I was apprehensive about the “Explosion”. What was I meant to do if this happened?
The meltdown, the out of control explosion of behaviours that is confronting and distressing for the individuals living with them and those who love and care for them. I was working with a number of children living with Autism and had never witnessed a meltdown and… I was worried. I didn’t know exactly what meltdown meant and I certainly did not feel I had the tools to manage a meltdown if this happened.
So… I researched, attending trainings, spoke with other OT’s and gained a lot of knowledge from the families I worked with. Here is what I learnt…
At times we can all have difficulty managing our emotions, particularly when we are anxious or stressed, but this is even more intensified for people living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
We have this innate and learned talent called emotional regulation that enables us to draw on a range of tools to control our emotional state and guide our responses (behaviour). The executive functioning region of our brain enables us to draw upon these when we are feeling anxious or stressed. For people living with ASD it is common for them to function with higher than average anxiety levels and they therefore can become easily frustrated or angry (Autism Mind n.d.). This is when the emotional regulation strategies are needed but can be difficult to employ when in this state. They may not become available quickly enough or not at all (Masefsky et al. 2013). As a result, they are further unable to manage their emotions and display high anxiety behaviours such as frustration, anger and potentially a meltdown (Autism Mind n.d., Masefsky et al. 2013)
Further contributing to emotional regulation challenges is the requirement for comprehensive insight and understanding of emotions to allow any independence in these skills and effective use of regulation tools (Masefsky et al. 2013). As mentioned in a previous blog, this is often an area requiring development for people with ASD.
So keeping this above information in mind, it makes sense that meltdowns and other episodes of problem behaviour are purposeful actions, to either express something or gain something (Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Trust 2006). Problem behaviours refers to tantrums here and it is important to know the difference. Often tantrums come first and there is some capacity of control and purpose to the actions, they want your attention (Morin n.d). Meltdowns on the other hand, indicate the individual has no control (Ambitious about Autism n.d). Meltdowns are very individual and will be different for each person. The severity will also vary and they may include aggressiveness, self harm, violence, crying, screaming, throwing, kicking or withdrawal or shutdown (Autism Mind n.d).
Meltdowns are a consequence of the person becoming totally overwhelmed by the current situation and losing control for a period of time to express this (NAS 2016). They may not have recognised their escalating emotions or they may not have the emotional regulation strategies to use, or these may not have become available quickly enough, therefore they are unable to express this in any other appropriate ways (NAS 2016). The results of this flood of the brain, cause a ‘fight flight’ response, the form of this response can be yelling, kicking, crying, becoming aggressive (Morin n.d).
The triggers of meltdowns will be different for each individual and will also be different from day to day. Below are some common triggers: