On Meltdowns & Tantrums:
Incredibly Wise Words from Guest Blogger Julia from Autism Thoughts
Dear Parent of an autistic individual: if you never read anything else I ever publish, read this.
Of all the things that are difficult about raising a child with Autism, most parents would agree that the meltdowns/tantrums are the most challenging. As they grow up, they can be scary — violent, even (to the child and to those around them). There are a lot of different theories and philosophies on the best way to handle these situations, and as a parent it is often really tough to know what is the right thing to do. Most of us have responded in ways that result in a a worse meltdown, or even a meltdown-after-a-meltdown. This is something Cassius and I have been really struggling with, so I went directly to the source, one of my trusted Autistic adult advisers, and writer for AutismThoughts, Julia. I asked her a series of meltdown-related questions, and her responses are…. earth-shattering. Please, please take a few moments and read this. It will change your perspective forever.
“An Autist’s Instructions for Dealing With a Meltdown.”
Question: “What does a Meltdown feel like?”
“One of the hardest things about having autism and knowing you have autism is seeing that you can’t deal with something and not knowing what to do about it. This usually leads up to a meltdown.
“Imagine you’ve jumped out of an airplane and then you realize that you don’t know how to open your parachute. You’d probably be pretty frantically trying to get the parachute open before you hit the ground.
“That’s what a meltdown is like. We’re trying to save ourselves before we hit the ground. It’s that frantic time when you’re thinking, I can’t do this but I have to do something. We see the “ground” in front of us and we’re frantically trying to save ourselves from it.
“Possibly the hardest part of having meltdowns is knowing that that “ground” is something relatively simple and even trivial. To everyone else, it doesn’t make sense that we’re reacting like we’re going to die from something like this and it may even seem stupid to us, but it’s a reaction we don’t really have control over. The anxiety is tied to whatever event we feel we can’t do.
“When these moments aren’t validated, it makes us feel even more like failures. We probably are already questioning our abilities because what we felt was so hard, we know is not a big deal really. So when someone else confirms that thought, it just further confirms the thought that we have failed.”
Question: “What to do when a meltdown occurs and are there any ways to prevent a meltdown?”
“I think the first step is trying to remove the stimulus. In order to deal with something stressful, you need to be in a comfortable place. Move away from the situation and go to a place that feels safe if possible.Then, try to talk out the feelings about the situation. If the person is able to realize what was stressing them and to figure out how to approach the situation in a way that would be acceptable everyone involved, then try to approach the situation again… Sometimes we need to remove a stressful stimulus in order to process why we have a problem with it.
“It’s easy for things to be stressful when they seem to come from all sides at you and you don’t see an escape. When someone gives you an escape, you can look back and evaluate the circumstance without being blinded by anxiety.
“During a meltdown, try not to inflict more stress on the person having the meltdown…
“…even saying alternative methods of acting can remind someone of their flaws, therefore causing more stress. The best thing to do is to give the person some space and allow them to feel their feelings. If you feel you must say something, make it an inclusive statement. For example, something like “Hey, I know it’s a rough time, but can we go inside for a minute? I think it’ll help both of us feel more comfortable.” This type of statement is an invitation rather than a demand and it shows the person that you’re not just focusing on yourself or on their inappropriate behavior, but that you want to work together with them to help them feel better and to find a solution.”
Question: “What do you do when the stimulus is the direct consequence of a bad decision the child has made? If you remove the consequence, then they don’t get experience with “natural consequences,” and that worries me.”
“Meltdowns aren’t necessarily a bad thing…
“…They teach you things about yourself and the world around you. There are times in life that you can’t escape an uncomfortable circumstance so the earlier you learn how to deal with these uncomfortable circumstances, the easier they will be in the future. If you can delay the consequence until the person can better handle the situation, the resulting behavior will probably end up being easier to handle. However, if the consequence is automatic and cannot be delayed, I don’t think it’s bad to let the situation play out and then talk through it later.”
Question: “What do you do when the stimulus cannot be removed?”
“This ties back to the previous question. Sometimes, meltdowns are inevitable. The goal shouldn’t always be to stop or prevent a meltdown, but to recognize the cause of a meltdown and develop ways to cope without resorting to a meltdown.”
Question: “What should be done after the end of a meltdown/tantrum?”
“After a meltdown ends, it is important to have time to relax. A meltdown is exhausting for both the person having the meltdown and anyone else involved. There needs to be time for everyone to just sit and breathe for a while. This is also essential in returning everyone to baseline.
“Once everyone has had a chance to catch their breath and return to their normal state of mind, then you can start to talk about why the meltdown happened. It is essential to not rush into talking about the meltdown because this can cause a second meltdown if the person is not ready to address the issue.
“When talking about the meltdown, try to help the person figure out what about the circumstance exactly caused the anxiety. For example, if the meltdown was related to going into a room, try to figure out what about the room was the problem? Was the room too small, too bright, too loud, had too many people, etc? Was it the situation as a whole that caused the anxiety or was it a specific aspect of the situation that caused the anxiety? (Don’t bombard the person with these types of questions, just give some prompts and let them figure it out on their own.)
“Then brainstorm ways that the situation could have been handled better or ways that the person could ask for a way out of the situation before a meltdown would occur. If a person is nonverbal, I think talking it out or drawing it would still be helpful. Though someone with autism may not talk back, they could still absorb what you’re saying and think about the situation so they can handle it better in the future.”
Question: “Do you think a tantrum should be treated differently than a meltdown? Sometimes they seem to blend together.”
“In order to answer this I need to answer how I define a meltdown and a tantrum. When you feel that you are unable to deal with a specific circumstance but cannot escape the circumstance, a meltdown occurs. A tantrum is a tactic used to manipulate others into giving in to your demands. A meltdown can become a tantrum when the person feels they need to manipulate others to get out of a stressful situation. This kind of meltdown/ tantrum is less about trying to get what you want and more about trying to get out of something you feel you can’t handle.
Also, the longer a meltdown lasts, the more likely it will be to switch from a meltdown to a tantrum and vice versa.
“Now, to answer the original question, I believe a meltdown and a tantrum should be handled the same way. In neither situation should you “give in” to the person’s demands. The question usually is not if the situation or consequence will be dealt with, but when it will be addressed. Unless the situation is unnecessary or unreasonable, it shouldn’t be retracted. It may be necessary to change the timing or pressure of the situation/ consequence though.
Question: “Is there any way to prevent them entirely?”
“I will answer this from personal experience and I hope that it is understood as I intend it to be. I don’t believe I have ever had a meltdown that directly affected others. All of my meltdowns have occurred in the confides of my room. My room was my safe place and it was where I could go to work out my frustrations. I did not have someone to talk me through my meltdowns afterwards. I did not have therapy and I did not feel comfortable telling anyone about my meltdowns. Meltdowns were something I worked out on my own.
“When my mom noticed that any of us kids were not in a good mindset, she would send us to our room. Although I kind of resented going to my room at times, I was able to calm down there and assess the situation and then come out when I was ready to deal with things again. Although this did not necessarily prevent a meltdown, it did truncate my meltdowns and allowed me a safe way to deal with them that did not negatively affect others.
“I think that once you learn how to handle more and more situations and how to understand yourself and understand when you feel like you’re heading towards a meltdown, meltdowns are largely preventable and can be almost nonexistent. The key is removing yourself from the stressor to a better state of mind. The more you practice this, the better you will become at it. It can even get to the point where you can find a safe place inside your mind where you can go to calm down and properly analyze a situation.”
Question: “What is the MOST important piece of advice you could give me in regards to dealing with my son and meltdowns/tantrums?”
“The best advice I can probably give is that autism is all about timing. Timing is everything. When the timing of something isn’t right, a good situation can quickly escalate into a serious problem. Don’t be afraid to take a few steps back sometimes. You might need to take these steps back in order to take bigger steps forward. If you aren’t willing to take the steps back, sometimes they will happen anyway only without the forward motion afterwards.”
Thank you, Julia, with AutismThoughts, for your insight! You are so awesome and we so deeply appreciate all the feedback we receive from autistics around the world. Your insight is paving the way for a better tomorrow for autists everywhere, and I am so, so grateful for all your thoughts.
For more information and a Bio on Julia from AutismThoughts, click here.