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What is a meltdown?

Whether you are parenting an autistic child or working with them, understanding meltdowns is absolutely critical when it comes to providing them with the right support. Meltdowns occur when an autistic person becomes overwhelmed by their current environment. If they find themselves in a situation where they are experiencing sensory overload, they may be unable to communicate their needs in a calm and measured manner. 


A meltdown is different from a tantrum

An autistic person is not in control of their behaviour during a meltdown. They may shout, scream and lash out to express their pain and discomfort. This is different from a tantrum which is when someone uses their behaviours to get their own way or express dissatisfaction. A meltdown has no underlying aim and is not premeditated. 

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Meltdowns do not always present as aggressive and violent actions. "Shutdowns" are when an autistic person becomes extremely quiet, silent and withdrawn. A shutdown is a form of meltdown where a person becomes extremely still rather than outwardly aggressive. They do not respond to any kind of request and these can actually prevent the person from recovering and regaining their verbal abilities. Shutdown can feel like you have lost your voice and any ability to communicate. On the inside the person could be desperate to explain how they feel, but the skill to communicate just isn't available. As people come out of shutdown they may be able to communicate by writing whilst they wait for their voice to return. Recovering from a shutdown can take hours or longer. Animals have been known to help an autistic person out of shutdown.

What causes a meltdown?

Many factors can contribute or trigger a meltdown. For a free download of things that may be the cause, check out our free resources here.

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How to support someone when in meltdown

When supporting someone through a meltdown, remember:

  • Remain calm - getting agitated and frustrated will only prolong the meltdown. The person is not in control, they are in pain and need unconditional support.

  • Do not bombard them with questions, demands and verbal communication - this will only contribute to their sensory overload. If in shutdown they may even need to be left alone.

  • Keep them safe from self harm as much as possible - these acts of self harm are to show frustration, pain and are not conscious decisions when in a meltdown. Do your best by removing harmful objects and making the environment as safe as possible.

  • Provide love and care - when the meltdown has finished the person will likely be exhausted, emotional and in need of support. Provide them with their favourite comforts and show them that they have not been judged for experiencing a meltdown.

For more information and ideas on how to support someone through an autistic meltdown, check out our books here.

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