What Triggers Autism Meltdowns? | The Autism Website Information
Guest contribution by Yolande Loftus, BA, LLB
If you are familiar with autism, you may know that many people on the autism spectrum (especially children) are having a meltdown. But what does this really mean and what is the trigger for this behavior?
Meltdown is a word with a powerful meaning. Unfortunately, pop psychology has made it an everyday language of description: “My daughter will have an absolute breakdown if you take her favorite toy away from her!” But when looking up the dictionary it turns out that the word has little to do with toy frustration, and it is clear that many are too quick to use the term to describe a general tantrum or difficult moment.
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According to Merriam-Webster, a meltdown could mean:
- accidentally melting the core of a nuclear reactor (which begs the obvious question, what would it be called if you melted it on purpose?)
- a rapid or catastrophic decline or collapse
- most importantly for our purposes, a breakdown in self-control due to overstimulation
All three definitions describe an almost catastrophic occurrence on a nuclear scale. So let’s try for a moment to put ourselves in the shoes of someone with the autism spectrum, for whom meltdowns could be a very real and regular occurrence.
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What Triggers Autism Collapse?
The stimuli or circumstances that trigger a meltdown differ depending on the individual and the environment. For those off the spectrum, a meltdown and the extent of overwhelming it can be difficult to understand. We don’t need a full biological understanding of autism and overstimulation, but we do need to be educated about what triggers a meltdown so we can help and assist our neurodiverse friends and family.
Parents with autistic children talk about doing everything in their power to comfort their child in the midst of a total mental and physical crisis, and then someone says, “You should really discipline this child …” This is a common but difficult one Occurrence for families with one child in the spectrum. Having an educated public that understands autism and meltdown can mean judgmental people and embarrassing situations are less common for these families.
The best we can do is educate ourselves about autism and meltdowns. So what are some of the most common autistic meltdown triggers?
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Sensory, emotional and information overload
The more we learn about autism, the clearer the connection between its symptoms and sensory difficulties becomes. Imagine being oversensitive in a crowded mall at Christmas time. The smell of the food court: yesterday’s freshly cooked chicken competes with roasted nuts from the Christmas stand. Jingle bells from the general sound system try to overwhelm the rap music from the cool kids’ kiosk, and the crowd rushes over for a present that is mediocre enough to give away again.
This may sound like a well-known annual nightmare, but not only is this scenario all too familiar to an autistic person during the holiday season; every time they enter the world this (and more) can be their reality.
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The autistic brain may be wired differently in ways that scientists are still learning about. The way in which sensory stimuli are processed in people with autism can be fundamentally different from the neurotypical brain.
Perhaps the pandemic has given us an insight into a different way of perceiving sensory stimuli. Do you remember the first time you walked into a crowded room after experiencing the la Vida lockdown? It was too much for most of us. A few unsafe steps outside of our disinfected comfort zone made us wonder if the world has always been so disturbingly loud and big. Neurodivergent minds can feel this post-pandemic panic every time they go outside.
The world was made for neurotypical minds. The amount of sensory, emotional, and informative stimuli can be too much for a detail-focused neurodivergent mind. It’s no wonder such a mind gets overwhelmed and every now and then shuts down (or breaks down) to start over.
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“Wouldn’t it be helpful to do some meditation or mindfulness exercises to filter out excess stimuli?” Our inner pop psychologist wants to ask the neurodivergent community. This can be problematic as the autistic mind may not filter like a neurotypical filter.
Habituation, the tendency to get used to certain stimuli over time, allows us to filter out unimportant stimuli. In the example above, after a while, you might be ignoring the Christmas jingles and dubious food smells. Instead, more important stimuli are prioritized while you focus on your Christmas shopping chores. But for someone on the spectrum, this might be impossible if they are used to getting used to it. A study by Green et al. (2019) found a particular deficit in sensory habituation in children and adolescents in the spectrum with high sensory hypersensitivity.
A hypervigilant brain that pays attention to every little detail, with a (for lack of a better word) flawed filter system, can eventually collapse when the information overload becomes overwhelming.
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Changes in the routine
Parents of autistic children often comment on their children’s rigid adherence to the routine and their difficulties with transitions. The more you research overstimulation and sensory processing differences in autism, the more value you will see in creating a calm and predictable life.
Unfortunately, life is far from predictable, and kids on the spectrum are expected to play along – with neurotypical nonchalance. When things are crazy and time is short, we want our children to cooperate, be flexible, and adapt to the ever-changing demands of daily life. But individuals of the spectrum are not difficult if they insist on equality; it can be the only way they can feel in control.
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Of course, autism is a spectrum, and the above are just three examples of why a person can meltdown.
Many autistic adults go to extreme lengths to adapt to their world in a way that minimizes the risk of a meltdown. However, children on the spectrum rely on parents and caregivers to help them understand and manage meltdowns. The least we can do is react empathically when someone experiences a meltdown.
Of course, when someone breaks a leg, compassion follows. When someone experiences a breakdown in self-regulation – remember that it is often difficult for autistic people to express or communicate such emergencies – let us not hold back our compassion for lack of understanding.
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