Sensory and behaviour meltdowns

Meltdowns are involuntary responses to overwhelming feelings and to over-stimulating environments.

Meltdowns are not tantrums; the most distinguishing difference is that meltdowns are uncontrollable, while tantrums are voluntary or purposeful and often used to manipulate a situation to achieve a desired outcome.

Meltdowns may be sensory or behavioural. Sensory sensitivities are a key issue for many people including those with neurological differences, mental health problems, autism and other conditions. Sensory processing difficulties are neurological by nature and include difficulties with receiving, processing and responding to sensory input. It is essential to understand how these sensory sensitivities may impact on an individual’s behaviour and well being. Often with sensory meltdowns it will be 0-100 “fight or flight” mode in a matter of seconds and you may not see it coming. Behavioural meltdowns generally occur in response to overwhelming feelings due to changes in the environment, increased anxiety, and social interaction or communication difficulties. These often gradually build. There are generally three stages to a meltdown; the build up, the meltdown/shutdown and recovery.

The Build up phase
This is also known as the anxiety and defensive stage. It usually consists of physical, verbal and behavioural signs. This is the best stage to intervene. There are a number of ways to intervene in this stage depending on the type of meltdown. These include: limiting instructions, redirecting, a break, a sensory toy or engagement in physical activity. It is important to remain calm and quiet, try to provide a safe environment and a cool down space and use routine where possible. If the build up is in relation to sensory sensitivities then ideally you will change the environment to accommodate the individual or remove the individual from the sensory input. Sometimes this may not be possible. In these circumstances you may need to introduce tools to help coping with a situation. These might include for example the use of headphones to block out noise or the introduction of break cards to use before the environment becomes too overwhelming.

The meltdown/shutdown phase
This is when behaviour becomes explosive and uncontrolled. There is no point trying to reason in this stage. The number one priority is safety for the child and those around them. Do not try to teach new skills or redirect during this stage. Try not to take the behaviour personally! Suggested strategies in this stage are based around protecting, planning, prompting, preventing and the use of timers.

Recovery phase
This is also known as tension reduction. Each person will act differently at this stage. Everyone involved is likely to feel emotionally drained. It generally consists of either withdrawing or sleeping. Children may feel a lot of guilt, shame and remorse from these outbursts. Do not discuss the incident during recovery. Wait until you are both rested and calm.

After the recovery stage, find an opportunity to discuss the meltdown with the individual to reflect on why it happened, and plan to avoid melt-downs in the future. The key is to recognise the signs in the build up stage and intervene then to prevent the meltdown. Meltdowns are unpleasant experiences for everyone involved and can leave people feeling exhausted. For further information relating to meltdowns please contact us at Parent to Parent and Altogether Autism – 0508 236 236

rebecca armstrong
Rebecca Armstrong (MAppPsy)
Parent to Parent Researcher
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