Danger: Storm ahead

One of my friends is a youth worker and mentor in a local special provision school and she asked me to discuss the topic of meltdowns and shutdowns. They are almost buzzwords within autism and the autistic community. What are these phenomena? Both of them describe an occurance where the individual is overloaded with information and stimuli with differing reactions to the overload.
A meltdown is a loss of behavioural control to an overwhelming situation1, as described by NAS. I think this is one of the briefer descriptions of this phenomena I have found, hence why I reference NAS as this is clear and to the point. Ways in which meltdowns can manifest themselves may include: anger or violence exhibited in a verbal or physical manner, crying, shaking and ‘refusal’ to comply. This list is not exhaustive I add, these are merely from experiences I have had. These are different to tantrums, which are goal based.
A shutdown is pretty much what it is describing: shutting down. This is a retraction reaction from the environment, information and stimuli and may be shown through behaviour like not responding to verbal requests or commands, unable to make decisions effectively (if at all) and trying to hide away or escape. I’ve also heard of people becoming tired too.

What exactly is going on? One good analogy in regard to meltdowns is boiling water in a pan on a stove. The level of energy required to heat the pan of water is relatively high. When you first turn on the gas or electric stove, it takes a while to heat. If you leave the heat at a steady rate or increase the temperature, the level of energy going into the water increases, yet the water does not boil immediately. After some time of continued input of energy the water will all of a sudden hit the energy level required to start evaporating and the water will boil. From starting the boil, the water will then boil vigorously soon after. The ‘out of nowhere’ -ness that the water boiling shows is quite like a meltdown in the way that you may not always see the build up and just how much stimuli or information has gone into the individual for the meltdown to occur.
Another good analogy for shutdowns is to do with computers, especially older windows computers when you were trying to browse the internet, listen to music, play a game and have another programme up in the background (or just had up at least 10 tabs like I always used to). Then out of nowhere, while you have been overloading your computer, it freezes and will not respond and you have to restart either all your programmes or the entire computer. This again is possibly quite a crude image but portrays exactly what I am trying to show again; the computer doesn’t alarm you or tell you it’s ‘suffering’ or hasn’t got any more space to process. It just cuts out and you need to let it restart in its own time.

What do they feel like? They feel yuk. To be honest everything is such a blur beforehand it is hard to remember and put to words. I can feel frustrated that I cannot get across the pain or distress I am experiencing and generally jumbled up and fogged over, I’m sure someone else could put this to words better but as I’ve said many times before, every person is different and there is no guarantee that you could find a something that everyone would jointly experience. However what  can tell you is that afterwards I feel tired, fatigued and drained. I often need a recovery period afterwards (I’ll come onto that).

Regarding communicating meltdowns and shutdowns are about to happen, you need to recognise the triggers to be able to effectively communicate that a meltdown/shutdown is about to happen. As soon as your body starts being jumbled, suffering from brain fog or retreats into itself it makes it much, much harder to be able to communicate. Therefore spotting triggers and being able to recognise them early is vital for yourself and those around you.

How do you recognise triggers? Reflection and observation is key. If you work with someone 1:1 it may be helpful keeping track with them through a diary or a planner. It is only through time, reflection and observation that I have myself learnt what effectively ‘tips me over the edge’ and what I can and am not able to cope with. Sometimes it may be that the individual you are working with finds it difficult to know when the ‘triggers’ around them are affecting them until the last minute. It may be of use to talk through different feelings and emotions with them if you are with them on a 1:1 basis, through using a visual aid like a timeline, thermometer, a volcano or traffic light. This would give a visual basis for the ‘feelings’ and make them a little less abstract (although they will still be very abstract). It can be used to point to or purely for reference. This would be like marking pain out of 10 (like a VAS score) at the doctors or physiotherapy for example. This is not my idea as I’m sure this is used by parents, carers and professionals already.I know that it can be hard to differentiate between the subtlety of many different emotional states.
Another technique that has struck me is the use of a traffic light system: are you feeling green, yellow or red? This may already be in use by some professionals or parents but again I feel, as someone who can sometimes struggle to put words to feelings, showing a card or saying a colour would be less ‘cringey’ and more like a codeword. Again if you are working with someone who does understand their triggers well, a codeword might be of use. This means they save energy when they need time out, so they don’t have the complexity of explaining what they need and why as that can be draining and make any potential panic worse.
Different techniques work for each individual so it may be trial and error to find what works exactly for the individual you are working with.

Supporting recovery: you cannot speed up or force a recovery sadly. One image you could use is charging rechargeable batteries when you plug them into the wall. You cannot force more power through to get them ready for you to use again and the more drained the battery is, the longer it will take. Also it will vary from individual to individual. Some people may take a few hours, others might need a few days or more. But what you can do is remain calm and open in tone of language, body language and attitude during and after a shutdown or meltdown. Hostility will only exacerbate a situation and create potential feelings of isolation and misunderstanding. Remember we cannot read anyone else’s mind at any one time even if we can effectively communicate our needs, wishes and feelings. Give time to respond and relax; this might mean stepping outside or making an excuse and going home. As I mentioned before, if the individual is struggling to communicate someone else may need to ‘help’ by making all the socially correct noises etc. Not judging the individual is important too, as each person has their own capacity and limits and we can never completely understand any other one person completely.

The best thing to know is by being concerned in the individual’s welfare and wanting to help is the first step to helping during a time of vulnerability like I have described above. The next step is taking those well intentioned actions in a calm and open manner.

Speak soon

1 - http://www.autism.org.uk/about/behaviour/meltdowns.aspx accessed Sat 17th Sept at 16:17


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