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Recovering from meltdowns: info for autistic people and carers

They happen for a variety of reasons and in many different settings. Meltdowns are a tricky subject to talk about, but for many autistic people, knowing what to do when they happen is equally tough to approach. Whether they occur at home or in public, recovering from a meltdown can sometimes take a while.

By nature, meltdowns vary in intensity and time, as do recoveries. When it comes to returning to normal following a meltdown, what is involved and what should carers know? This blog post takes a look at common causes of meltdowns, what recovery entails and how to aid a recovery in a sensitive, caring way.

Multiple triggers

Meltdowns happen as a result of many things. Some of the most common causes include extreme stress, sensory overload, being given unreasonable demands at school, home or work and too much happening at the same time. Irrespective of their cause, there are many different signs to look out for, including:

  • Indicators of anxiety – pacing, twitching, shaking, talking more quickly or more loudly than usual
  • Not responding to a question
  • Any imbalance in the way someone on the brink of a meltdown moves – dizziness and so on

Once something triggers a meltdown, the best way to approach someone in the middle of one is to give them space. Rather than intervening straight away, which could make things worse, doing so can help them to eventually come round when they’re ready.

First steps

Speaking of recovery, this can vary depending on how big (or small) a meltdown is. Sometimes, it can take a few minutes, whereas others can take hours or even days to return to their pre-meltdown state. Carers and parents should consider trying the softly-softly approach to try and avoid upsetting an autistic relative further.

If you are wondering what is causing a meltdown, the thing to do is ask politely. If you get an answer, see if you can stop it. In a busy crowd, move somewhere quieter and less heaving. If a room is too bright, turn the lights off or move to a part of a building that has a more neutral decor.

If there’s nothing you can do about the meltdown cause, give the person time and leave them be. Treading carefully is a must, as you don’t want to risk saying or doing something that makes things worse for your autistic relative. Whatever you do must be reassuring, empathetic and, ultimately, calming.

What to say

Words mean a lot when talking to someone in a meltdown. Any parent or carer who’s wondering what to say would be best to do the following:

  • Reassure them that everything is going to be okay. Offer to hug them or hold their hand if they are fond of Deep Pressure therapy
  • Ask them if they need anything changing. You could offer to ask others in the surrounding area to leave, turn the lights off or turn off whatever’s making noise
  • Just ask if they are okay. A response might not come straight away, but in showing that you care, they won’t feel alone

As a carer/parent, you should also know about what not to say. Don’t try to tell them to stop having a meltdown. Also, you shouldn’t try and use physical force to stop them; it can only make things worse.

From an autistic perspective

From personal experience, recovering from meltdowns isn’t the most pleasant experience. I find that there are some ways of calming myself down that work far better than others. One tried-and-tested method is to go into my bedroom, turn all the lights off and just lie down on my back, looking at the ceiling. Removing all sensory stimuli helps to calm my senses.

When this isn’t possible, I try to retreat to the quietest part of an open space or building. This doesn’t always work, because you can never be sure if such a thing exists! Other ways I have of trying to recover from a meltdown are doing something I enjoy and playing with a stim toy, such as a tangle toy.

What works for one autistic person won’t always suffice for another. For any parents or carers reading this post, my advice would be to try different ways of helping your child return to normal. Allowing them to do something they enjoy, be it gaming, listening to music, drawing or any other hobby, can be quite therapeutic.

Indulge in a hobby

In doing something they enjoy, they may feel able to gradually take their minds off the meltdown and its cause. There are occasions where this won’t work, but choosing a method of meltdown recovery is about trial and error. Try different tactics and see which one works best.

There are many resources out there for autistic people and parents/carers to learn about meltdown recovery. Here are just a few: