How To Help When Someone Is Having A Meltdown

What are the signs that someone might be having a meltdown, and what can you do to be helpful?
Boy peeks out from mountain of couch cushions

In part one we looked at what a meltdown is, why they’re common in autism and what happens when someone is having one. I also wrote about what having a meltdown feels like for me.

Now let’s talk about the external signs that someone is having a meltdown, and how you might be able to offer help (or at least not make it worse).

External signs of meltdown

Although meltdowns are by nature an internal process, where stress escalates and overloads the body’s ability to cope with it, there are usually physical signs that the body is not coping. These can be both internal and external signs such as:

  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Pounding heart
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Hyperventilation
  • Chest pain
  • Toileting accidents

The person having the meltdown may also be physically agitated, restless or fidgeting as they try to cope with the flood of uncomfortable sensations. They may try to shut out the extra input or escape from it by hiding or leaving.

Other signs that the person is having trouble coping can include:

  • Can’t make choices or follow instructions
  • Inattention or hyperfocus
  • Mumbling, can’t find the words
  • Anxiety, asking lots of questions
  • Shutting out sensory input
  • Stimming
  • Shutting down, zoning out
  • Emotional outbursts, crying, yelling
  • Reluctance to participate or cooperate

The explosion stage of a meltdown happens in different ways but is usually quite dramatic, reflecting the difficulty that the person is having trying to maintain control or think rationally. When this happens they might be physically or verbally aggressive, even destructive.

Internal meltdowns (shutdowns) can be a lot harder to recognize. They happen a lot more inconspicuously, and compromise a person’s ability to make decisions, use language and perform physical actions. Someone who is experiencing a shutdown might hide their face, be unable to talk or move, or just totally zone out.

How to help someone having a meltdown

Identify triggers

If you can learn the kinds of situations that start the meltdown process, you can avoid them where possible. These might be places (noisy supermarkets), events (not being able to reach a toy) or physiological states (lack of sleep).

Common meltdown triggers for autistic people include things like:

  • Too many people talking at once
  • Talking to the person while they’re trying to think
  • Noise of a certain volume or pitch
  • Confusion or misunderstanding instructions
  • Overwhelming social situations
  • Sensory disturbances e.g. flickering lights, wind in their face
  • Feeling embarrassed, vulnerable or powerless
  • People not following the rules
  • Mistakes or things going wrong
  • Being reprimanded
  • Clumsiness
  • An unexpected change of plans

It can help to keep a meltdown journal, where you can jot down notes about when and where a meltdown happened, what was happening in the hours/days beforehand and if anything helped to prevent it or reduce the intensity. Hopefully after a while a pattern will emerge that will help you to pinpoint possible triggers.

Learn the signs and causes of overload

  • What kinds of things feel demanding for the person, and what’s draining their coping reserves?
  • What can you do to ease frustration and modulate sensory input throughout the day?
  • Are there situations that might be causing them pain or discomfort?
  • Are there supports you can implement which can help them to cope?

Learn how to prevent meltdowns escalating

  • What are some escape routes that the person can use to get away from a stressful situation before it becomes overwhelming?
  • Do they have a way of letting someone know when things are becoming unbearable?
  • Are they able to remove themselves from the situation?
  • Do they have somewhere safe and quiet that they can go?
  • Do they know how to recognize and relieve their own tension?
  • Do they know self-calming techniques?
  • Who can they go to for help? What would they say?
  • What about if they’re having trouble talking?
  • Do the people who can help know how to communicate with the person?

Teach kids about meltdowns

Children who are prone to meltdowns are well aware that they happen, and what those around them think about that. What they’re less likely to understand is exactly what’s happening in their body, and why (and in the absence of that information they will form their own explanations). Teaching kids about meltdowns gives them the opportunity to be active participants in the understanding and management of their own bodies.

  • Learning to recognize when they’ve reached their coping threshold allows them to take action before a meltdown escalates
  • Giving them words to describe their experiences can help them to feel understood
  • Showing them how to get the help they need can give them some control over situations that might otherwise be overwhelming

Promote acceptance

It’s also important for other people in the person’s life to understand that meltdowns are not misbehaviour or purposeful acts of anger. Nobody should feel guilty about having them, or resentful towards those that do. Teaching family members about what happens during a meltdown, and how to help themselves or someone else who’s having one, will help turn any nervousness into action and support.

Discipline is never an appropriate response to a meltdown, because it’s not behaviour which is intentional or under conscious control. People experiencing meltdowns need calm, reassurance and a reduction in the amount of input they’re being asked to process.

Last updated 25 Nov, 2017 by Bec Oakley

Bec Oakley is an autistic writer and proud parent, with an intense passion for 80s text adventures, Twizzlers and making the world a better place for autistic people and their families.