An autistic child or adult is hypersensitive to the emotions of others, as well as themselves, or to stimuli in their environment. The mind and body of the autistic is flooded to the breaking point, with information, and pressure points that affect the ability to think, react or behave in a manner acceptable to that individual. The overload causes the individual to ‘overload’.
Stimuli can come from a myriad of sources. Noise, the presence of strangers; the behavior of family members or caregivers; words spoken or sounds heard; things seen or felt physically; touch or even the activity of the mind. All these can overload the capacity of the autistic individual until a meltdown releases.
What They’re Not
A tantrum is something children experience until about age five and are invariably objective based, while the meltdown has no objective. In other words, a three or four year old may see something in the store they want, and not getting it, may have a tantrum, thinking the parent will concede – hence the objective is to get what the child desires.
A meltdown, on the other hand, will occur without objective, and may appear out of the clear blue sky. The autistic will never outgrow meltdowns, nor learn how to control them. The experiences are tormenting and incredibly painful – like a thousand knives stabbing the body all at once, repeated over and over.
The individual has no control over when the meltdown will occur, or how. Self-control is impossible, and many behavioral therapies cause more damage than good. The best thing to do is let the meltdown exhaust itself. They may last minutes, and less commonly, for days.
Concussions can result from such headbanging. Parents and caregivers sadly make the mistake of expecting a helmet to prevent concussion. Helmets only protect from direct contact, not from concussion.
The inevitably repeated concussions may add an undetectable level of traumatic brain injury that will add many additional problems for the individual and their family or caregivers, including increased risk of suicide or erratic, dangerous behavior (without meltdown).
It is the highest form of man’s inhumanity to man to taunt or harass anyone experiencing a meltdown short of murder. The individual is suffering during the event, and as much as they want the event to end, have no ability to control or stop it.
Some retailers have created meltdown rooms intended to provide a quiet, soothing space for the individual to get beyond the event. Unfortunately, many have been badly advised and designed these rooms with child-sized furniture and bright colors cheerful to children but tormenting to the autistic of any age. A fully grown individual experiencing a meltdown cannot cope with a toddler-sized seat or table.
For autistics, blue is a good, safe color. Yellow is neutral, as is green or brown, but red and orange pose a threat and danger. Blinking lights, particularly red ones, exacerbate the risk of triggering these events.
Reducing The Meltdown
Calming music, soft, low-level lighting and patience are helpful. If necessary, lacking the blanket or the dark space, a human should lay across the individual, covering the autistic with both weight and human warmth, and blocking without restraining the arms of the individual. This can take only a few minutes to result in a calming of the event. The weight of several heavy blankets can reduce the impact also in a matter of minutes.
The combination of warmth and weight causes the replacement of emotional overload with a sensation of comfort and security, and while it doesn’t end the meltdown, it does enable the individual to get to a safe place or express themselves in different ways to relieve it.
Sedatives don’t always work for these events. Medical attention can also make things worse as medical technicians, nurses and doctors will try to touch the individual adding to sensory overload. Injecting medications will cause pain, and they won’t be able to swallow pills during the event.
So, if you see someone having a meltdown, remember, weight and warmth work best to control them and reduce the impact of these horrific events suffered by those on the autism spectrum.