I was apprehensive about the possibility of ‘Meltdowns’, what was I meant to do if this happened?
The meltdown, the out of control explosion of behaviours… it’s scary for the individuals living them and those who love and care for them. I was working with a number of children who had identified ‘behavioural issues’, I had never witnessed a meltdown and I was worried. When I started to practice as an OT 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 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 tools when we are feeling anxious or stressed but there are certain instances where people struggle to independently regulate and this is when meltdowns are likely to occur.
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). Often tantrums come before a meltdown – with a tantrum there is some capacity of control and purpose to the actions, i.e. the person wants your attention (Morin n.d). During meltdowns on the other hand, the individual has no control (Ambitious about Autism n.d). Meltdowns are very individual and will be different for each person, the severity varying and could include aggressiveness, self-harm, violence, crying, yelling, screaming, throwing, kicking, withdrawal or shutdown (Autism Mind n.d; Morin 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 quick enough to prevent a meltdown (NAS 2016).
So… is there anything you can do when a person is having a meltdown?
During the meltdown, it is important to reduce the overwhelming nature of the situation, lessen all input. The person is already overwhelmed and does not need further information to add to the stress so stop talking, safety net the area, keep calm, remove the trigger and provide a calming tool. Importantly, allow the person the time that they need to calm down (Morin n.d), each person will calm down at their own pace and this will vary.
Understanding that a meltdown is a purposeful action where the individual has limited control is important, as is dealing with meltdowns in a safe way, but preventing the meltdown is ideal outcome.