Navigating Autistic Meltdowns – A Dos and Don’ts Guide
When your autistic child, student, or adult loved one is having a meltdown, it can be difficult to know how to handle it in the moment. That’s why it’s important to educate yourself on what to do before they occur. And, it’s a good idea to get that education from autistic people (like me–and my autistic partner who helped me come up with some of these suggestions based on her experience working with autistic children as a paraprofessional).
Things to Avoid Doing
If you’re neurotypical, and a meltdown occurs in front of you, you may get scared, embarrassed, and worried, and you may have the urge to flee the scene with your screaming autistic loved one in tow.
First, these are normal human responses to being startled like this. Us autistic people are startled by neurotypical people all the time because we both see and process the world so differently.
It goes both ways.
However, I’m here to tell you that if you avoid doing the following during a meltdown, things will go much smoother, and you will be far less likely to make the meltdown worse and/or traumatize your autistic loved one.
So here’s what NOT to do when your autistic loved one is having a meltdown:
- Don’t yell at the person having the meltdown.
This is so critical. I understand how overwhelmed you must feel when a meltdown starts to happen, but do not yell. Yelling may release your frustration for a few seconds, but it can devastate the autistic person, and it will lead to a worsening of the meltdown. Your autistic loved one is already at capacity for how much sensory input they can manage, and yelling at them will send them right over the edge.
- Don’t center yourself and your feelings about the meltdown.
I covered some of this in the article I wrote for the embarrassed parent. It is critical that you do not center yourself or your own emotions when a meltdown is occurring. If you try to explain how embarrassing or hurtful or angering the meltdown is as the person is having one, it will only cause trauma and make things worse. A meltdown is not something an autistic person does, it’s something that happens to them.
- Don’t make a sudden grab for the autistic person.*
Many autistic people have sensory aversions to being touched, and being touched during a meltdown can cause things to escalate quickly. Even if the autistic person is usually fine with being touched, it may still worsen upset during a meltdown. Avoid touching the autistic person mid-meltdown unless they are in danger.
*If they are in immediate danger of injuring themselves or someone else, use your body to prevent them from doing so, but do not use prone restraint where the person is on their face with you sitting on them. Autistic people have died this way.
- Don’t threaten to punish them if they don’t stop.
An autistic person in the middle of a meltdown may not be able to verbally communicate the reason for their distress, but it doesn’t mean they don’t understand what you’re saying. Threats or intimidation do not work to make a person having a meltdown stop any more than threats or intimidation would work to stop someone from having a seizure.
- Don’t take away comfort items they are using to self-regulate.
My partner has seen this happen in schools: An autistic student is having a meltdown, and they are clinging desperately to a comfort item, and because that comfort item isn’t in their “behavior plan”, the item is taken away from them! It sounds like a horrible and cruel thing to do, but it happens all the time. Never take a sensory aid away from a child having a meltdown, it will only make things worse.
- Don’t ask questions or expect explanations.
“What’s your problem??”
Story time: My partner got terribly sick a few months ago and ended up in the hospital with a gallbladder that had to be removed. She’s autistic, too, and when the doctor came in and announced she needed emergency surgery, guess what? She had a panic attack and a meltdown.
I went out to the nurse’s station three times to try to get someone to give her something to help her calm down (my partner requested medication non-verbally after I asked if that’s what she wanted), and the nurse finally came in, all irritated, saw the state of my partner, got right in her face, looked her in the eyes, and practically yelled, “What’s wrong??”
Let’s just say it’s a good thing I have a lot of self-control because I wanted to slap the nurse for that one. I, as calmly as I could, explained that my partner is autistic and can’t speak right now, and I told the nurse to stop being so defensive and get her something for her anxiety.
Asking questions, any type of question, even when trying to understand what’s happening is going to worsen the situation because the autistic person may desperately want to communicate with you but be unable to, which will further frustrate them and worsen the meltdown.
- Don’t shame a person after the meltdown is over.
This is a big one. Just because the meltdown is over, and the autistic person has re-established homeostasis, this does not mean now is the time to start making comments like, “See? It wasn’t that bad, was it?” “Don’t you think you overreacted?” “Well, wasn’t that embarrassing?”
Things You Should Do
Now that you know what you shouldn’t do when your autistic loved one is having a meltdown, let’s learn about what you should do instead.
- Make sure their immediate environment is safe.
When an autistic person is going into a meltdown, they are often unable to judge their immediate environment and any dangers therein. This means that they could run smack into a wall at full speed or flail their arms and bruise or cut themselves in their surrounding area.
This is not purposeful self-harm.
This is a person whose body and brain have gone into full fight-or-flight mode, and everything in the person’s being is trying to stop the offending sensory input, whether that means destroying its source or running far away from it.
Since the autistic person is unaware of their surroundings in these moments, it’s important for you to look around and be sure they can’t hurt themselves. Move stuff out of the way and/or use body-blocking gestures to guide them to a safer area.
- Use body-blocking gestures, but don’t touch unless necessary.
Since an autistic person in the middle of a meltdown usually cannot control their body movements or the urge to run, it’s important to put your body in the way of anything harmful. Put your hands up, and step from side to side to block the autistic person’s ability to dart away and get hurt, but don’t get too close or touch them unless it’s necessary or you know they are comfortable with it.
To see what I mean, watch Auteach’s video below. (In this case, she does use her hands to help her daughter co-regulate.)
If you’re on TikTok, I also highly recommend following her! Her content is gold!
- Speak in a calming voice, tell them they are safe.
Speaking in a calming voice (not a condescending one) can help the autistic person in a meltdown have something soothing to focus on to help bring them back to a state of emotional regulation. When you speak, let them know that they are under no obligation to engage in conversation, but you just want to let them know they are safe, and you’re there for them.
- Always have their soothing items on hand.
Most autistic people have comfort items that help them with emotion regulation. These can be sensory aids (stim toys), a weighted vest or blanket, a favorite stuffed animal, noise-canceling headphones, or some chewy jewelry. Having these items on hand can help reduce the duration and/or severity of a meltdown.
- Make a plan before meltdowns happen.
Making a plan before meltdowns happen can also help reduce the severity and duration as well as the frequency of meltdowns. Communicate with your autistic loved one about what they specifically want and need when they are experiencing this overload, so that you both can work together to minimize triggers and get back to a state of equilibrium.
- Be aware of sensory triggers.
As an ally to your autistic loved one, it’s helpful to be aware of possible sensory triggers in the environment. For example, if you’re going to a new restaurant or store, learn more about it first (what’s the lighting like, are there loud sounds, do the people there understand neurodivergent behavior, etc.) This way, you and your autistic loved one will know what to expect and be able to take the appropriate steps (and sensory aids) to help with regulation, if necessary.
- Keep yourself as regulated and calm as possible.
This one. I can’t stress it enough. Autistic people respond to energy first before anything else (facial expressions, tone of voice, body language). Even if we don’t know why the people around us are upset or angry with us, we know they are, and that can be very scary and triggering. Since so many of us are traumatized due to being yelled at and punished for “doing something wrong” but not knowing what that wrong thing is, we are very, very sensitive to frustration and anger, and it can worsen or even trigger a meltdown.
Be aware of your own emotions when helping your autistic loved one navigate a meltdown. Let go of embarrassment and anger, and just focus all your energy on helping the person you care about manage this moment of crisis.
Understanding your autistic loved one is critical to avoiding unintentionally causing trauma. I recommend reading the books linked below:
Photo of crying child credit: https://unsplash.com/@arwanod