceptional Needs Today, (3). Retrieved from https://issuu.com/exceptionalneedstoday/docs/ent_n3_final/s/12110492