So Squash posted yesterday asking for advice about how to help with a meltdown, and funnily enough I just noticed it this morning while I was trawling The Sensual Aspie.
This is just very quick because I don’t have much time at the mo’ (being as I have to leave for school in an hour and a half and need to get ready and sorted for that), but here are a few tips.
Remember that you CANNOT stop a meltdown when it’s in process or about to happen, or it will be even worse later.
The prevention stage is before any of the meltdown behaviors start to happen, either through therapy, through limiting meltdown-inducing environments or situations, or removing the autistic from the situation before the meltdown is anywhere near beginning. Once it’s happening, much like a storm, you have to just wait for it to pass. Trying to get the autistic to stop the behaviors won’t actually stop the meltdown but delay it for a while, and when it happens then, it’ll be even worse than if you’d just let it happen at first.
Think of an autistic meltdown like a spectacular (I say that in the old sense of ‘being a spectacle’) version of ‘cathartic crying’. We all know that if you need to cry and let it out, preventing it is mostly impossible. A meltdown is the same. So lose the idea that you can “stop” a meltdown, because you’re actually just making it worse in the long run.
Learn to identify pre-meltdown behaviors.
Every autistic has a slightly different lead-up to meltdowns, or several depending on the situation. I almost always go nonverbal or limited verbal before a meltdown, but then during a meltdown I talk so fast that you can barely understand what I’m saying. Before a meltdown my feet and extremities will turn bright red from increased blood flow, I may start to stim, and I will lose physical coordination. Any of these in conjunction with another (especially going nonverbal) is a sign that a meltdown is about to happen.
Remove the autistic from a public situation and get them in a safe space.
I’m usually able to contain myself until I’m in a safe, private space, but sometimes I’m not, and it’s then unfortunately up to the people around me to help me get somewhere quiet and private. Generally this means getting me somewhere with as little sensory stimulation as possible, quiet and protected from most things that might hurt me. I’m very prone to self-injurious behaviors in the middle of a meltdown, so ensure that there are no knives, etc. This will force me to limit myself to banging my hands on a hard surface, which, while it hurts, won’t severely injure or kill me.
Don’t try to have a logical or serious conversation.
This is a mistake my mother makes. Whenever I get into meltdown mode she picks that time as a time to have a serious discussion about my life or to make lasting decisions about the future based on my behavior in that particular moment. Suddenly the days and weeks of being good and playing the allistic games don’t matter because right then I’m being “bad”, therefore I deserve to get my privileges taken away, etc. Don’t do this. You’ll make a meltdown worse and severely damage the relationship between yourself and the autistic, because they will see you as manipulative and uncaring.
Don’t make it about you.
Allistics like to do this a lot. When an autistic is having a meltdown, they will often see it in relation to themselves, as in, “You’re embarrassing me, you’re upsetting me. You’re frustrating me." Right now, the autistic is in full survival mode. If a shutdown is like a computer’s Blue Screen of Death, a meltdown is like when your computer suddenly shuts itself off and then turns on again and starts deleting all your files: as annoying and scary as it is to you, you realize that it’s not actually doing this to spite you and it needs help. This is the same.
I say some hurtful things when I’m in meltdown mode, so I’ve been told, but unfortunately I forget what happens when I’m in meltdown - my brain just stops recording. The allistics around me love to use things I said as ammunition long after the fact because I don’t remember it, and thus they can guilt me even further. Please don’t do this; again, it’s manipulative.
Right now, your first concern should be with keeping the autistic safe until after the meltdown happens. If they say something hurtful to you, or this behavior was truly upsetting to you, discuss it with them later, with the knowledge that they might not remember what happened and might need you to walk them through the events so you can talk it over. This is a good time to make a battle plan for the next meltdown.
Now, I’m not saying that your feelings aren’t important, because I’m sure some of you will take it that way. I’m saying that right now the autistic is in emergency mode, and you’re not. The person with an emergency has preference, same as you would be a total jackass if you complained about getting cut off by an ambulance. The offense or snub that you’re feeling is miniscule compared to the terror of losing control over your body and mind, which is what the autistic is going through.
I’ve had seizures before and I’ve had meltdowns before, and I will tell you that a meltdown is far scarier than a seizure. A meltdown literally feels like I’ve completely lost control and will never regain it, but I’m completely conscious for it and aware of what’s going on - with no way to stop it. With a seizure I’m often unconscious or at least aware that it will ultimately come to an end. Meltdowns feel like they’re going to go on forever, that they will never end and I will never be safe again. It’s horrifying. You being offended at being called a not-very-nice word in the midst of this is frankly not top priority.
Don’t physically restrain them, attempt to touch them, or prevent them from self-injury (to an extent).
Don’t touch the autistic unless they tell you to or make it clear that it’s okay. Some autistics want to be hugged, some don’t. I for one do not want to be touched at all during a meltdown, and touching me or attempting to restrain me will just make it worse. There are others who a firm hug will help relax them because of the pressure.
If an autistic asks you to hug them, then for god’s sake do: again, don’t make this very serious and traumatizing event about you and your hurt feelings, as you can deal with that later when the autistic is safe. But unless they give you permission, don’t hug them. I know it’s normal to want to “comfort” a frightened person with physical touch but it’s not appropriate in this context. Keep away from them unless they make it clear that they want otherwise.
I know watching someone hurt themselves can be very frightening, but unless they’re in mortal danger you need to just let it happen unless they tell you otherwise. If they ask you to stop them, then do. Me personally, I need to hit myself or scratch myself in order to complete the cycle, there is no other option, and if you try to stop it, again, it’ll just make it worse. Again, talk about this before a meltdown will occur and be sure that they want/do not want your assistance in this situation.
Let them calm down before talking about it.
A recharge period is necessary after the meltdown. This varies from person to person: I need a full day before I can even discuss it, and that day needs to be somewhat unstressed or the cycle will just start over again. Don’t pressure them to discuss it before they’re ready. Let them sleep (sleep is very important after a meltdown), give them some juice and let them do something that helps sort it out, like stimming or reading or listening to the same song 100 times or playing a video game they enjoy, whatever calms them down normally.
VERY IMPORTANT: Don’t accuse them of throwing a “tantrum”. A meltdown is not a tantrum. Same as cathartic crying is not crocodile tears, meltdowns are not manipulative, nor are they meant for you. They are outbursts of emotion; they are shorting out of the wires. Don’t try to figure out what the person was trying to gain from the meltdown, because they weren’t trying to gain anything, because it wasn’t for your benefit or about you at all. The only way it was about you is if you did something to exacerbate it.
Remember to be respectful and use “I” statements. Again, don’t make the meltdown about you, because it wasn’t about you. Use that famous empathy that allistics are known for and figure it out together.
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