Corinne Allan from KapitiArtTherapy
Meltdowns are an awful experience; both for your child and for you. Seeing your child suffer so badly can be heart-wrenching, and keeping them safe while it's happening can be back-breaking.
What exactly is a 'meltdown'?
So, what is it? Basically, it's a complete loss of behavioural control. A person having a meltdown tends to scream, attack people, hurt themselves, break things, and generally go all-out. Once you reach meltdown point, they've pretty much lost it – and the chances are fair that they won't be able to get hold of themselves for quite some time.
A meltdown, is unpredictable and carries on even if you do give the child their way over whatever started the meltdown in the first place: their distress has started to feed on itself and can't be 'turned off'. However, the meltdown can gradually calm down at its own pace whether you give the child their way or not: it's a storm that needs to blow itself out.
What sets a meltdown off?
Once it gets going a meltdown doesn't need a reason to carry on, but they don't happen for no reason in the first place. Exactly what causes them varies from individual to individual and meltdown to meltdown, but some common starting points are:
Many children with autism have hypersensitive hearing, touch etc, and if they get too much stimulation at once they can panic.
If a child has intellectual difficulties along with their autism – which isn't universal, but it affects some kids – then getting too much complexity at once leads to desperate confusion. The 'too much' can sometimes be things that seem quite simple to a neurotypical adult, such as complex language or trying to manage several instructions at once, but if they aren't simple for the child, then meltdown can result.
If someone has difficulties expressing themselves it can be hard for them to understand and manage their own feelings, and hard to ask for help dealing with them. As a result, if an emotion hits them suddenly, it can hit them hard, and down they go. This is one that can be quite a problem for hormonal teenagers; our feelings get more complex post-puberty and can be a lot to deal with, so, for instance, a girl struggling with PMS may have a meltdown because the emotions are too much to handle.
Too many demands
Or demands too complex to cope with. Autism makes it harder to process information: if you're being required to do something and you don't understand or don't know how, being prompted too many times can lead to meltdown.
Too much unpredictability
Autism causes difficulties with flexible thinking; if things go as expected then it's manageable, but if something happens that they weren't prepared for, an autistic boy and girl can have a meltdown because they feel unsafe. These changes don't have to be big; they can be as simple as a jacket zip getting stuck: normally it works, this time it doesn't, and it's just too much.
As a result, tantrums can be a regular part of life for many families – but if the frustration of an ordinary tantrum passes a certain tipping point, it turns into a meltdown and gets out of control.
Heading it off before it happens
The best thing for everyone is if you can stop the meltdown before it really gets going. Of course, this is easier said than done – some kids have a harder time managing their feelings than others, and some give more warning of impeding meltdown than others – but there are some signs to watch out for:
Asking to leave the area or take a break.
Physical signs of tension and anxieties such as increased fidgeting or stimming. 'Stimming' is short for self-stimulatory behaviour, and includes things like rocking, pacing or flapping. People with autism often use stimming to manage their anxiety levels or sensory input, so if your son or daughter is doing more of it, that's sometimes a sign that those levels are rising.
If a meltdown starts
Even with the best parenting, you may not always be able to head off every meltdown: the world is a stressful place for many kids you can't control every corner of it. If worst comes to worst and a meltdown gets underway, what do you do?
The first point is safety. If your child is small enough, you might physically hold them to make sure they don't run under a car or fall down a flight of steps, but if you're dealing with a strong young adult, that may just not be possible.
In that situation, you're probably well advised to equip yourself in advance – a crash mat to use in the house, for instance (either for them to lie on or to block them if they run at a wall), plus keeping the rooms they frequent as free of breakables as possible.
If meltdowns are a regular feature of life and your son or daughter is too big for you to manage, then it's time to call in help: there's a limit to what you can physically do and you shouldn't endanger either them or yourself.
Meltdowns can happen anywhere, and this includes in public. Again, if your son or daughter is too strong for you to handle safely, you need to start talking to social services about getting more intensive support.
Kapiti Art Therapy offers support for parents and personalized concepts for children.
For more information please go to www.KapitiArtTherapy.com