Ask an Autistic #15 – What are Autistic Meltdowns?

Hi everyone, I’m Amythest, and welcome to Ask an Autistic ♪ I want a renaissance ♪ ♪ To shine a light ♪ ♪ Be the change we want ♪ ♪ Set things right ♪ ♪ We’ve been waiting in the dark ♪ ♪ For so long ♪ Meltdowns aren’t a trait that is exclusive to autism People with sensory processing disorder or ADD or ADHD may also experience meltdowns but in this video I’ll be talking about meltdowns as they pertain to autistic people and autistic experiences when it comes to preventing meltdowns and helping autistic people through their meltdowns the place to begin is really what a meltdown is A meltdown is a physiological fight or
flight response that happens in the body. Somebody experiencing meltdown will experience these surges of adrenalin The body is actually reacting as it
would in a life or death situation The most common cause of meltdowns The most common reason why an autistic
person will reach the point of meltdown, the point of no return is something called sensory overload
If you haven’t yet watched my video on sensory processing disorder Please click this link to do so, because you’ll need to understand sensory processing disorder for the next little bit of what I’m going to talk about Sensory overload occurs in a person with
sensory integration issues. This is autistic people or people who are not
autistic but have sensory processing disorder.
So an autistic person may be under or over sensitive to stimulation in their environment
And this is lights, noises, sound, smells, etcetera
Every autistic person will have a limit: a threshold of how much sensory
stimulation and negative sensory input they can endure.
And keep in mind that this threshold actually changes day to day.
When an autistic person reaches their limit of sensory input that they can take in, when they get to the point of their threshold any extra stimulation or any stimulation beyond that may lead them to sensory overload.
There are a couple of good
videos that simulate sensory overload for somebody who isn’t autistic or who doesn’t
have sensory integration issues, and I’ll link to a couple those in the video description. Basically, when you reach sensory overload, your mind is maxed out.
When you have sensory integration issues, at the best of times, certain noises like metal scraping on
metal, you know, fork against knife is a big one for me, bright light, crowds of people, textures and clothing
that may be scratchy or itchy or just intolerable somebody with sensory integration issues, all of these things can actually cause pain as well discomfort and in somebody with SPD or an autistic person. When you reach sensory overload, it is
ten times worse every little thing can cause you pain and your mind is overwhelmed. When
somebody reaches the point of sensory overload what they really need is to be able to
escape as soon as possible to a safe place usually it’s a place
that’s quiet and dark, and for me, I like small spaces, because they make me feel safer. When an autistic person is unable to
escape, or they have to endure more sensory
stimulation than their brain can handle, they will melt down. Explaining exactly what happens during
a meltdown is difficult for two reasons. Firstly, every autistic person is different, and so they will experience meltdowns differently. Secondly when a meltdown happens, so much is going on that it’s hard to even suss out what
you’re feeling or even remember it later. It’s a lot of
very strong and very negative emotions. When I try to explain it to people though, I usually describe it as something like an adrenaline rush, and a mental breakdown, and a panic attack, rolled into one. When an autistic person has a meltdown, they lose control; they may scream, shout, drop to the ground, they may throw things, or kick, or punch, they may just cry and sob inconsolably. They may
drop to the floor and be unable to do anything other than rock, or pull their hair out.
After I have a meltdown, I feel like I got hit by a truck, and I have
a flu, and I ran a marathon. It’s just you feel exhausted and icky, and after meltdown you are
much more emotionally vulnerable. And so after a meltdown, there’s this really crucial time where an autistic person, or a person with sensory integration issues, will need to be alone. They may want a
little TLC or, just to be left alone to have some quiet time to, again, recharge. The second most common reason that
autistic people have meltdowns is because they’ve been under stress, or have been experiencing anxiety for a prolonged period of time. Again, like with sensory stimulation, every autistic person will have their own threshold, the amount of activity, or socializing, or chores, or schoolwork, or whatever in a day that
they can handle. Something that happens a lot and then I
get quite a few messages about, is, um, a parent will message me and they’ll have a concern, something like my son or my daughter, they’re autistic and they’ve been having a lot more meltdowns lately. And what I usually tell the parent to do
is to take a look at their child’s schedule, where, you know, a week out of their life looks like. How many extracurriculars do they have going on? Are they in therapy, and if so how often, how long these therapy sessions? Do they do school? What does that look like?
Often is the case that when there is an increase in meltdowns, there has also been an increase in responsibilities, or demands, or
scheduling in an autistic child’s week. They also may have just started something new. Change is really hard for autistic people. And even good change, the addition of an activity that they really like into their routine, can
cause stress on an autistic brain and can lead to meltdown.
Every autistic person will need time alone, down time to recharge. Unstructured time where they don’t have to socialize with anybody, there’s no therapy or school or soccer or painting class or whatever just time for
them to be by themselves, and to do things
they like, and this is often engaging in special interests. If an autistic person doesn’t have
enough unstructured downtime to balance out the structured demands and extracurriculars, then stress is building and building and
building, and that can lead to meltdown. It can also lead to autistic burnout in
the long-term. Which is why it’s very important for
parents to think critically about their autistic child’s schedule, and does Suzy really need an extra for hours of therapy a week? or would that time be better spent allowing Suzy to rest and recharge and replenish your energy levels and get centered again? Another really big cause of potential stress in an autistic person,
particularly if that austistic person is nonverbal is frustration. If you’re an autistic person
and you have speech dyspraxia, it’s tough enough getting out what you
mean when you mean to, especially in situations of stress, or when you’re in the spotlight. When you’re an
autistic person who is unable to communicate with your mouthparts at all, that frustration is ten times worse, and when you’re an autistic person who can’t communicate with your mouthparts, and you have no method of AAC, or another way to communicate, it is
probably the most frustrating thing in the world. You know what you want to say, to
understand what the people around you are saying: to have something you need to say, and
to not be able to communicate. So for an autistic person who can’t speak verbally, and who has no other way to communicate,
imagine the levels of frustration, and the potential for fear, and anger. So if you’re the parent or loved one of a
nonverbal autistic person, and they don’t have a method of
communication, it’s time to seriously start looking into AAC, or alternative and augmentative
communication. Firstly, and I cannot stress this enough,
the most important thing when it comes to to helping autistic people through melt downs
is preventing them in the first place. If an autistic child is having a lot of
meltdowns, or the frequency of meltdowns has increased, this is probably an indication of an underlying problem that needs to
be addressed. A schedule that’s too full, bullying or abuse that’s going on, or
just not having enough accommodation and
support in their daily life to deal with things like sensory
overload. So it’s important not think of meltdowns as something that just happens, and that the behavior of autistic people is mysterious and unknowable, and there’s no reason for it, and we can never understand. Because that’s not true. Meltdowns always have a cause, there’s
always something that contributes to it, and it’s very important to identify the
triggers, and then to see what accommodations you can make to your child’s schedule, to their life, and if they need
any additional support. The other way to prevent meltdowns
is to accommodate sensory needs. The biggest thing is stimming. If you haven’t seen my video on stimming please check out the link here. When it comes to stimming, it is the best and healthiest way that autistic people have to self-regulate. We can block out negative sensory
input, or deal with sensory stimulation, through stimming. It is also a way for us to express ourselves, so stimming shouldn’t be stopped.
Accomodating sensory needs can look like giving an autistic person or child noise cancelling earphones or
ear plugs, who are in environments where there might be negative auditory input. For example, I carry earplugs with me
in my purse, and I wear them when I’m on the skytrain. If the autistic person in your life is sensitive to bright lights, or certain
kinds of lighting, like incandescent lighting or flickering
fluorescent lights, wearing sunglasses or a hat with a brim can be very helpful. There are some shops sell clothing that
is specifically designed for people with sensory integration issues, so there aren’t any seams or tags that
would need to be cut out. A couple autistic adults I have spoken to have said that second-hand clothes tend to already have been worn down to a softer or smoother feel, and so may be more enjoyable for an autistic person to wear, and just little things like that,
providing clothing that won’t bother an autistic person’s sensory defensiveness. Accomodating someone’s sensory needs can also be just simply not going places where there’ll
be something that bothers that person, like avoiding the perfume counter at the bay if they’re sensitive to that kind of thing, or, choosing a more quiet bistro or family restaurant, rather than a restaurant that’ll be
very busy, or have live music playing. While meltdowns are really hard to deal with, they’re not impossible to manage. through understanding what a meltdown is, you can practice methods of prevention, preventing a meltdown from happening, by taking a look at your autistic child’s schedule and their life, and seeing if there is anything that needs to be taken out, if they have too many activities and need more down time. You can also accommodate your autistic child’s sensory needs by allowing them to do what they need to do: to wear sunglasses indoors, or to stim in public, or to be allowed to cover their ears if
there’s a baby crying, or another noise that you know will set them off. And the last, and probably most important thing to
remember, is that as hard as autistic meltdowns are on an autistic person’s family, they are ten times worse on the autistic person. And meltdowns, especially an increase in the frequency of meltdowns in a short amount of time, can be a sign
that something very wrong is going on. ♪ I want a renaissance ♪ ♪ To shine a light ♪ ♪ Be the change we want ♪ ♪ Set things right ♪ ♪ We’ve been waiting in the dark ♪ ♪ For so long ♪

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