Sensory overloads are common experiences with many autistic individuals and can often lead to meltdowns. Understanding the difference between a meltdown and a temper tantrum can be difficult for other people not on the spectrum, yet it is crucial to emphasise how different the two are.
Brian Irwin is a self-advocate based in Cork. In this blog, he shares an autistic person’s perspective of experiencing sensory overload, explaining what are some of the typical triggers, what to do in the event of a meltdown, as well as debunking some of the misconceptions surrounding the sensation.
WHAT IT IS
Meltdowns are characterised by a loss of control over behaviour. This isn’t a voluntary decision to let go of polite behaviour; rather, it’s a response to extreme stress, that can seem disproportionate to the situation from the perspective of observers. Meltdowns are not limited to screaming and shouting, either – they can encompass a variety of drastic emotional responses, such as bursting into tears, running away, self-injury like beating oneself or one’s environment, or even fainting. But how do they happen?
HOW IT HAPPENS
The stressors that cause meltdowns can be either internal, as in mental or emotional stress, or environmental, like noise, texture or visual stimuli. Meltdowns caused by environmental stress are the result of sensory overload, an unfortunate side-effect of the way the autistic brain processes incoming data; some sensory experiences that seem trivial to you, such as the tinking sound of a flickering classroom light, can be as unbearable to an autistic person as nails on a blackboard!
Meltdown behaviour is an emergency vent of pent-up anxiety, a reaction to a situation wherein it seems like there is no way to escape an unpleasant stimulus; as I write this, the person behind me on the train is merrily crunching through a bag of sour cream & onion crisps, and are blissfully unaware of how nauseating I find that particular smell. Don’t worry, I’m not about to explode! I’ve learned what sets me off, and how my body reacts to this sort of stress, which is vital for figuring out how to notice an imminent meltdown.
HOW TO NOTICE IT – SUBJECT & OBSERVER
Since meltdowns are a stress response, many of the warning signs are common to stress or anxiety situations. Physical agitation, such as shorter, more terse sentences, distraction from a task such as schoolwork, or noticeable physical tics such as hair-pulling, twitching, or pacing, may be outward signs of a high-stress situation. On the inside, if you are experiencing feelings of dread, a tight tension in your chest, or a desire to escape the situation you’re in, these are significant signs of high stress, and should be addressed to help you keep your cool. If you can get up and take a quick walk somewhere less stimulating, to give yourself a break, I highly recommend it; of not, tell someone who cares about you so something can be done to calm you down.
One of my personal warning signs is that if something’s disturbing me and I don’t know what to do, I end up fixating on it; those sour cream crisps are all I can smell right now, and it’s going to drive me up the wall! I’m ordering a cup of tea to clear my nose.
RECOGNISING & DEFUSING AN IMMINENT MELTDOWN
If you think someone nearby is experiencing the heightened stress that can lead to a meltdown, it might be nice to ask them if they need to step out and take a break; for the sake of privacy, please don’t make a scene out of it, because this attention could be a further source of stress for the person. If getting up and moving isn’t an option, consider what can be done to remove the stress from their environment. If a lightbulb is flickering, for example, see if you can dim the lights or turn them off for a while.
If the stressor is unfixable and you’ve got to stay put, it’s time to look into comfort tools. Earplugs to lessen incoming noise, darkened glasses to combat uncomfortable lighting, maybe a touchstone toy or comforting sensation tool to distract from the unpleasant stimulus. This cup of tea is doing wonders to clear my nose from the smell of crisps!
Always remember, your comfort and health, and that of your friends or family, is more important than most minor social conventions. People are inherently good and will be understanding of your needs if you’re polite about asserting them. If you’ve got a genuine need to get up and go for a break, just say it and explain later. Better the minor disruption of crossing the room to the door and coming back in a few minutes than a show-stopping meltdown. But sometimes, the worst does come to the worst, and a meltdown is unavoidable.
DEALING WITH THE NUCLEAR OPTION
Sometimes, a meltdown is unavoidable. One of the fastest things to go when under stress is mindfulness, and the stress can sneak up on you; some people have very few outward indicators of stress until suddenly there’s one big one happening that nobody saw coming either. If someone’s having a meltdown, the best way to deal with it is give them space and dignity, and help them regain control of themselves. You don’t want them to be upset, and they don’t either, so avoiding further fuss is in everyone’s best interests. The most immediate solution is to remove them from the stressful situation, or removing the stressor if physically leaving is not an option. If you’re taking care of someone who’s lashing out, do your best to ensure they can’t hurt themselves or others by insulating their bodies and preventing them from attacking anyone nearby. This is a very upsetting thing to experience, but let me assure you it’s not personal; it’s an activation of the Fight part of the body’s fight-or-flight response.
When the environment is as pacified as it can be, the next thing to focus on is the stress response happening on the inside. Are you angry? Upset? Scared? Figuring out what emotion you’re experiencing can be a great help for reducing its effect on you.
The next thing is getting your breathing under control. Fast, shallow breathing is the body’s way of fuelling its fight-or-flight mechanism in a high-stress situation, and breathing like this increases the stress your body experiences; when combined with incoming stress, this causes a feedback loop, as your body starts hyperventilating to deal with the stress that’s being worsened by hyperventilating. Encourage slower, deeper breathing to help calm down, lower the heart rate, and get your body back under control.
Once the meltdown has passed and control has been restored, it’s time to chill out for a bit. Sit somewhere quiet, engage in a stim or special interest for a few minutes, talk to someone comfortable, or whatever helps you relax, until you feel ready to re-engage with whatever you were doing prior to melting down.
A core part of moving forward from a meltdown is understanding how it happened and taking steps to lowering the odds of it happening again. Try and isolate what it was that upset you; was it a flickering light fitting? Sudden loud noises? Academic or social stress? Or something else. Once this has been identified, you can plan how to deal with it in the future. For instance, if a flickering lightbulb has upset you, you can change the bulb or request that it be changed.
It’s important to realise and accept that stress happens to all of us, and if we suffer too much of it, our body will try to wrench us out of the situation without our minds’ consent. Having a meltdown doesn’t make you a bad person, it means you exposed yourself to much more stress than you could handle; for all its unpleasantness, it’s a reminder that you need to give yourself some more love. Once you’ve let it all out of you, sometimes you can feel like a weight’s been lifted from your shoulders!
Lastly, if you think you’ve upset someone during meltdown, it’s best to apologise promptly and honestly. Explain that you weren’t in full control, you don’t like doing it, and it wasn’t a personal thing – you just got too stressed for the situation you shared.
Finally, let’s not forget why meltdowns are such a common thing with us on the spectrum: Our sensory apparatus means more stress is available to us than it is to most people, and it comes in ways that others may not spot easily. The most important thing for us is how we react to the situation we’re in, not the situation itself. Avoid the stress, remove it if possible, if not possible remove yourself from the stressor, and remember that it’s okay to do this. We’re not perfect, and it’s okay to have an off-day every now and then! Try to forgive yourself for feeling anxious or upset, because it’s not your fault. The best thing you can do is deal with the situation you find yourself in, and hopefully this blog will have helped you figure that out a bit.
This is one individual’s opinion and experience. It does not necessarily reflect AsIAm’s views and positions as an organisation. If you’d like to blog for AsIAm.ie, get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.