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How it feels to have an autistic meltdown and how you can help

By Sarinah O'Donoghue // BBC The Social contributor // 29 September 2020

Autistic people, like me, have different ways of processing the world around them. Situations that others find easy to deal with can actually be really difficult for us. They can even trigger a meltdown.

For me, a meltdown feels like my body is trying to escape the chaos inside my mind. I fidget, cry and shout to distract myself from louder, internal noises.

Meltdowns usually affect my body and mind. I can find them physically painful and psychologically distressing, all at the same time.

Do You Know The Signs Of An Autistic Meltdown?

Sarinah discusses autistic meltdowns – what they are and how to identify them.

Common signs of a meltdown include hand flapping, head hitting, kicking, pacing, rocking, hyperventilating, being unable to communicate, and completely withdrawing into myself. All of these behaviours are methods of coping.

There are many things that can cause a meltdown but perhaps the most prevalent is heightened sensory processing. This can increase sensitivity to light, smell, heat, sound, taste and touch. An example of this can be the increased awareness of feeling your clothes against the skin. Underlying feelings of anxiety, stress or ambivalence can often make the sensory overload more severe.

The scenario

The experience of a meltdown can be demonstrated in the following way. Imagine you need to visit the pharmacy. You would typically drive, walk or get the bus.

Then you would go into the shop, buy the product and head home. A relatively straightforward process, right? Well, it’s much more complicated for autistic people.

Firstly, mustering the courage to leave the house can be difficult due to the unpredictability of the outside world. What if the bus is late or you see somebody you know and you have to talk to them without anticipating it? These are things that can go through my head.

Arriving at the pharmacy isn’t straightforward either. You may get there and the lights could feel too bright. They could be so powerful that they dominate your field of vision, engulfing everything in white light.

Then the sounds begin to inundate your ears. Staff announcements, pop music on the speakers, high-pitched ringtones, a group of teenagers giggling, checkouts beeping, a baby crying… the list goes on. So you clamp your hands over your ears and the staring commences.

You block it out as much as you can by humming, keeping your hands over your ears and taking controlled steps. Meanwhile, the giggling teenagers are sampling perfume and the various scents are irritating your nose.

If more people knew what meltdowns are, and how to help somebody experiencing one, we could remove many of the barriers facing autistic people.

Your clothes are itching, your hair is sticking to your lip balm, the heat is unbearable and you haven’t even bought what you need before you rush out of the store.

You phone a family member to pick you up and you break down in their car, rocking and wailing uncontrollably. You feel defeated, judged and incompetent for not managing a trip to the pharmacy.

This scenario gives an idea of how autistic people might struggle in a society that’s largely unaware of what causes meltdowns or how to help somebody experiencing one.

While some shops are participating in a ‘quiet hour’, I still find that I’m more often stared at than helped. And the fact is, sensory overloads aren’t restricted to shopping trips. I have struggled with the onset of a meltdown on public transport, in the park on a hot day, in busy cafés, on my university campus and, even, at home.

Ignorance and autism

Language around autism is important, too.

For example, the term ‘meltdown’ is synonymous with a ‘temper tantrum’ and used to refer to someone who is overreacting to something trivial. This demonstrates how far society is from understanding the struggles of autistic people.

Perhaps most concerning and upsetting is the ridicule of autistic people on the internet. The most obvious is the ‘autistic screeching’ meme. This meme is often used to mock angry reactions, normally to do with politics, online. It depicts two men shaking hands next to a distressed crouched figure with the caption ‘autistic screeching’ above their head.

Making fun of autistic people for being overwhelmed is both ignorant and nasty. ‘Autistic’ is not an insult and bullying isn’t cool. If more people knew what meltdowns are, and how to help somebody experiencing one, we could remove many of the barriers facing autistic people.

Helping autistic people

So what practical things can you do to help?

If you’re with an autistic person who’s showing signs of distress try calmly offering them reassurances.

In many cases, the signs of a meltdown show before one actually occurs. This is known as the ‘rumble stage’. If you’re with an autistic person who’s showing signs of distress try calmly offering them reassurances.

Sensory aids, such as fidget toys, sunglasses or headphones, can also help. Having these items handy could really help someone who is becoming agitated. Another helpful tip is to ask if someone needs space or if they need to go home.

Finally, if you observe somebody behaving in a way that you’re not used to, remind yourself that they’re probably doing the best they can in their given situation – autistic or not. Never try to stop the behaviour unless the person is doing physical harm to themselves or others.

If other people are staring, ask them to move on and to not cause a scene.