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Sensory ReductionMeltdowns! They’re arguably the most feared events for the parents of children with isms but did you know that the child or adult with an ism fears them too? Meltdowns are short periods of little control which can hurt people, damage property and destroy friendships and reputations in seconds. It’s little wonder that they are so feared.

Meltdowns can be prevented in good circumstances and with practice but once in effect, they can’t be tamed. There are a few steps to reduce sensory input to help reduce their intensity and longevity.

What is a Meltdown?

A meltdown is an out-of-control event which generally starts from a “trigger point” but is usually related to longer term thoughts. From the outside, it looks to the casual observer to be like a very bad temper tantrum but it’s not. Temper tantrums can be stopped. Temper tantrums are generally aimed at elicting a specific response (for example a child may throw a tantrum to get their own way, or a sweet). A meltdown is quite different. It is entirely uncontrolled and once started, it must run its course before it ends.

Luckily meltdowns don’t run for very long.

Avoid the Meltdown

It is very difficult to avoid meltdowns and it involves a lot of practice, self-knowledge and strategic withdrawal. Most children don’t learn to avoid meltdowns until their mid-teens and even then, it’s not always possible, particularly if the people around you aren’t very understanding.

Reduce the Severity and Longevity of Meltdowns

In the event that meltdown avoidance has failed and a fully-fledged meltdown is under way, there are some things which can be done by parents and friends to reduce the severity.

First and foremost is to remove any unnecessary people from the area. If the meltdown happens in public, this may not be possible. Unfortunately it’s not possible to control the behaviour of onlookers and it’s entirely probable that they will stir the meltdown to greater heights with stares, jeers and interference. In particular, if anyone starts attempting to film the event it could be very damaging for the victim of the meltdown.

Meltdown Triggers and the Fuel

While meltdowns are usually started by a specific, sudden and obvious trigger, such as a favourite toy breaking, the inability to tie one’s shoelaces or perhaps a computer failure, these are only trigger mechanisms. They are the sparks which start a meltdown but they are usually not the fuel. There are usually other, longer term reasons that a person has been brought close to meltdown state.

Quite often these longer-term reasons are completely invisible to us and they could be entirely internal to the victim of the meltdown. They may be the results of long-term depressive thoughts, feelings associated with others such as rejection or bullying or even the results of day-to-day lifestyle issues.

Of course, there is also plenty of external fuel which mostly revolves around the senses. It should come as no surprise that meltdowns occur far more frequently in noisy, crowded, smelly or over-lit places.

While there’s very little that you can do about the internal factors which fuel meltdowns you should be able to deal with the external factors, specifically the senses.

Reduce Stimulation

It has been said that people take in about 2 million bits of sensory information every second of the day. Since sensory over-stimulation places a large role in meltdowns, and since, unlike thoughts, you can exercise a certain amount of control over the sensory environment, sensory reduction is one of the best ways to reduce the intensity of a meltdown.

If you’re in a place with over-stimulating sight, such as a play area with lots of people running about and bright colours, you should consider moving to a “quieter” area. Be mindful that the subtle flicker of fluroescent lighting can also be problematic. Avoid staring at a person in meltdown state and if possible try to prevent people from crowding around them. One thing I’ve often witnessed in the past is adults who grab a child’s face during a meltdown and try to talk to them while looking into their eyes. Maybe that reassures neruo-typical (normal) people but it frightens people with isms and may escalate the meltdown.

If you’re in a noisy place, try to reduce the sound or move to a quieter location. If you have music or TV playing, turn it off. Remember that air conditioners and other household machinery can also be very distracting for a person with sensitivity.

Smell and Taste
If there are any strong smells in the area, such as food, fuel or cleaning fluids, you should try to move to a less disturbing environment. Similarly if your child is having a meltdown while eating something, it’s best to try to encourage them to either swallow it or spit it out – this has less to do with the sense of taste and more to do with minimizing the risk of choking during a meltdown.

Most people with sensory sensitivities don’t respond well to light touches. Avoid touching a person in meltdown state, particularly if your touching involves rubbing their hand, arm or back. If the person is willing, then a tight hug is often ok, but exercise caution and for your safety and theirs, ensure that they know that a hug is coming and are willing to accept it.

If the person is in a place where a light breeze, for example – air conditioning, is falling on their skin, try to turn this off as this may be over-stimulating. Quite often the best thing to do is to supply them with a blanket as this will enable them to wrap themselves for the duration of the meltdown and regain a sense of calm.

Vestibular Senses
A blanket will also help to dull the vestibular sense (spatial awareness) and it is particularly helpful if the person is in a large open space. Often retreating to a corner, or even better, their own personal space, such as a bedroom, will help. Finally, if the person is in motion under your control, such as a car, pull over and stop until the meltdown has finished, this will reduce the sensory overload and increase safety. It is very dangerous to drive with a person in a meltdown state.

You can’t always avoid meltdowns altogether but by reducing the amount of sensory information in the individual’s environment, you can make them more comfortable.  The meltdown can be a shorter lived experience for everyone.