Meltdowns &
shutdowns

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What is sensory overload? 

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Sensory overload is when a person’s brain simply cannot cope with the amount of sensory input it is being exposed to. It is a form of information overload. The brain cannot process anything more and may even shut down completely. Unfortunately, it is something which is extremely common in autism, due to our sensory differences, and for the person experiencing it, it is exhausting, painful and scary.

 

It greatly reduces a person’s capacity, draining our batteries super-fast and is a major contributing factor to reduced executive functioning, pain, distress, illness, burnout and withdrawal, as well as the topic of this page - meltdowns and shutdowns.

One way to understand sensory overload is to imagine your functioning ability as a bucket. (Another AutisticNess analogy coming up...)

 

A non-autistic person, who is reasonably happy and healthy, begins with an empty bucket. It takes a long time to fill up and doesn't ever overflow. For an autistic person, the bucket probably begins half full and never completely empties, just because of all the extra work the brain is having to do all the time, in addition to sensory sensitivities. In addition, we also have the things that all humans must contend with - hormone fluctuations, hunger, pain, illness, stress, emotions and so on.

The autistic person's bucket will fill much, much quicker. Unless we have a great deal of regular recovery time away from painful sensory stimulus, and having to process things, the bucket will overflow rapidly. Again and again. 

 

Wooooosh! Meltdown time.

Meltdowns & shutdowns

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Meltdowns and shutdowns are a very distressing and extreme reaction to sensory overload, change in routine, communication difficulties or anxiety. Many autistic people have them. They occur when we are completely overwhelmed by the current situation and we temporarily lose control of our behaviour.

 

At this point, we have reached and exceeded capacity. Our batteries are spent. All spoons have been used up. Our buckets are overflowing uncontrollably.

 

During a meltdown, we will not be able to process any more input whatsoever. We may cry, scream, get angry, shout, or express our pain physically by hitting out. By the time we are in full meltdown, we are unable to control our behaviour or emotions, and it is too late to stop the meltdown. At this stage, all we can do is ride it out.   

 

Obviously, it is distressing to watch someone having a meltdown, but it is far, far more distressing for the person themselves. It is an exhausting and painful experience, and many autistic adults will tell you that despite having no control over the situation, they will still feel embarrassed and deeply ashamed, as well as utterly exhausted afterwards. Most of us would rather avoid them at all costs.  

Meltdowns are no more in a person’s control than epileptic fits  

 

They are not tantrums, although they may look the same. They are very different and need to be handled very differently.

 

A tantrum is conscious, wilful behaviour that can be shaped with rewarding behaviours. A meltdown, on the other hand, is an unconscious response to overwhelming stimuli and cannot be shaped by rewarding behaviours. Meltdowns occur throughout the lifetime whereas tantrums generally occur in younger children.

 

Of course, autistic children can also have tantrums, so it is very important to recognise the difference and act accordingly. Treating a meltdown like a tantrum, by admonishing or punishing it, will just inflame the situation and harm the person.    

 

Shutdowns can occur for all the same reasons already mentioned. When we shutdown, we may appear to ‘switch ‘off’. We may withdraw and be unusually quiet - even temporarily losing the ability to speak. This can appear less dramatic or less obvious to the outside world than a meltdown but can be equally debilitating for us.

  

Autistic people may react to overwhelm in other ways. We may simply refuse to interact, or we may withdraw from challenging situations altogether. Remember, we are protecting ourselves, not being defiant or difficult.  

 

Meltdowns should never be punished. They are a sign of extreme distress, and we may not be able to completely avoid them. However, there is much that we and other people can do to remove triggers and the build-up of events that lead to them.

 

There is also much that those around us can do to support us through a meltdown or a shutdown. Small adjustments can really help us cope with our sensory issues and to make environments more friendly for autistic and non-autistic people alike. 

Ways to help ourselves or others

before, during and after a meltdown 

  • Get to know our personal sensory profiles and help us to do the same. Find out what things drain our batteries and make us feel worse and what things calm us and give us energy.

  • Avoid unnecessary, or irritating stimuli, such as smells or noises. Avoid strong chemical smells, in particular.   

  • Learn to notice signs that a meltdown may be coming. Get to know our triggers. Learn to be aware of the environment and plan ahead. Remove or avoid things which may be triggering to us.  

  • If we are sensory seeking, perhaps help us to make a dark room or dark den, with some favourite toys and coloured lights.   

  • Allow us plenty of alone time and time to de-stimulate ourselves or recharge our batteries

  • Don’t force us into uncomfortable situations. If a procedure is necessary, introduce it gradually – for example having to go to the hairdresser or dentist - and explain the obstacles we may have to face beforehand. 

  • In times when we cannot advocate for ourselves, advocate for us. Do not allow friends, relatives or professionals to inflict forced behaviours onto us and help our voice to be heard. Beware of ‘expert’ opinions and advice if you feel it would be detrimental to your loved one. Seek further advice when necessary.  

  • Carry an autism awareness card or lanyard. There are many resources available online, such as cards that we can carry to help us communicate our feelings more easily.  

  • Make a personalised ‘sensory care pack’. This will help in times of sensory overload or distress and a smaller, personalised kit can be taken everywhere we go:  

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Above all else, believe the person’s experience. If we say we are experiencing jolts like electric shocks when someone touches us, then believe us and help to reduce our distress. Don’t invalidate our experience by saying that what we are feeling is silly, ridiculous or over the top, or that we are just being too sensitive. Please don’t compare one person’s sensory experiences to another. Listen to our unique experience and validate it.   

How to keep someone safe during a meltdown

If a meltdown is inevitable then there are some things others can do to help;

 

  • Above all, please do not judge us. Remember, this is not a tantrum and is not a choice. We are suffering at that moment.   

  • Remember that a meltdown is not a result of bad parenting.  

  • Only move or touch the person if they are in immediate danger. (Unless you know them well enough to know what might help them.) 

  • Do not try to engage in conversation or try to ‘talk the person round’.    

  • Be aware – is there anything in the environment that is compounding the person’s difficulties and can be removed or changed? Perhaps doors and windows could be closed if the environment is noisy.   

  • Allow us to stim! Rocking or making noises can be immensely calming for us. Passers-by may need some guidance, direction or reassurance that we are OK, or they may need to be encouraged to give us space. Try to provide us with some privacy if at all possible.   

  • Stay with us until we are safe and in control of our own safety.   

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Be calm, be kind, be available 

How can I ease an autistic person’s 

sensory challenges?   

  • Please don’t touch or hug us unless you know we are happy for you to do so. Make sure we aren’t suddenly surprised by your presence and approach from the front if possible.   

  • Get to know our individual likes and dislikes. Don’t assume.   

  • Do not try hiding vegetables in other foods! Really, please don’t! Doing so can not only cause pain and distress, it will destroy trust and cause future trauma and anxiety issues around food. Seek the advice of a dietician if you feel that nutrition is a problem.   

  • Never withhold sensory comforters as a punishment, and never…ever… punish us using sensory methods – this is a form of torture.   

  • Find ways to make your loved one’s sensory world less uncomfortable, less painful and more calming, safe and enriching. Be aware of our sensory preferences. Help us to have the clothes and environment that we prefer, rather than those imposed on us by society. Question, and if necessary let go of, your own social preconceptions - just as we do. If we want to wear pyjamas 24/7, or only wear green on Sundays, then unless there is a good reason why we shouldn’t - just let us.   

  • Listen to the lived experience of autistic adults. We were also autistic children once.   

  • Please don’t compare one autistic person to another.   

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Let us stim! This is so important it’s worth mentioning again! Please, let us move in whatever ways we enjoy or find soothing. If you find it uncomfortable then you need to find ways to deal with that feeling – not us. We long for a world that allows us to be ourselves, to self-regulate ourselves and enjoy life.  

  • Noise cancelling headphones  

  • A favourite scent in a small container or on a handkerchief

  • Emergency pair of the perfect sensory pyjamas!

  • A scrap of satin, fleece, wool or other textured material

  • Soft piece of animal fur (brushed from your own pet)

  • A cuddly toy, or other important toy or object  

  • Favourite cushion, pillow or blanket

  • Wet wipes or toilet wipes (trust me on this!) 

  • Tissues

  • Lip salve 

  • Soothing cream 

  • Favourite scented hand cream  

  • Rescue Remedy  

  • Water  

  • Snacks (healthy or otherwise!)  

  • Pain medication

  • Pen and paper to doodle or other favourite portable activity  

  • Phone charger and mini lead (for emergencies)

  • Music player and headphones and a favourite playlist  

  • Favourite book or comic  


 

    Add your own ideas ………..

Ideas for a personal sensory survival kit