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Coping With Autism Spectrum Disorder Meltdowns

Meltdowns in adults with Asperger's involve a near total breakdown in the person's coping abilities
Meltdowns in adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder can often be prevented or minimized with the right strategies

It is not uncommon for adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder to experience meltdowns. They occur when the person becomes completely overwhelmed and temporarily loses control over his or her behavior. This can take the form of shouting, screaming, crying, kicking, lashing out, or head banging. Or it can be the opposite, such as refusing to interact, withdrawing completely or becoming mute.

Meltdowns are not the same as temper tantrums, although they may appear similar. A meltdown is an intense response to situations that overwhelm one’s coping abilities. The person is literally unable to stop reacting to a complete assault on his or her psychological and physical systems. This is different from not getting one’s way and trying to manipulate people, the essence of temper tantrums.

Because a person’s coping ability is overwhelmed during a meltdown, it is largely an involuntary response rather than a willful, intentional act. The person, to a large extent, does not have control over what is happening during the meltdown, although anticipating the meltdown and addressing the aftermath of it are in one’s control.

Here are suggestions and ideas to help understand what a meltdown is and how to cope with it, both for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder who experience meltdowns and their non-ASD partners and friends. Remember, these are general suggestions. Specific situations and special circumstances may necessitate different strategies.

  • Generally speaking, during a meltdown the person needs the freedom to be that way at that time. It does little good to stop it, simply because it is largely involuntary and not under one’s control.
  • Instead, don’t engage with the person while the meltdown is happening. Let it run its course. You can be with the person but don’t try to talk to him or her. Let your presence be known but don’t impose that presence through reassuring or normalizing the situation.
  • Don’t expect the person to talk, as the ability to talk is not there at that time. Space, time and an absence of judgment are more important.
  • Physical reassurance, like hugs or touching, often is disturbing to the person whose sensory system is overloaded.
  • If you are uncomfortable witnessing a meltdown by someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder, leave the scene. Preserving dignity is a priority for the ASD adult and unless that person is in physical danger and in need of assistance, leaving is preferable to adding the burden of your own discomfort.
  • Remember that the physical reactions common to meltdowns, such as rocking, flapping hands, blinking, vocal sounds, scratching, even head banging are helpful to the Autism Spectrum Disorder adult. These are efforts to regulate and restore one’s sensory system. They are not self-destructive, as they may appear to be.
  • Most adults with ASD are aware of the line between a meltdown and self-harm. Keep this in mind as the meltdown occurs and it appears as though the person is in danger. Having said this, you must use your best judgment if you think the person having a meltdown is in danger.
  • There are ways to prevent meltdowns by anticipating them ahead of time. Pay attention to what typically triggers them. Changes in routine, situations with frequent, high-intensity visual, auditory and tactile sensations (bright lights, loud sounds, crowded buses, for example), anxiety, and communication difficulties often contribute to meltdowns. Avoiding and/or minimizing these situations are obvious ways to prevent meltdowns.
  • Experts suggest there is an anticipatory stage just prior to a meltdown. Referred to as a “rumble,” the persons may begin to pace, talk more rapidly or less coherently, fidget or rock back and forth, and show other signs that something is wrong and a meltdown is likely. When these appear, it may be helpful to find a quiet spot, breathe regularly and deeply, relax and focus on pleasant thoughts. Often this prevents or at least minimizes meltdowns.
  • Remember that you are not a bad person for melting down. Meltdowns release pressure. They get rid of sensory and emotional overload and act to restart one’s system. Rather than a bad thing, they serve a necessary, helpful function. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with you because you have meltdowns. Keep this in mind and you may actually need meltdowns less!

Dr. Kenneth Roberson

Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Adult Autism Psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. Click below to ask a question or schedule an appointment.

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