Topics we’ll cover:
- What is an autistic meltdown?
- What triggers an autistic meltdown?
- What is an autistic meltdown like?
- How long do meltdowns last?
- At what age do meltdowns start?
- Meltdowns in teenagers
- Meltdowns in toddlers
What is an Autistic Meltdown
What is an autistic meltdown? Short answer, overload of so many possible things. Let me explain.
Meltdowns are not temper tantrums. Meltdowns are similar to the fight response. There is a hardwired biological response. Many times there’s an underlying health issue that can make someone more susceptible to meltdowns.
An overwhelming situation
A meltdown is an intense response to an overwhelming situation. Please keep in mind that this overwhelming situation might not be overwhelming to anyone else at the time. A meltdown can happen when someone becomes completely overwhelmed by their current situation and temporarily loses control of their emotions, their body, and their behavior.
This loss of control can be expressed verbally – so shouting, screaming, crying; physically – kicking, lashing out, biting, or in both ways. There are great books and some great research articles on autism meltdowns.
The stages of a meltdown
Here are the six stages of an autism meltdown:
- Regrouping, and
- Starting over
Can you see that pattern with your meltdowns or your child’s meltdowns? The actual meltdown itself is only a part of the experience.
Understanding the signs
Parents and the people with autism themselves, learn to identify their triggers and the signs of agitation so that a meltdown can be avoided or mitigated. When trying to understand meltdowns in a person, understanding the overall health and addressing co-morbidities is vital.
What triggers an Autistic Meltdown
What triggers an autism meltdown? Short answer, so many possible things, sometimes even a particular combination of things. Let me explain.
The stages of a meltdown
Here are the six stages of an autism meltdown:
- Regrouping, and
- Starting over
So what could a trigger be?
There are many possibilities.
- Lack of sleep, that’s a big one.
- Eating food that causes agitation or inflammation in the body.
- Not following a particular routine exactly. And this, many times, is linked to an underlying health issue.
- Too much noise, even if the room might seem quiet to you.
- Too much light, not enough light,
- Stopping a preferred activity.
- There can also be an accumulation of triggers. If your child did not sleep well the night before, something that usually wouldn’t trigger them might trigger them because their body is already in a low state of overwhelm due to lack of sleep. We all know how we are when we don’t sleep. The next day, it’s difficult. That’s the same with triggers and meltdowns.
If you want to start learning what the triggers are for yourself or your child, it helps to keep a journal of the meltdowns. You’ve got to write this stuff down. Record what happened maybe 15 or 30 minutes before the meltdown, and also note the amount of sleep the night before that the child or yourself got. Many times the patterns and triggers become really clear when you can just look at the data on one piece of paper.
Autistic Meltdown – What is it like
An autism meltdown is not pleasant for anyone – the person with autism, parents, brothers, sisters, friends, teachers, or any random person who happens to just walk by and watch.
For the person who is actually experiencing the meltdown, it is a horrific experience, especially if their communication is limited. What is the meltdown like from the perspective of an experienced autism parent?
When you catch on early enough
So things were fine. You were doing something, then you start to know your child is getting a little agitated. You start to feel these red flags. It’s just almost intuition. You tune in, and this is when you start to get a little panicky or your heart starts beating a little faster and you switch into a different mode. It’s more like take-action mode. You might start looking for an exit and see if you can get your child out of the soon-to-be overwhelming situation. You probably have some type of toy or snack or bag or something that you bring with you just in case this situation happens.
If you can get out of the situation before things escalate, then you focus on distraction, calming down, and easing back into life. You probably breathe a sigh of relief and you’re grateful that the meltdown was avoided.
Caught in the meltdown
If you weren’t successful in noticing the triggers early enough, then you experience a meltdown with your child. For the parent, it is an emotional roller coaster and different every time. You see your child totally lose control of their emotions and their body. They’ve just gone past the red line in life. And they might become violent towards you or themselves or anyone else. They might start shouting, maybe even cursing, maybe even cursing at you and saying you’re a horrible parent and that they hate you. Then they might cover their head with their arms and maybe flail around. And if they’re near something, it might actually get knocked over. So the situation can get very dangerous, very quickly. It gets complicated.
In a public space
If you’re out in public, the stress just builds more and more. Meltdowns can happen in Walmart, Target, out on a hike, on the beach, eating ice cream, anywhere, doing anything. Then people start watching you and they watch how you react.
You start to feel their judgment, even if they’re thinking about themselves and not even thinking about you. You get those pity looks and you might get scowled at. Sometimes people will tell you what to do or what you are doing wrong. Some people will do their best to ignore you, but you know they’re paying attention. And sometimes wonderful people will appear and they’ll be there to help or say something kind like, “This is really tough. You’re handling it really well”.
After the meltdown
Then the meltdown for your child passes. Many times your child is very apologetic afterward, but not always. Sometimes it might seem like they don’t care if they hit you, or if they hurt you in any way. Sometimes they might be embarrassed. They might be mad at you. There are a lot of emotions that your child can be experiencing after a meltdown. But they start to pull themselves together and regroup.
The caretaker’s meltdown
But unfortunately, that is the start of most parents’ emotional meltdowns. You just went through this stressful situation. So you might be angry if your child hit you or someone else, or if they said something hurtful. You might be embarrassed if people were watching, maybe neighbors or people from school. You might start judging yourself.
You might start to wonder if your life will always be like this. Will you always have to be on edge, not knowing when the next autism meltdown will happen? You might get angry again when you start to think about that question. And you might get really frustrated that somehow this is your life.
Then you might start to feel guilty if you think you should have been more compassionate towards your child. Then you might question being a parent at all. You might think you’re failing your child and you’re a terrible person and some better person would have handled this in a much better way.
And that’s when you might have an emotional or even physical meltdown and get angry. You might say terrible things to your child now, or you might go lock yourself in a closet or a bathroom and just cry.
Many autism parents have some type of meltdown after their child has an autism meltdown. Autism meltdowns are hard for everyone. But just like our amazing kids, we regroup and start over again.
How Long Do Meltdowns Last
A meltdown can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.
The fantastic news is that autism meltdowns can get shorter and shorter. Let me explain.
There are several things that can help decrease meltdown time and frequency.
Number one, getting a good handle on overall health. Typically, the healthier the person is, the stronger the central nervous system is, the more sleep they are getting, and the more stress they can tolerate without it getting pushed into a meltdown. Health is very empowering.
- Working with a functional medicine doctor
- Doing testing to understand the root cause of any co-morbidities, and then
- Focusing on resolving those health issues.
Number two is an increase in communication. Your child does not have to speak, but the more and more you can teach them a way to communicate, the more they’ll be able to tell you about themselves. And that, as a parent, is all we want to know.
Maybe a trigger for meltdowns for your child is that they have a migraine and you just didn’t know it. Wouldn’t it be great if they could communicate that to you?
And there are many ways to increase communication without depending on speech. Explore them and find what works best for your child.
Yes, sleep is tied to improving oral health. However, it takes time to find a functional medicine doctor, have an appointment, order the test, get the test results back, and have another appointment. Right?
Sleep is a necessity. And several research studies show that the less sleep a person with autism gets, the stronger their autism symptoms are. Sleep is a huge factor in how long an autism meltdown is and also the frequency.
Four, food. Many parents note that food is a contributing trigger for meltdowns. Typically, not the sole trigger. They usually make an observation like, “When he eats X, he’s more irritable and more likely to have a meltdown.” Catch those thoughts.
If you can start identifying the triggers, you can understand what the food is doing in your child’s body and then work on optimizing their health so that eventually they can eat any food they want without it contributing to a meltdown. A few cookies should not contribute to a meltdown.
At What Age Do Meltdowns Start
Not everyone with autism will have meltdowns. So it’s not really a good measure to look for when trying to figure out if you or your child has autism. Let me explain.
Autism presents differently
So not every person with autism will have meltdowns. Many do. But please don’t use meltdowns as some type of measurement of autism.
As someone ages, they might have more health difficulties and health issues. They might develop a tendency to have meltdowns later in life, even if they didn’t have it in the beginning.
Or a person can start experiencing meltdowns at the age of two years old.
Meltdowns can also stop. I know, right? They don’t have to be persistent throughout the life of the person with autism.
The real key important information to understand about meltdowns is:
- When does your child get overwhelmed?
- And how does that change with time?
So when do meltdowns start?
The answer to that question is: there is not one particular age and not everyone with autism will have frequent meltdowns.
Meltdowns in teenagers
An autism meltdown in a toddler and a young child can often be confused with a tantrum. That confusion stops as the person gets older. And as a person becomes a teenager, meltdowns can get very dangerous. Why? Because the person is bigger and stronger.
What are meltdowns?
Meltdowns are similar to the fight response. It is a hardwired biological response. Many times there is an underlying health issue that can make someone more susceptible to meltdowns. As time goes by, if these health issues are not addressed, then meltdowns get worse and worse and more intense. That’s not a good direction to be going as the person with autism gets stronger and bigger.
A meltdown is an intense response to an overwhelming situation. Please keep this in mind that the overwhelming situation might not be overwhelming to anyone else at the time. This loss of control can be expressed verbally – by shouting, screaming, crying; physically – kicking, lashing out, biting, or in both ways. In a toddler, this can be handled. However, when the child is physically bigger than the parents or the adult in the situation, this can become very dangerous.
Dealing with teenage meltdowns
Many times this might be when a doctor recommends that your child be put on some type of medication to relax them. There are medications to make someone with autism less irritable and less aggressive. Most parents and the teenager themselves don’t want this, but they also don’t want the meltdowns. So it becomes a very kind of tender situation. Many times it feels like a lose-lose situation.
Sometimes when a teenager with autism is having a meltdown, the police or fire department might be called. EMTs sometimes respond as well. Sometimes force or restraints are actually used to subdue the person.
Some schools have things called situation rooms, which is soundproofed and the walls are lined with foam and the person can go through the meltdown in a relatively safe environment, have privacy, and obviously skilled people will be there present at all times.
Meltdowns in a teenager can be very scary, but not always. Sometimes a person has learned to withdraw themselves from the situation before the meltdown. This is something that can be taught and is very useful skill to have. And it’s great when a person with autism knows their triggers, can communicate when they are starting to experience overload. And it’s important that people with autism feel empowered to navigate life and communicate their needs and their needs to also be respected.
Also, people with autism should not be pushed too far in situations when you start to notice some of that initial agitation, because that’s when meltdowns happen.
Meltdowns in toddlers
What does an autism meltdown look like in toddlers and kids?
Meltdown vs tantrum
An autism meltdown in a toddler and a young child can often be confused with a tantrum. Why is that? Because people at this stage in life are growing and haven’t learned how to process their feelings or have the right words to explain what they’re feeling, and their social acceptance for a child to show their frustration by yelling, hitting, biting, running away, maybe even throwing themselves on the floor, crying, just being generally really upset.
When a person is young, it might be more difficult to differentiate between an autism meltdown and a tantrum.
Observe for triggers
It becomes really important to understand what happened before the meltdown. In particular, you want to look at these potential triggers:
- Sensory overload, which is things like noise, light, smell
- Physical triggers, such as food allergies, sleep problems, GI problems, nutrient deficiencies, and any type of infection. So we’re talking about gut infection, urinary tract infection, any type of bug bites, etc.
- Emotional triggers, things like frustration, disappointment, feeling disregarded, anger, boredom, so many of those emotions. These emotional triggers are what overlap the most with a tantrum. An adult talking negatively about them in front of them is also a big trigger for autism meltdowns.
Going through a meltdown
What does an autism meltdown look like in a toddler and young child? Many times an autism meltdown looks like a toddler tantrum until the triggers are identified and understood.
Triggers are what will help you distinguish between a meltdown and a tantrum. They’re very, very different and important to understand.
The unfortunate aspect of meltdowns, when your child is a toddler, is that many people are not understanding of the situation and might actually say things about your parenting skills. They probably can’t distinguish between an autism meltdown and a tantrum. And since they can look very similar, an outside person will say things like, “You need to discipline your child more.” Or things like, “I never let my child do that”. This is when parents start to lose confidence.
Analyze your child’s triggers. Ask yourself, ‘What happened in the 15 minutes before the meltdown?’ Know the triggers and then work to overcome them, either with communication or a functional medicine doctor to help to resolve the health root causes.
You are a great parent. Autism meltdowns are not easy for anyone, for the person with autism, for the parents, or for anyone watching. It’s a very difficult situation. The more you understand the triggers, the more you can have a handle on this and enjoy life.
Please check out my channel because I have other videos that talk about the six stages of an autism meltdown. That’s really important to understand those six stages: how long they last, how to manage meltdowns, and so much more.