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.
Meltdowns are impulsive, not intentional
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.
Try to view things from your child’s perspective
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 Elaine 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.