How to reduce Autistic meltdowns in adults and identify triggers

Jan 31, 2021

To the untrained eye meltdowns look like a temper tantrum, or a manipulation, its neither of these things. A meltdown isn’t logical, it doesn’t matter if you’re given what you want, if you’re in meltdown the logical frontal lobe of your brain switches off and you’re operating from the older reptilian brain, the part that controls the fight, flight or freeze response. A tantrum however stops as soon as the individual get’s their own way, making it behavioural. 

Meltdowns don’t just happen, there are always triggers that contribute towards them. Some triggers can be avoided, and some cannot, but by becoming aware of them, we can at least minimise the damage that they have the potential to cause. Triggers will be different for everyone, and whilst it’s important for those around you to understand how they can help, ultimately it is down to us to work out what works best for us as individuals, and to come up with a plan that fits our needs, this information can then be shared with those we interact with, at a time when meltdown or emotional shutdown isn’t an immediate threat.

Common triggers and warning signs of an impending meltdown or shutdown.

There will always be triggers and early warning signs of an approaching meltdown or shutdown, by taking the time to learn what yours are, you are giving yourself the opportunity to gain back control.

If you’re autistic or in the neuro-diverse crew, you’ll know that stims are self-soothing and help autistic and neuro diverse individuals to self-regulate. People with autism stim to help themselves to manage anxiety, fear, anger, excitement, anticipation, and other strong emotions. They also stim to help themselves handle overwhelming sensory input, this isn’t something that needs to be stopped, when stims are destructive, dangerous or causing harm to yourself or others, that’s when they need to be addressed and shifted to something healthier. They offer some clues as to how an autistic individual is coping. Here are some common stims ranging from harmless to dangerous, this list is by no means conclusive, there are hundreds if not thousands of different ways to self-regulate, feel free to add yours to the comments, as this helps others to recognise their stims and deepens their understanding.

Harmless Stims

Stims can be as simple as twisting your hair around your fingers, tapping your foot or leg, fidgeting in general, grinding your teeth, chewing your nails, picking at your skin, crossing your legs tightly or knotting them up as many times as you can, wiggling toes and flexing them, eating, making a fuss of a pet because it’s a pleasurable sensation, tapping your glass against your teeth, blowing bubbles into your drink through a straw, smoking, rubbing earlobes.

Pay Attention Stims
These stims are starting to show that there may be a problem. Bouncing around like the Duracell bunny on overdrive can be harmless, especially if you have or suspect you have ADHD running alongside your ASD/ASC, it can also be an indicator that things are going wrong, bouncing and rocking, pacing around, slapping or pinching at yourself, flapping of hands, spinning in circles, stuttering and general language change, becoming verbally abusive, losing control of speech volume, scratching at your scalp till you have blood under your nails.
Dangerous Stims
These stims tend to happen once you’ve lost control or are on the brink of losing control : Banging your head against the wall, punching yourself, lashing out at others either verbally or physically and sometimes both, swallowing dangerous objects, self-harm such as cutting, burning or biting.
Triggers again are different for everyone, we all know the saying ‘they know how to push my buttons’ and we probably all have at least one person who does that on a regular basis, by learning what pushes our buttons we are setting ourselves up for change, yes change is a big and scary thing for the neurodiverse, but these are good changes and offer all of us an opportunity to take back some of our power. The most common causes of autistic meltdown are almost always sensory related, this could be being anxious in a new environment, the sounds are different and for those with sensory processing challenges they can be frightening and painful, there are different smells, different people, different lighting, different procedures or rules to follow, not to mention that it’s a complete change of routine and this is something that can be a huge hurdle to navigate, there are so many things out of our control that it can feel totally overwhelming, and the emotions this causes need to come out in one way or another. Often it’s the simplest of gestures that can help people navigate life’s hurdles, regardless of neurotype, try and be accepting that everyone’s experience of life is totally unique, if someone’s experience is totally different to yours take that as a good thing, it’s a chance to learn.
How to avoid a meltdown
By understanding your triggers, you have put yourself into a highly advantageous position, if your triggers are noise related have earplugs or ear defenders available, if you’re able to tolerate music use music, if you’re just feeling irritated by someone, you don’t even need to turn the music on just have your earphones in, and point at them when you’re asked a question, they’ll get the message. If you like being hugged, go and get a hug, if physical touch isn’t your thing, try a weighted blanket which does the same as a hug and releases the feel good chemical serotonin into your system, go for a walk and re-connect with nature, nature is such a powerful antidepressant and so underused, it’s free so use it, plan rest day’s or things that you enjoy into your weekly schedule, if you’re constantly doing things for others and never for yourself, then yes you are going to have a meltdown or a shutdown. I appreciate that finding your triggers takes time and energy, but it’s energy well spent and it’s well worth the investment.
How to help someone who’s having a meltdown
Use simple and clear language, by this point we’ve reached sensory overload, so simple language which is calm, and patient is the kindest thing you can offer. Always ask in as few words as possible what the person needs, “What do you need right now”? then be quiet and wait for the answer, it may take time for the answer to come through, this delay isn’t rudeness, it’s simply a processing period. “Would you like a hug” wait for the answer, don’t assume that the person want’s a hug, touch may feel like razor blades or jolts of electric coursing through them. If an autistic person is telling you they feel you are shouting at them, they are highly likely to feel that you are shouting at them, even if you feel like you’re whispering for those in sensory overload everything becomes amplified, smell, taste, touch, hearing, sight so the best thing you can do is to remember to be kind and don’t take it personally. Often, it’s the simplest of gestures that can help pull someone back from meltdown, ask them what may have helped after the episode and work together on a plan that builds a toolbox for self-care for the future.
If you would like some help in putting a plan together to help navigate overload, overwhelm and all of the things that contribute towards meltdowns, feel free to get in touch.