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 ca