Oh, the holidays. Thanksgiving and Christmas can be fun. They can be stressful. They can be really, really stressful for a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their families. Schedules change. People become busier and more stressed out than normal. Surroundings become nosier, or in some cases, unfamiliar. In other words, the holidays have the potential to be filled with triggers for meltdowns.
Meltdowns can be stressful for the caregivers of persons with ASD--especially if the child is young and the caregiver doesn't have a lot of experience. A few months ago, a friend of mine forwarded me some excellent tips she received from her Yahoo group, Everyday Miracles. The following tips were written by Thomas A. Brown, Executive Director –Psychologist of the Autism & Behavioral Support Center in Auborn Hills, Michigan.
• Neurological overload- when the nervous system becomes too stressed and starts to
release adrenalin and other stress hormones.
o Control Issues- Can't have own way, needs to be in control of the action and the
other person and it then proceeds to an overload.
o Desire to remain in a static system- Difficulty with making transitions, changes, does not feel safe in a dynamic system. This then proceeds to a neurological overload.
o Lack of competence – lack of scaffolding – child is unable to meet the expectations that were placed on them. Causes increased stress and anxiety that can lead to an overload.
o Too many changes-
• Too many rapid changes
• Not enough time to process changes
• Fearful of change
• Noisy and confusing environment
• Going from [vacation]to starting school.
• Anticipation anxiety of future events
• Signs of a Meltdown
o Pupils are wide and dilated
o Increased heart rate
o Increased anxiety
o May look like a panic attack
o Can last up to twenty minutes
• Handling Meltdowns
o Slow things down
o Increase the zone of connection
o Use declarative language to let the child know they are safe
o Avoid using bribes and pay-offs
o Attempt to guide into a simple/competent regulatory pattern
o Be aware of your own response
o Remain calm when child undergoes periods of distress
o Use a calm soothing voice
o Be aware that as you raise the volume of your voice, it may encourage the intensity of the meltdown.
o Gently try to stop the action.
o Increase facial gazing with a soothing look of safety.
o Gently bring your child's hands to your face. Still holding hands, put your hands on your child's face.
o Do not offer a lot of choices or ask a lot of questions.
o Attempt to wait the situation out and then find a very brief moment where you can
start to guide the child into a competent, previously attained regulatory pattern. "Let's row your boat" – a gentle back and forth regulatory pattern.
o Provide the child with more support from the adult so that the child feels competent.
o Use fewer words– go to a whisper or at times, no words.
o After the meltdown:
• Debrief yourself.
• Was the change or demand too much?
• Were there too many questions?
• Was the environment chaotic?
• Was there a breakdown in the scaffolding or zone of connection?
• What did not make your child feel safe?
• What helped your child?
• What helped yourself?