On Holidays and Meltdowns, but Mostly on Meltdowns

As the holiday season is coming upon us, many people think about family gatherings, travel, cooking, gift giving and relationships. Those of us connected to autism find ourselves thinking about meltdowns.

There is a lot of good advice out there that is easy to find on dealing with holidays when you have a child on the spectrum, so I do not want to be repetitive. I want to talk specifically about meltdowns because they are very common during the holidays due to disrupted schedules and routines, noisy and crowded gatherings, new foods and smells, increased communication demands, lack of structure, etc. Meltdowns are very common and are also very hard on everyone.


What is a meltdown?

All parents know what meltdown looks like for their child. We often know the triggers and the warning signs. Let’s talk briefly about something less obvious: what a meltdown is about.

Children and adults with autism, or autistics, are known to have difference in processing sensory information in seven areas. Those are tactile (touch), auditory (hearing), visual (seeing), vestibular (gravity and movement), proprioception (feedback from muscles and joints of your own body) and olfactory (smell). Everything that happens around your child, and any activity that the child is involved in, needs to be processed.

There are different statistics on percentages of children and adults with autism, or autistics, who have sensory differences. I have seen articles saying that 78% of people on the spectrum have those types of sensitivities. Based on my professional l experiences, I believe that 100% of children and adults with autism, or autistics, have these sensory processing differences.

What is important to know is that children and adults with autism, or autistics, go through their day meeting constant demands that are difficult for them to manage. And even if they look OK, they might be expending tremendous amounts of energy to cope with everyday situations that involve noise, lights, commotion, learning and behavioral demands, unpredictable changes, etc. Nothing special might be happening and child might not be showing any distress, yet there is an added workload, a hidden cost that is seen in a form of an eventual meltdown.

At some point, a child's ability to deal with whatever life threw his or her way gets exceeded, and your child loses control of his or her behavior. The frontal lobe of the brain can no longer provide emotional self-regulation needed to use the usual coping strategies and behave as expected. This process, sometimes known as “overload,” can take minutes or it can take hours. You will not necessarily know. A meltdown can happen when child is overwhelmed by something that has just happened, or it can be a release of tension and pressure that has accumulated over a period of hours or even days. We can only guess the internal processes. What we see is a meltdown. It is the only way in that moment in which child can communicate to parents and/or other caregivers, “I am struggling. I am scared. I am overwhelmed. I need help right now!” At the same time, a meltdown will prevent any additional information from being taken in.

Adults with autism, or autistics, can also have meltdowns. They look no different than meltdowns in children. Just like with children, anything can be a trigger, and there are warning signs that might allow time for prevention.

Some adults learn to use coping and self-regulation strategies and are able to manage without meltdowns. It still takes tremendous amount of energy to process all the inputs, but a person who has learned to self-monitor and self-regulate can offset this by doing things like spending time alone, spending time in silence and darkness, working out in various ways, engaging in special interests, getting necessary sensory inputs, etc. The amount of energy required for this self-regulation is tremendous, and each person's ability to manage might change significantly day to day.

Why you?

Parents often tell me that their child will not have a meltdown with anyone else, only with them. They find that confusing because they feel it shows that child has control over meltdowns. This is because with other people, whom your child does not trust as much as he/she trusts you, your child is working very hard to hold it together. If your child is only having meltdowns with you, he’s basically saying, “You are the only person in the world who I feel can help me when I am completely out of control.” And no person in the world can always be under control. We all need to let go somewhere, somehow. Your child lets go with you. You might prefer not to have that privilege, but it is yours and you have no choice but to take it as the highest sign of trust your child can give you.


What to DO during meltdowns?


Meltdown is not a choice. As we have already discussed, it is the only thing your child knows to do to let you know that he/she is having an emergency. Your child cannot stop the meltdown mid-way. It has to run its course. Let it.

How you help your child during the meltdown depends on how your child responds to what you do. Learning what helps is a process of trial an error.

The first step is to ensure physical safety. If your child bangs his/her head or bites himself/herself, preventing injury is the first concern. If you can manage it yourself, great. If not, you need to have someone help you.

If your child becomes aggressive during meltdown and threatens your safety, you need to make sure that you are safe by leaving the space. If you can monitor your child from a safe distance, from another room with a door half closed or in some other way, that is ideal. But you cannot be unsafe.

Those two situations aside, you will need to see what helps your child. First thing to do is to get to your child’s level. If your child is small or if your child is on the floor, get down on the floor with him/her. For some children, you can help by hugging him or her while rocking rhythmically. For some children, imposed movement might be too much, so rocking would be out. Some children will hug facing you, and some will hug their back to you, or sideways. Whatever works. If there is a special type of touch your child enjoys, try to use it. For example, I worked with a child who adored back rubs and found them soothing. If your child has a soothing preference like that, try it.

Some children need to be in control of touch, especially when upset. In this case, you might open your arms and invite the child to you when ready. When the child is pressed against you, ask if you can wrap your arms around them and wait for a “yes”. Your child might even prefer to take your arms and wrap them around himself or herself. This lets your child control when, where and how they feel touch. Your child might pull away from touch and then get close again. Let them do what they need. Stay available.

For some children, you can add singing or humming, but for some children use of words or sounds can be too much. What songs you sing you will need to experiment with too. I have worked with a child who was sensitive to music that some tunes would make him sob uncontrollably every time. You want to sing, or perhaps, hum, a song that is soothing to your child. Humming is good because it does not require processing of words, but it allows you to use your voice to sooth.

For some children, touch during meltdown can be restrictive and unbearable. You might need to keep your distance and either sing/hum or talk to a child in a low, soothing voice. This is not the time to discuss what happened or inappropriateness of your child’s behaviors or reactions, or better ways to react. What you say is up to you, but it is anything that will sooth your child. This is not the time to teach. During meltdown, you won’t be able to reach your child with rational discussion.

Sometimes none of what’s above is acceptable for a child. Sometimes just your presence might be helpful and regulating to your child. You will have to learn for yourself the distance from you to the child that will work. If this is what you are doing, you are staying present and available until your child lets you know that you can become more involved. It could be that at some point you will have an indication that your child is ready for you to move closer and perhaps to touch or use your voice. It is also possible that your child will calm down independently, but will prefer you in the room. Take this seriously, because even though you might think that you are not doing anything, for your child your presence is comforting and communicates love and care.

Yet for other children, it is better that you leave the room. Some children are overwhelmed by someone else’s presence. If that is the case, leave the space and monitor your child in some way for signs that he/she is ready for communication. You can experiment with popping in from time to time without saying anything. Or you might find that your child becomes upset at that. It might be better to let you child find you when he or she is ready.

You want to wait until your child is completely calm and rested to talk to him/her about what happened. You will learn how long it takes for your child to be ready, and the signs of that readiness. It could take a few hours or a few days. Some children on the spectrum take very long time to fully process an emotional experience. You might find that just mentioning the situation around the meltdown to them might provoke another one. For those children, it is better to leave it alone and focus on teaching self-regulation skills.