3 Steps to Manage Autistic Meltdowns

What I wanted to write about today was the top three things I do for my autistic son that I do for myself as well as self-care and a way to manage big emotions. Except the truth is I failed at that this week myself. So let me change the task a bit and give you the top three things I do for my son on the edge of or during an autistic meltdown AND what it looks like when you fail to do these things, or provide your autistic child with these things. Because what it looks like is not pretty, but is part of living as an autistic person in a world designed for anybody but us. 

So, my glorious son, who is in some respects just like me (surprise! We’re both autistic.), is also my incompatible autist. He is sensory seeking, whereas I am sensory avoidant. He does have a very low threshold for frustration, and so I am often called upon to find my own ways to help him find his way back from the edge of a meltdown. So here they are:

The Three Steps that Help With an Autistic Meltdown

  1. Notice the build-up. There is almost always a build-up, an up-tick in the number of stims. Stims are one of our ways of coping with sensory overload or frustration. We can use them for a glorious expression of joy in the moment as well, but those look different than the ones that just help us cope. If you can catch the meltdown here, you can sometimes avoid the shame and remorse of a full one. Once you notice, take a break. Step away. Breathe. A cold cup of water. Cold on the back of the neck
  2.  Autistic Meltdowns are messy, but try to name the emotion. Activating the rational mind is hard in a meltdown, but if I can get my son to just name the emotion, he has a tool. Names are powerful, and can help you access a range of tools to deal with that specific emotion. There’s a reason naming a god/demon/elf/magical being is always so powerful in stories. Names open up understanding and potential for action. 
  3. Situational non-speaking is a thing: let it be. If my son is beyond words, I give him the stimuli (or lack) that meets his need. For him that is a body hug, intense pressure, or a weighted blanket if I am not around. For me that is a quiet, dark space. When the words can come out again, they will. Until then, pushing it will just make things much worse for longer.

These are about meltdowns, but they are all based on the guidance I found in Ross Greene’s ideas about parenting.

 Kids do well when they can,

so if my kid is having a rough time and acting out, there is a reason. And that brings me to what happened this week.

The Horrible, No Good Meltdown Day

I went back to the classroom this year (despite us still being in a raging pandemic), but I have moved from higher education to high school. High school is a sensory hellscape. I had forgotten. So the shift from being home with a reasonable amount of stillness to the high school classroom was…stunning to say the least. So this week, I as a full grown adult with a million tools in my toolkit did NOT do what I am teaching my son:

  1. I did NOT notice the buildup. Everything has been such a daze that I could feel the frantic, but not the pace at which it was building. There was red flag after red flag, but rather than reach out for help/support or take a step back, I kept on going. 
  2. I did NOT name the emotion. The emotion I was feeling was frustration. Frustration at the students for sure, but also most definitely frustration for myself. I am a very good teacher, but my classroom management (i.e. getting people on task and listening) is not up to those required by law to be present. I’ve taught college for a long time, but that is a very different dynamic than high school. So I was frustrated with myself, feeling like a failure, and that left me wide open to being goaded by children.
  3. I did NOT get help and retreat to a quiet space. Instead I cried in front of high schoolers, and I nearly walked out. That would have been a disservice to them and to me, and I’m glad not to add that to the very real shame of having a public autistic meltdown. I was a broken, hot mess.

But now that I’ve gone through the steps, I can see what happened, and I actually do know how to move forward in a way that serves both me and the students I am here to teach. Just like you, I can get the skills I need to make it, but first, I have to know what skills I need.  Addendum: Upon further reflection, I am not sure I do have the skills, since those skills seem limited to the neurotypical among us. When you can’t step out of the classroom, when “decompress and eat” is less than 30 minutes in a day….there may not be a skill that works for my mental health. Time will tell.

With knowledge comes power – over ourselves and our situations.

I hope these steps help you if you are autistic yourself or love someone who is. Remember that an autistic meltdown is not just a tantrum and has very real underlying stimuli that you just can’t experience with them. But you can be kind. 

Until next time – and if you have a suggestion for topic, please let me know either through the form on the homepage, or just by emailing me at pagingdocb@gmail.com. Also don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @pagingdocb

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