When one thinks of a ‘meltdown’, it immediately conjures up images of a child thrown on the floor in a shop, crying and generally upset. There is a negative connotation associated with this with people believing it to be ‘bad’, that this is happening because they haven’t received the toy they wanted or gotten their own way. I suppose the first thing to say is I hate the word meltdown. Therefore, I choose to use the words emotional or physical response instead.

Anxiety and too much sensory input can result in emotional response where the autistic person feels overwhelmed. It’s important to understand children respond in an emotional way because they may not yet have the language necessary to express how they feel or communicate their needs. Or they may be pushing against boundaries as they feel unsafe and need reassurance. As an adult, everyone experiences moments where they feel so overwhelmed by a situation, they find themselves either crying or shouting and are unable to articulate too.

Autistic individuals also experience overwhelm to the point where they are unable to articulate what is happening or how they feel. When an autistic child or adult reaches the point of overwhelm, they are unable to control their reactions. These can look like anything from a physical response, to an emotional response to a complete shutdown. Never, ever judge the person. Instead, at this time it is essential they are given the space to work through this safely. Ask yourself what they might be trying to communicate. When we shift our thinking to one of questioning, we remove judgement and are more able to help. Look to the environment to see if anything stands out as a potential sensory trigger and remove it where possible. Ordinarily it is assumed a person will recover quickly from an emotional, physical or shutdown responses. This is not the case for autistic individuals. Not only is an emotional response exhausting physically, it is emotionally draining too. It also can take autistic individuals far longer to recover, with them feeling very close to overwhelm for many hours after. Therefore, the best way in which to prevent a ‘meltdown’ or response is to make certain the autistic person’s sensory profile is proactively taken account of and ensuring they have an appropriate means with which to communicate, be it words, visuals, sign, gesturing, PECS or whatever best suits their communication style. And of course, make sure to listen to and take account of the autistic persons views and opinions. Afterall they know best what will help.

Emotional or physical response (meltdown)