Our Autistic son, James, became overwhelmed a few days ago, an experience that will be familiar to many families of Autistic children. Like any Autistic child or young person, when James is overwhelmed there can be a wide range of triggers that could be causing it as well as different ways that he can respond to it.
He may be being overwhelmed by sensory input, it could start from frustration that we can’t understand something that he is trying to communicate to us (he is mostly non-verbal, but communicates in other ways), it could be due to a change of routine, he could be in pain or feeling unwell, or it could just be that his iPad battery has gone flat!
A so called ‘meltdown’ isn’t an Autistic young person being ‘badly behaved’, it isn’t them ‘pushing boundaries’ or ‘being difficult’. It is a brain overload, like a storm engulfing their brain, and it is not something that they can do much about in that moment, but there is plenty that we can do to help and support them.
Each child is different and will have their own sensory profile, for example, things that they are over or ‘hyper’ sensitive to including all of the better known senses (sight, sound, smell, taste and things that they touch) but also senses like balance and movement (vestibular), positioning and pressure (proprioception) as well as the sensory receptors that we all have in our internal organs (interoception).
Understanding these sensory sensitivities helps us to then help the children and young people that we care for to avoid sensory triggers, or if this isn’t possible then to provide ways to reduce their impact e.g. ear defenders for loud noise, or sunglasses for bright or flickering light, and to identify a peaceful nearby rest area if we see them starting to become overwhelmed.
Autistic children and young people can often crave consistency and routine, for things to be similar each time. This can be because they then feel more secure, know what to expect, and what is expected of them, and can be sure that nothing is going to surprise and overwhelm them. Changes to a programme or plan, especially at short notice, can be very hard to cope with as it can create anxiety about being overwhelmed or lead to a brain overload.
Another form of brain overload is sometimes referred to as a ‘shutdown’. An Autistic child or young person may be unable to speak or move, sitting or lying still, as a response to being overloaded. It can be just as powerful a brain overload as a ‘meltdown’ and affect an Autistic young person just as profoundly, while being less obvious to anyone else.
It is important to understand that it is likely to take an Autistic child or young person a while to fully recover from a brain overload, even if the cause has been identified and fixed. The more visible aspects of a brain overload might seem to be over after a short time, but it can affect a child or young person for the rest of the day. Just being there with them, reassuring them and offering unconditional love, helps them to know that they are safe and cared for and that there is nothing to fear. Letting them rest and not expecting them to do much gives them the time and space they need to recover fully. We can then look to learn from the experience together, understanding and seeking ways where possible to identify and minimise the trigger that caused the brain overload from affecting them again.
A great way to understand brain overloads better, and to identify triggers, is to talk with Autistic adults about their experiences of them, what strategies they have put in place to reduce the risk of them, and any advice that they can offer us as we care for Autistic children and young people.
No two people are the same, but there will be some really helpful things that we can learn from people that have been in similar situations to where the children and young people that we care for are now. Let’s learn more together.