The Deal On Meltdowns

In the aftermath of mass murder and rumours that the killer had Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), there have been quite a few parents (and others) questioning how they deal with their children’s meltdowns.

Well, first of all, mass murder is not a meltdown.  This is important to know.  Meltdowns are not planned.  Mass murder, on some level, is.  It really is that simple, so moving on…

There are two main causes of meltdowns – sensory overload, and frustration.  The worst of meltdowns are a combination of the two.

Sensory overload is where there is too much sensory input for the brain to handle.  Each person with ASD is affected differently by different stimuli.  For example, I get really “high” on being in the middle of a city with lights and people and heaps of things going on.  I love it!  For other people with ASD, this is their worst nightmare.  On the other hand, I can’t wear certain fabrics as they annoy me too much, while some people with ASD may not even notice.  Even light brushing of his teeth causes one of my children pain.  Brushing my teeth does not hurt, but I gag every time, sometimes to the point of throwing up.  Even the same sensory “hot spot” can cause a different reaction.

Frustration is when our brains get overloaded.  The most common frustration I imagine, would be not understanding social situations.  ALL social situations – even those within a family or between two people (mother and child for example).  Social situations can be confusing, however we can’t always escape to allow ourselves time to think and so that confusion grows and the frustration caused by not understanding grows, until we burst, one way or another.

My meltdowns are physical – my body jerks uncontrollably.  My physiotherapist thinks it may be epilepsy, however I can feel the tension building up in my body, then my body jerks and the tension is gone.  Sometimes it is gone for a minute, sometimes for a day or a week.  This isn’t a good sort of tension, and I should really get it checked out by an expert.  Sadly, I doubt I’ll be able to find one 🙂

Kids meltdown usually with “tantrums”.  They cry, scream, hit out, run away, throw things, yell, call names – whatever.  This is their way of releasing that tension.  It’s actually a good thing, physically, because if they hold it in, they will end up with body jerks like me, is my guess.  I was never allowed to do these things, and so over time… my body just can’t cope.

My eldest has meltdowns.  We understand that he needs to release that tension, and so he is allowed to express himself.  What he is not allowed to do is hit out, throw things, call names, etc.  We are teaching him alternate and acceptable ways to release the tension – hit a pillow, go to his room and shut the door and scream – that sort of thing.  I encourage him to come up with his own ways, because we are all individual and what I think of may not work for him.

Meltdowns, in one form or another, are going to happen.  It’s one of the downsides of having a differently wired brain.  What we need to do is teach our kids how to deal with them in a way that is appropriate.  And that does not mean repress them!  They NEED to happen when things get too much.

As parents, we must learn the difference between a meltdown and a good old fashioned temper tantrum.  Meltdowns need to be dealt with in a way that accepts the individual as a person with individual needs.  Temper tantrums on the other hand… *grin*.  My kids do not get away with those!

Well, they do I guess – I don’t make them stop.  However, they do not get what they want either!  When dealing with a child with ASD, temper tantrums can receive the same treatment you would see fit to use with any other child.  Make sure you are always fair though – nothing frustrates a child with ASD more than something not being “fair” or “just”.

So – How do you tell the difference?

As I’ve said, meltdowns are usually about sensory overload or frustration.  Temper tantrums are usually about frivolous wants.  What can be hard is distinguishing between actual need, and frivolous want.  When N was younger, and before his diagnosis, he wanted to wear his sunglasses to school, where they were not permitted.  He would occasionally have what we thought were temper tantrums, and we dealt with it accordingly.  Turns out his eyes were far too sensitive, and he needed them, so mark up bad parenting moment for us.

If he had wanted the sunglasses to look cool, then that is a want, and he needs to learn that chucking a tantrum isn’t going to get him what he wants.

If he needs the sunglasses because the sun hurts his eyes, then he may have a meltdown out of frustration that we are not understanding that he “needs” them, rather than “want” them.  He may be afraid of his eyes being hurt.  He may be hurt if he feels we understand why he needs them, but do not care, or are choosing the rules over his comfort.  He was too young to ask at the time, so we will never know for sure.

I always like to err on the side of caution.  I would rather spoil my children a little, than let them grow up mistakenly believing I do not care about their needs.  The big stuff, the big “wants” are easy to spot, so it’s not like I’m in danger of spoiling them TOO much 🙂

All our children are human in their own right.  Whether verbal or not, whether abusive or not, they all have their own way of looking at the world.  We need to reach into their world and try to imagine as best we can, what it is like for them.  They are not mini-me’s.  They are their own people.  They are going to experience the world in their own way.  Perhaps you may never understand, and that is ok.  You don’t have to, if you can find it in yourself to listen, and try.

And if you muck it up, as I constantly do, apologise.  People with ASD are very much about “fair” and “just” and we get that others are going to stuff up :).  Learn, and move on.  And most of all – listen.  In one way or another, we do communicate what we need.  Sometimes a meltdown is all about communication if that is the only way the child knows to communicate.  By working with your child, you will both get there together, to a place where you no longer feel confused or frightened.


Disability consumer and activist since 2010. Mad as a hatter since way before that.

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Posted in Autism, Disability, Personal
4 comments on “The Deal On Meltdowns
  1. maree1964 says:

    God , I love the way you write, & almost everything you ever say! I’m very grateful ur many struggles have not, one iota, dulled ur brain capacity  xm

  2. maree1964 says:

    I have a serious request for advice:

    It seems to me u have remarkable *insight* into ur own overload triggers etc, & that u are engaged in an amazing process of helping ur sons learn this as well.
    But what heppens if the person has made it to adulthood biologically, but DIDNT get taught to look at themselves enough to even recognise their set-offs even after a destructive meltdown?
    But rather, was taught how to *hide* from anything emotionally confronting, or pretend it doesmt exist.
    & therefore, has no desire to start now feeling *different* or even spend one second looking inside?
    The *obvious* answer for me wld be *run away!* or *give up*, but I refuse to remove anyone from my heart because they just arent aware how stuck they are…
    (Dave & I were together 5yrs, & he says he’s felt absolutely no sorrow or loss or impact)
    I’m not fishing for sympathy or clutching at straws, I know the relationship is done, but because of my job & my dog, I’m committed to at least civil, if not healthy interaction.
    & I write this now, cos as I was reading ur story re ur sons, I feel enormous REGRET, that I didnt see sooner, & with more detachment, what were *meltdowns* & *frustration*, cos then maybe I at least cld have acted with more dignity.
    I accept Daves right to self determination, & dont wish to change him, but if I extrapolate ur learning process, you are TEACHING ur sons how to have emotional intelligence, right? & maybe I cld follw ur words in my approach from now on, to at keast avoid the *tantrums* that are still popping out as rage filled diminishings of my basic human rights 😦 when I dont notice the overwhelm FOR him.
    Hope that makes sense, no rush to reply, I’ve got years to *get it*, now that its too late 😦 xm

    • I wasn’t taught – I had to learn most of it for myself. Some of the stuff in relation to meltdowns and sensory issues, I have only learned this year!

      Life is a learning process. There is still heaps that I don’t know – about ASD, or myself, or my kids. I will be learning up until I die, and I can only do that if I refuse to believe that I know it all. When we think we know it all – that is when we stop learning.

      So in that theme – it’s never “too late” 🙂

      Some of what I have learned has come directly from others – they may have said something that resonated, or I may have read something that I felt applied to me. Most of what I have learned is from observing others, and from questioning myself. I always question myself – “What could I have done better, or differently?”, or “Was that the best decision I could have made?”, or “What happened for me to get to this point?”. Self-reflection is a rare thing these days.

      My son’s are my responsibility – Dave is not yours. He will come to self-knowledge if and when he is ready and able, and there is probably very little you can do about that. I would suggest instead, looking at yourself and laying your own boundaries and expectations. If he has a meltdown for example, be very clear about what is and what is not appropriate in his relationship with you. For example, violence or calling you names is not appropriate. I do not talk to people who yell at me. As soon as the yelling starts, I sit and wait. Once they talk to me in a civil tone, then the conversation resumes. I choose my actions and I am responsible for my actions – they choose and are responsible for theirs. Perhaps though, he needs some time alone, and you can help him by allowing this and being patient.

      If he is not interested in finding out why he has meltdowns, then there is not much you can do about that, other than maybe mention it in passing on occasion and see what happens (and help him further his knowledge if he ever shows an interest). He is a grown man, and responsible for himself.

      Hope this helps, and let me know if you disagree with anything 🙂

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Pissed off since 1995. Mad as a hatter since way before that.

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