Dictionary.com defines a meltdown as: a disastrous collapse or breakdown.
Put simply – meltdowns occur when a child is put in a situation they cannot deal with mentally, and they cannot escape that situation, so they fall apart.
Recently I was asked that exact question: What exactly is a meltdown?
So after explaining a typical Harley meltdown and emphasizing that no two children are ever going to be the same autistic or not, I decided to ask around and find out how other parents experienced meltdowns and what happens when their child becomes overloaded.
It could be something as simple and benign as a background noise that they are unable to block out like the rest of us can, maybe a smell coming from an unknown source, they are too hot or cold, they are frightened, they don’t understand what’s going on around them, they are overwhelmed both emotionally and sensory wise, there are crowds nearby, perhaps a change in routine, or maybe they are just frustrated.
These are only a handful of possible reasons and sometimes, there is no obvious trigger at all.
There are also times when it seems like my child is just being a brat because I cannot see ANYTHING that could likely have set him off, but I always tend to work backwards and think back to “before” this meltdown occurred to find important clues.
Sometimes it is just a tantrum, but mostly, it’s not.
It is important to know the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. If you see a child older than 4 having a massive screaming fit in a supermarket or another public place – chances are the mother is dealing with a lot more than just a bratty child. Older children rarely have public displays of displeasure to this magnitude. They might whine, moan or complain loudly, they might kick trolley wheels or shelves to get their point across that they’re not happy, but they don’t throw themselves on the floor screaming and become inconsolable. They have the embarrassment factor on their side. Autistic children often don’t.
Another indicator for me is how quickly my child can be distracted or even if they can be. A tantrum can often be dealt with by issuing a stern warning or consequence or giving in to the child’s requests. An autistic meltdown doesn’t respond to any of these things because the child is not in control of their actions and is often unaware that they are being socially inappropriate.
But, not all children respond verbally or physically when they aren’t coping – There are three main ways in which autistic children melt down.
Firstly, there is the FIGHT response (aggression, physically lashing out, becoming verbally abusive), then the FLIGHT response (escaping the scene, hiding or sometimes just emotionally and mentally “shutting down” until the event is over) and lastly, the FRIGHT response. (Think “stage fright”).
Sometimes they can experience a combination of responses and sometimes they can respond differently to how they did the last time a similar situation occurred. There are so many variants that affect the result and once again – EVERY child is different.
For example: I have written before of how very different my two boys are even though they both share the same diagnosis. One is a fighter and one is a flighter. But there have been times that Harley (our typical FIGHTER), experiences a FLIGHT or a FRIGHT reaction. It depends on so many different things.
As I wrote at the beginning of this post, I asked a few friends what a meltdown is to them.
One friend said: “My son exhibits deafening screaming, uncontrollable thrashing and a complete lack of awareness that he is even doing it. And then the shock, horror and disappointment that he feels when he finally calms down is heartbreaking to see”.
Harley is JUST like this. He thrashes, he kicks, he screams, he bites, he slaps and he throws- It’s like he’s having an out-of-body experience because he is completely unable to control his actions when he’s this pent-up. It can actually be quite frightening to watch. Anything or anyone is his way is fair game as far as he is concerned.
Another friend said: “The complete lack of empathy that my child has towards the person he has harmed during his meltdown is rough”.
Personally we experience more of this “lack of empathy” than the disappointment that my first friend described. But once again, it’s different for every child.
A different mother wrote: “My son screams, thrashes, kicks and punches over and over and over again. The repetition is monotonous and there is no reasoning in sight. He also doesn’t notice the victim and when he’s at his worst – he head butts and bites himself.” She then wrote that this is heartbreaking and I absolutely agree with her.
She also noted that the triggers can be really obscure and bizarre things too. Like lights reflecting on a floor or shadows chasing him.
YUP- I’ve known Harley to lose it because the colours of his socks and jocks don’t match!
The last friend that responded to this question said that a meltdown in her house begins with loss of reason and understanding. It can start small and build gradually or go from 0-60 in a heartbeat. Her child is usually triggered by sensory overload (mine too) or being tired or confused. It can take the form of screaming, hitting, kicking or crying.
Lastly she wrote something that REALLY struck a chord with me…..she wrote:
The meltdown affects EVERYONE around us.
So very true. The child doesn’t realise but when they lose it…..we are all instantly a part of it. Because when you have a child diagnosed with autism. The whole entire family also receives that diagnosis.
Meltdowns are funny things…Because both of my boys have the “high-functioning” brand of autism, they are a little more able to display “normal” (I hate that word) behaviour in public because they know what is expected of them but the wheels fall off when they come home to their safe environment. This is where the meltdowns really get into full swing and the family get to experience true autism at it’s ugliest.
It’s the reason that a lot of my friends, acquaintances and colleagues are surprised when I explain that my latest bruise is due to another one of Harley’s meltdowns because all they ever see is the well-behaved, good mannered, quietly spoken little boy who he really is. They just don’t get to see the overloaded, not-coping, anxiety ridden boy that also lurks in there! Nope…..he saves that JUST for us
Occasionally, he will explode in public if he’s had a bad day. For him – being at school is like a pressure cooker. The steam has to escape SOMETIME!
I have written a lot about the fight response here because that’s the one I know best. It’s the most in-your-face response and what we live with 24/7, but the other two are just as debilitating for the child and their parents.
The fright response can cause families a lot of grief because their child is in a constant state of panic. They seem to have more anxiety related sicknesses, have a lot more fear of every day things and are often difficult to teach coping techniques to.
And the flight response can be damaging too. For example: My daughter is a “Flighter”. When she’s not coping, she goes into her bedroom, climbs under her bed covers and reads a book.
Sure, it’s great not to be verbally and physically abused but she runs the very serious risk of flying under the radar while I deal with Harley’s more obvious issues!
Sometimes, she just develops a blank, expressionless face and it’s a case of “The lights are on but there’s no-one home”! This can be just as dangerous for both her AND us because she is often almost impossible to reach and she bottles things up inside of herself until it starts to fester away at her making her ill and even more confused.
I can’t say that I have the answers here. Because I don’t! But what I have learned, is that you can’t negotiate with a meltdown.
Because: The reason that your child is melting down is because they can’t compromise and the situation is completely out of their control.
It’s all about learning to read your child, and always trying to be one step ahead of them at all times so that you can try to predict situations and outcomes before they reach crisis point. Then as they get older, we need to teach THEM to do this for themselves.
And it’s also important to teach those that teach THEM. Because once you are satisfied that your child is at least partially understood, they will sense your ease and be less likely to allow situations to frighten them.
And then, they will feel more in control and when they feel in control – anxieties and fears are allayed.
Of course, we will NEVER be able to foresee EVERYTHING that happens because life’s like that!
You never know what you’re gonna get!