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8 Ways to Manage Meltdowns

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Meltdowns and shutdowns are commonly experienced by neurodivergent individual, in particular those on the autism spectrum and ADHD. They can arise from overwhelming feelings from cognitive, sensory, social or emotional overload. These reactions can be distressing for the individual and their loved ones and others around them. This post should provide a clearer understanding of meltdowns and shutdowns and discuss 8 strategies for supporting yourself or individuals who struggle with these moments. 

So, what are meltdowns and shutdowns?

Meltdowns

Meltdowns are intense reactions to extreme sensory and cognitive overload and are characterised by uncontrollable emotional outbursts that can look like crying, aggression, screaming or even self-injurious behaviour. It often occurs when rigid routines and habits are interrupted and the individual overwhelmed by sensory, social or emotional stimuli. It is important to note that meltdowns are not temper tantrums or bad behaviours but a sign that the person is in distress and experiencing significant levels of anxiety. The difference between a tantrum and a meltdown is that tantrums are goal-oriented while for meltdowns, the individual cannot cope or does not have the ability to control their emotions and do much about it at that moment of time. 

Shutdowns

Shutdowns are different from meltdowns in that the individual withdraws and isolates as a response to extreme sensory and cognitive stimuli. During a shutdown, the individual may stop communicating as well as they usually do and won’t look like their usual self. Shutdowns usually occur when the person is tired and there are a lot of expectations and demands placed on them that they do not have the resources to deal with. It can be considered a protective mechanism to allow the individual to conserve energy and regain control.

In order to prevent or decrease the likelihood of having a meltdown or shutdown, identifying triggers and becoming more self-aware about them can be really helpful. Learning about common triggers like the following and being aware of how to deal with them can prepare an individual for distressing moments:

  • Emotional stressors induced by changes in routines or unexpected events
  • Social stressors induced by sudden or confusing social interactions
  • Sensory overload induced by bright lights, loud noises, strong smells crowded environments and many other sensory stimuli

However, not everyone is able to prepare for unexpected overwhelming stimuli and meltdowns and shutdowns as they can occur out of the blue.

Here are 8 strategies to help manage them:

  1. Emotion regulation: Learn emotional regulation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, grounding techniques using fidgets or heavy blankets and doing calming activities such as knitting, listening to calming music or especially a soothing special interest.
  1. Space: Step back, make space for yourself and don’t put any more burdens or chores on yourself. Retreat to a calm environment where there is minimal sensory input that can prolong your meltdown or shutdown.  
  1. Sensory diet: Use a sensory or meltdown kit. Have your favourite calming items in one spot so it is easy to access during an emotional response. This can include fidget toys, soft toys, colouring books, knitting kits, headphones with music or noise-cancelling function and scented candles or sprays.
  1. Animals: Have a calm pet around. Some pets can offer great comfort to their owners especially if they are calmed and sensitive to their owners emotions. 
  1. Boundary setting: Teaching others about how you deal with emotional distress can help them understand you better. Let them know that physical contact or asking questions isn’t always the right thing to do when you are in a state of meltdown or shutdown. Ask them to respect your boundaries and give you some alone time.
  2. Communication aids: When experiencing shutdowns, have clear strategies on communication. Visual supports like flash cards or alternative methods of communication like typing or writing things down can help if verbal communication is difficult.
  1. Self-compassion: After having a meltdown or shutdown, individuals tend to feel guilty or ashamed. Allow yourself time to calm down and recover. Surround yourself with supportive family and friends who offer validation and understanding. Find comfort in your special interests and hobbies.
  1. Professional Support: Seek professional support if meltdowns or shutdowns impact your daily life and increase in frequency. Therapists and counsellors who are trained to understand autism can offer different types of support such as teaching coping techniques and strategies to self-regulate. 

Meltdowns and shutdowns can be very distressing experiences and understanding triggers, finding emotional regulation strategies and creating sensorily safer environments can offer great support. Every individual is unique and therefore some techniques may not work for some while some might. It is very important to try different things and find what calms you the best in these overwhelming times.

NeuroDirect
Author: NeuroDirect