Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Warning! Meltdown!

“Judgements prevent us from seeing the good that lies beyond appearances.”

I was shopping in my local supermarket during December when I witnessed an incident. An incident so familiar to parents of a child or children with autism. A meltdown.

I've wanted to write about it since but wasn't sure of what to say. I'm still not really sure how to articulate my point but I may as well write anyway. 

I was shopping in the produce section when I heard someone screaming. I looked down the aisle to see where it was coming from and I saw boxes being thrown into the aisle by a teenager. He was screaming at the top of his lungs that everyone was to get away from him. His mother, standing next to a toddler in a buggy was red faced and staring at the floor. Staff were buzzing around the scene and hoards of shoppers were standing around either shaking their heads or staring alternatively from the boy to the mother. I stepped into to watch the toddler and said that I was look after the little one while she calmed him down. He was physically tall and quite big and was having a very physical reaction to something that had just happened. His mother was trying to get him to regain his focus and to look at her to break the cycle of the rage. Eventually after he ran out of the shop and then came back, he calmed down and started to sob with the extreme emotion of the experience. I'm going to list more information at the bottom of this post to try to illuminate what these things actually are and different strategies to cope with them. It's not those things that I want to cover in this post but what was happening on the periphery of the meltdown.

In the post-diagnosis years, A had plenty of these at home, at nursery then at school. A meltdown can be hard to describe to a lay person and can be hard to distinguish between something that cannot be helped and something that can. Their striking similarity to an extreme toddler temper tantrum can often mean that they are generally misunderstood by onlookers and the general public. A child with autism can be very prone to meltdowns in public and unfamiliar places. Meltdowns can caused when the child is confused or stressed due over loaded sensory inputs or an unfamiliar place and situation. A meltdown can be difficult to control and can be a very emotional trauma for both the ASD child / person and the carer. This trauma is only exacerbated by the reactions of others around them. 

When I saw her face as she took in the reactions of the people stand around her and her son, I could've cried. That used to be me. I knew exactly what she was feeling. As a person who doesn't like to draw attention to themselves and can be quite shy, when your child explodes in a fit of irrational rage and fifty passers by stop to stare at you, this is one of the worst feelings. While I felt upset for the mother and of course for her son, it was interesting to look at this from the other perspective, that of an observer rather than a participant. Years of the TEAACH method of schooling and ABA therapies with A has given him enough of a sense of appropriate public behaviour that we no longer have to go through extremes like this. Will still have episodes but they're a bit more of an internal struggle which we have to calmly work through. 

The boy's reaction was so volatile that not once did the surveying public actually think that there was more to the story than meets the eye here. They all stood glaring at his mother, their expression saying it all. They instantly perceived this to be bad behaviour and looked to her as the cause of it. Perhaps if they hadn't been so quick to judge then this might of occurred to them. It's hard trying to teach children empathy, especially when certain specialists believe that all children with autism lack the ability and even more so when those around you lack it.

It transpired that the series of events that led to the meltdown were thus: while his mother looked around the toy aisle, the older boy had been playing with a loose toy an repeatedly banging it off of the shelf. An elderly male shopper who was standing perusing the magazines at the end of the next aisle grabbed him by the arm and took the toy off of him and put it back on the shelf. This gross violation of the boys personal space, coupled with the bright lights and noise of the supermarket sent him into a meltdown. He knocked toys off of the shelf and the man shouted at him to 'behave'. Upon hearing the man shout a security guard tried to intervene and ask the boy where him mother was. The boy tried to run away on the sight of the authoritarian figure and he grabbed him, making things worse. He felt cornered and started screaming at the top of his lungs. His mother could do nothing except try and make sure he was safe and wait until the screaming subsided and he broke free of it. 

I felt sadder still when his mother was genuinely surprised by my reaction to the events. She was mortified and checked to see if the toddler was okay. I said to her it's okay, I understand and pointed to A's head which was poking out of the end of the aisle. He had run away when he heard the screaming and hid under one of the shelves. I could see him from where I was standing and so left him there until everything calmed down. We exchanged knowing looks and went our separate ways, the family went home, presumably exhausted by the days events.  

If you think that you have every seen anything like this and would like to know more about the causes and the best way to help deal with a meltdown then read on. Thanks for reading.

One of the most misunderstood autistic behaviors is the meltdown.  Frequently, it is the result of some sort of overwhelming stimulation of which cause is often a mystery to parents and teachers.   They can come on suddenly and catch everyone by surprise.  Autistic children tend to suffer from sensory overload issues that can create meltdowns.  Children who have neurological disorders other than autism can suffer from meltdowns. Unlike temper tantrums, these children are expressing a need to withdraw and slowly collect themselves at their own pace. 

 A child with autism in the middle of a meltdown desperately needs help to gain control.

* During a meltdown, a child with autism does not look, nor care, if those around him are reacting to his behavior.
* A child in the middle of a meltdown does not consider her own safety.
* A child in a meltdown has no interest or involvement in the social situation.
* Meltdowns will usually continue as though they are moving under their own power and wind down slowly.
* A meltdown conveys the feeling that no one is in control.
* A meltdown usually occurs because a specific want has not been permitted and after that point has been reached, nothing can satisfy the child until the situation is over.

Unlike tantrums, meltdowns can leave even experienced parents at their wit's end, unsure of what to do. When you think of a tantrum, the classic image of a child lying on the floor with kicking feet, swinging arms, and a lot of screaming is probably what comes to mind. This is not even close to a meltdown. A meltdown is best defined by saying it is a total loss of behavioral control. It is loud, risky at times, frustrating, and exhausting.

1. Tell him/her firmly in one word that they are out of control. This word should be agreed upon and understood between the neurotypical and autistic individual.  This will avoid hostility or hurt feelings. It could be anything that holds meaning to the autistic individual, emotionally or conceptually.

2. Don't touch an autistic individual if they are melting down.  Your touch adds to their sensory overload and can farther aggravate the meltdown. Wait until he/she is calm before approaching.

3. Don't lecture him/her. If an autistic person begins to meltdown they will not be able to truly understand what you are saying. Higher brain functioning shuts off and understanding words and phrases becomes nearly impossible (this is why one word with strong meaning should be used to alert the autistic that they are losing control, not a whole sentence or abstract concept).

4. Leave the autistic individual alone. Let him/her have the last word. He/She will feel bad and apologize later. There is no need to tell them they are being rude or inappropriate. Let them say what they want to say, don't respond, and don't take it to heart. They can clarify when they are calm and can act appropriately.  Sometimes silence will help effectively fizzle out a meltdown.  Either way, talking through a meltdown will not improve the autistic's behaviour.


  1. I agree with most of the above, but unfortunately the advice doesn't cover all situations - my 10-year old son is usually a danger to himself and everyone else in the family when he goes into full meltdown: as you may know the last time I had to take him to A&E.   My son is now on medication which takes the edge off things for him.  Sometimes you have to act.

  2. That last one must have been so hard for you. You're absolutely right, sometimes you have to act. It's hard to cover all of the bases and I didn't have physical restraining in mind when I wrote this. In my case it would always make it worse and he's nearly bigger than me. Perhaps you can share your experiences with us? Thanks for commenting. 

  3. Well this was how I described the first big meltdown http://looking4bluesky.blogspot.com/2011/01/who-needs-rollercoaster-when-you-have.html  and this was when he was admitted to hospital 8 months later after I'd begged and begged for help - but got none http://looking4bluesky.blogspot.com/2011/09/cutbacks-cause-crises-my-aspie-boy-is.html

  4. Thanks so mix for sharing Candi! X

  5. What a great and informative post. My daughter doesn't have quite so many meltdowns in public now as she used to. She usually manages to control a lot of them and then all hell breaks loose at home. But thats ok. She obviously feels its a safe place for her to let all that emotion out. When she was younger we used to get the disapproving looks in shops etc, especially as she used to be very aggressive back then. If a child has a very visible disability then no-one would dare stop and stare at them. Well done you for assisting this poor mum. x

  6. Thanks Jonty! It's great that your daughter has that safe place to unload. X

  7. Thank you for writing this.  I wish everyone could read this post.  I have experienced so many times people staring, and I wanted to disappear.  I've also had that look of disgust, tutting, people trying to talk to my child - a light telling off - thinking I was too stupid, or too nice to do it myself I guess.  I once saw a boy get upset when he was having to walk on the road because of construction, now I don't know if he had any thing like ASD, but a guy behind me said, 'I'd smack him if he was mine.', he didn't take a second to think why he might be acting like that.  People think I'm either being too soft, or always have a load of advice to give me, they just don't understand, and it gets tiring after a while.  I have to travel by walking, or public transport usually, and it gets to the point where I don't want to go out anymore.

  8. Apologies for my poor writing, not really with it this morning, but I'm terrible at writing anyway! :P

  9. Don't apologise! It's far better to express yourself than to keep it all in. xx

  10. Thanks for much for commenting Miss B. Don't give in, that means that they are winning. There are points where it all gets too much and we shut ourselves off but that's not the answer. You have to tell people what's going on, why they behave like this and it's only through this action will they open their eyes and see. I used to get angry and shot at people but I find that calming explaining that your child is autistic, that they cannot help their behaviour and can they keep their opinions to themselves embarrasses the hell out of people. Thanks so much for commenting. xx

  11. Thanks you so much for taking time share such a educational  stuff here with us,
    which is really helpful to me. I am eagerly waiting for your next update..


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