On the surface, a meltdown might look like a tantrum in younger children while for older children, a meltdown might be confused with what's considered to be "normal” adolescent behaviour. But behind the scenes, something very different is happening.
To help us untangle this tricky topic, our expert Lucy Sanctuary hosted a panel discussion with clinical psychologists Dr Ann Ozsivdjian and Dr Marianne Murin, who are experienced in helping parents recognise their child’s emotions and taking steps to reduce meltdowns.
One of the biggest challenges in understanding meltdowns is breaking through the many misconceptions that still surround them – particularly the confusion between meltdowns and intentionally aggressive behaviour.
Part of the reason for this misunderstanding is because autism is often referred to as an “invisible” condition. So for people who don’t come into contact with autism in their day-to-day lives, the link between meltdowns and factors like anxiety or sensory overload might not be clear.
“There has been very little attention paid to explaining meltdowns in general media,” says Marianne. "Maybe it's our responsibility as clinicians, researchers, and families of people on the autism spectrum to increase understanding of meltdowns in the general population.”
A fully blown meltdown can present with aggressive behaviour such as kicking, shouting or even self-harm. But that doesn’t mean autistic people have a more aggressive personality. Studies have shown very clearly that challenging behaviour in autistic people is not intentional or premeditated - it’s usually an impulsive reaction to the overwhelming feelings that caused the meltdown in the first place.
“In a tantrum, a child is usually driven by their desire to get something. This might be something tangible, like a toy or a sweet. Clashes in adolescence are similar - although with different rewards - to the loosening of restrictions and boundaries," says Marianne.
Tantrums and meltdowns are both forms of communication. But while tantrums are about communicating a desire for an end goal, meltdowns are an extreme emotional response to distress or being overwhelmed by something.
One of the most common factors described by people experiencing meltdowns is a sense of panic, as well as a shutting down of the senses, narrowing perception, and sometimes total loss of ability to communicate, even on a basic level. “It’s a genuine expression of an inability to cope,” says Ann.
For some people who have difficulty with identifying emotions, meltdowns can also be a way for them to express and regulate what they’re feeling. Marianne recalls a young woman who described her meltdowns as a vital means of expressing emotions that had built up over time. Without them, she said her brain would instead become overwhelmed and shut down.
More often than not, the trigger that we see is just the tip of the iceberg. Most meltdowns are the result of other stresses that build up beneath the surface, leading to the overwhelmed or overloaded feeling. There are ways of getting to the bottom of it, and this is the key to determining what strategies can be used to spot meltdowns before they happen in the future.
Keep a detailed log of your child’s meltdowns and record as much as you can. Everything from time and place to duration and severity, any responses others might have given, and how your child reacted to them. Collect any observations about what triggered the meltdown, no matter how irrelevant they might seem, as well as any other contributing factors that may have led up to that.
It’s important to record this information in a completely unbiased way. This means recording anything that you as a parent might have done to trigger or exacerbate the meltdown.
Doing this over a long period can help to reveal patterns in what might otherwise seem like random triggers. For example, a recurring time of day or location might suggest sensory triggers in that environment. Sudden change is a very common factor, particularly if it’s not been fully explained what’s going to happen.
This is crucial with meltdowns. It’s a natural and completely understandable instinct to want to soothe your child when they’re in the distress of a meltdown. But for some children on the autism spectrum, even the slightest attempt at a comforting touch can instead add to their feeling of sensory overload in that moment.
If your child is old enough and able to articulate their feelings, one of the best ways to learn how to help is simply to speak to them after a meltdown and ask them how your responses made them feel.
Bridging that understanding gap can be difficult, and Marianne recommends Damian Milton’s concept of double empathy as a helpful way of thinking about this. Double empathy is the idea that communication between autistic and non-autistic people can be challenging because both find it hard to view things from the other’s perspective.
If talking it through with your child isn’t possible, reach out to parents of other autistic children and ask what they have learnt. Always remember, you don’t have to find all the answers out by yourself. We know this is easier said than done, but it’s important not to take your child’s response personally. It’s not you that’s provoking their reaction, it’s the sensory stimulation.
Sometimes the recommended strategies won’t feel helpful to you. But always try to think about how your child experiences things like touch and sound in a different way to you. The more you can see from their perspective, the more you can reassure yourself that the strategies are helping your child to feel safe.