What is an Autism Meltdown?

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In this blog we discuss what autism meltdowns are.

We will also discuss how you can identify these meltdowns, what causes them, and how you can manage these meltdowns. 

What is an Autism Meltdown?

An autism meltdown refers to when an individual with autism experiences an intense emotional response to a situation that they perceive or find overwhelming. 

These meltdowns unusually happen when they are completely overwhelmed, are unable to express their feelings of being overwhelmed and as a result lose control over their own behaviours temporarily. 

These meltdowns can happen to any individual and it is observed in both children, teenagers, and adults who have autism. 

These meltdowns are usually marked by verbal expression such as crying, shouting, screaming, as well as expressing physically such as kicking others, lashing out, biting, hitting themselves etc. 

While one may think that this autism meltdown sounds similar to a tantrum seen in children- it is not the same. Children might use tantrums to get what they want but for individuals with autism they do not do it to manipulate  but are genuine signs of distress. 

An autistic meltdown is more intense, longer lasting, more emotional and hence more difficult to manage than a temper tantrum. 

They are also different from a tantrum because its cause is different- rather than trying to get what they want, it is an expression of them being overwhelmed and not knowing how to manage this experience.

As mentioned, meltdowns are not limited to children, teenagers and adults can also experience meltdowns including high functioning individuals with autism. 

Meltdowns always have preceding signs that the individual ausl displays before there is a meltdown. These signs include rumblings- which is obvious and at times subtle. A rumbling can include a verbal plea to go or to leave or to stop, as well as physically expressed by putting their hands over their ears. 

Meltdowns can include stimming where the individual tries to calm themselves by rocking, pacing and other signs of anxiety coping. 

They do this to regulate their anxiety or the sensory overload that they are experiencing and so stimming is a sure sign of them being stressed or excited and could precede a meltdown. 

What are the signs of an autism meltdown?

Here are a few signs that can help you identify whether the individual is having an autism meltdown or not:

There are physical signs of anxiety and confusion such as restlessness, stimming (rocking back and forth, counting etc) that builds up the anxiety. 

Asking to leave or stop or take a break in a situation where they feel that there is too much going on, sensory overload, or they are being overstimulated such as loud noises, a lot of things happening around them etc. 

There are attempts to run away or bolt from the situation where they are experiencing distressed.They might be trying to run away from the situation or the caregiver as a result of over-stimulation for them.

What causes autism meltdowns?

Here are a few underlying causes of an autism meltdown:

Sensory overload is one of the first and primary causes of an autism meltdown. Individi Uasl who experienced a meltdown often are exposed to too much stimuli that they perceive through their five senses. 

Usually individuals with autism have hypersensitivities in their sensory systems which can trigger a feeling of being overwhelmed. For example, an individual might not like the texture of wool because of their hypersensitive tactile sensory system. This can lead to meltdowns and distress when dressed with wool.

An individual with autism might feel too overwhelmed when there is too much information coming their way at once. Such as too many people addressing them or talking to them, or too much information on the screen at once etc. 

This can include too many instructions, demands from other people as well as when they are spoken to in ways they do not understand- like a new language. This can cause distress and anxiety leading to a meltdown. 

Individuals with autism find it very hard to communicate effectively, they also struggle with socialising and as such they find it hard to ask for help as well as understand and regulate their emotions. 

So when it comes to difficult emotions such as anger, sadness etc, an individual might find it extremely hard to understand them and thus, regulate them. As a result, these emotions become too much for them, triggering a meltdown. 

Because of their conditions, the world around them is equally difficult for individuals with autism to live it. New places and unpredictability makes it even more challenging and anxiety inducing for them which is why they like routine and rules. 

As a result of which it can lead to too much stress and too much anxiety for them, leading to meltdowns when they are engaging in new activities and with new people and places. 

 With its unwritten rules and unpredictable nature, the world can be an extremely challenging environment for autistic people and many experience anxiety. Without tools and strategies to help manage their feelings of anxiety, they may experience a meltdown.  

Another cause of these meltdowns could be because of their inability to express their needs and wants. They can find this particular struggle of communicating effectively very frustrating which leads to stress and hence meltdowns.

What to do to manage an autism meltdown?

Here are a few things you can help another individual manage their meltdowns:

Be empathetic by listening to them and axknoeling their struggle. Being empathetic needs an individual to assign all judgements and assumptions.  Validate their experience by listening and expressing empathy. 

Another thing you can do involves simplifying listening to them and allowing them to feel how they feel in a safe space which you can do to provide by being non-judgmental. You can sit beside them, or give them the space they need- whatever makes them comfortable. 

Do not punish them for their meltdowns because they do not cause them intentionally. Actually when it comes to tantrums as well, punishment never really helps. Instead, when an individual experiences a meltdown, let them know that they are supported while also giving them space to do so. 

When the meltdown happens in public, it is normal to find yourself embarrassed and worried about what people think but it is here that you challenge your ability to empathise with the individual who is clearly struggling and focus on the individual here instead of the world around you.

Carry around a sensory tool kit that can calm the individual when they are stressed and overwhelmed. These are susuuslaly things they favour, things that calm them down- like their headphones, glasses etc. Don’t force them onto them but let them choose. 

Teach them coping skills that can allow them to regulate their own emotions and their sensory overload. Let these skills become a part of their day to day lives. 

Allow them to explore exercises that help them relax and become attuned with the world around them without being overwhelmed such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga etc. 

What is Autism?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions that involve challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication. 

People with autism Spectrum disorder vary in the way they think, learn, and problem solves- some can be highly skilled as it is the case for people with asperger’s syndrome or severely challenged enough to be considered a disability and require intense support and care from other people while others do not. 

Several factors increase the risk of the development of autism such as genetics, environment, parental substance abuse, family history, maternal and paternal behavioural risk factors like smoking or drinking when pregnant or trying to become pregnant.

What is the Diagnostic criteria of Autism?

Diagnostic Criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder is as follows:

To meet diagnostic criteria for ASD a child must have persistent deficits in each of three areas of social communication and interaction and at least two of four types of restricted, repetitive behaviours in different contexts.

  • Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests and emotions; to failure to engage in social interactions.
  • Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviours used for social interaction, from poor verbal and nonverbal communication; deficits in understanding and use of gestures; lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.
  • Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, from difficulties adjusting behaviour to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to absence of interest in peers.
  • Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech 
  • Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualised patterns of verbal or nonverbal behaviour (e.g., extreme distress at small changes)
  • Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus
  • Hyper- or hypo reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment 
  • Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.
  • These disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) or global developmental delay. Intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder frequently co-occur; to make comorbid diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability, social communication should be below that expected for general developmental level.

Conclusion

In this blog we discussed what autism meltdowns are.

We also discussed how you can identify these meltdowns, what causes them, and how you can manage these meltdowns. 

What does an autistic meltdown look like?

Meltdowns can look like any of these actions: 

  • There are physical signs of anxiety and confusion such as restlessness and stimming.
  • Withdrawal or asking to leave the situation.
  • There are attempts to run away or bolt from the situation.

What triggers autism meltdowns?

Triggers include:

  • Sensory overload.
  • Inability to communicate
  • Emotional overload
  • Information overload.

At what age do autistic meltdowns start?

Usually children with autism are diagnosed as early as 3 years old however, these autism meltdowns can start much earlier- by 18 months.  Often it is these meltdowns that usually get parents to bring their child into child care services leading to diagnosis. 

References

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.

Rudy.L.J. How Autistic Meltdowns Differ From Ordinary Temper Tantrums. Verywellhealth. Retrieved on 5th February 2022. https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-is-an-autistic-meltdown-260154

Meltdowns – a guide for all audiences. National Autistic Society. Retrieved on 5th February 2022. https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/topics/behaviour/meltdowns/all-audiences

Milam.S. When My Autistic Son Melts Down, Here’s What I Do. Healthline. Retrieved on 5th February 2022. https://www.healthline.com/health/autism/what-to-do-autism-meltdown#What-to-do-during-a-very-loud,-very-public-meltdown

What is an Autism Meltdown?. RDI Connect. Retrieved on 5th February 2022. https://www.rdiconnect.com/what-is-an-autism-meltdown/

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