In my last post, I looked at less confrontational strategies to approach children with Asperger's syndrome under normal conditions. In this post, I want to look at how it's done during a meltdown.
A Brief Look at Meltdowns
I'll begin by defining a meltdown. Meltdowns are generally violent and loud events which look very much like temper tantrums with one very obvious distinction. Meltdowns are "out of control" events. The aspie is not using the meltdown as a means of getting what they want - in fact, they want the meltdown to stop more than you do.
Of course, not all meltdowns actually are violent but all have the capacity to be violent. An aspie in a meltdown state is not responsible for their actions.
For this reason, it's important for young aspies to learn their triggers and how to avoid them.
To Approach or Not to Approach
The first question that you need to ask yourself is; is it dangerous for you, for others or for the aspie?
If the situation isn't dangerous, then don't walk into it unless you're very confident that you can provide the exact kind of support that the aspie needs. During a meltdown event, no support is much better than the "wrong kind" of support.
Different ways to Attract Attention
The techniques which work for one aspie won't necessarily work for another. Many children respond well to a calm voice repeating something like "it's alright". In fact, most people with aspergers seem to respond best to "the calm voice" but as I found out during one incident, it's not for everyone.
If your technique isn't working - and particularly if it seems to be irritating the aspie then stop. Some children respond better to a stern voice or even a snap of the fingers. It's important to discuss control techniques with the parents to find out what works best for a particular child.
What not to do
Don't become part of the meltdown. The child may be using violence, shouting and abusive language but you should not. For the most part, the aspie isn't in control of the situation but you, the adult, should be.
Don't turn the aspie into a spectacle. As I mentioned before, the child in a meltdown state isn't putting this on. They're" out of control" and they really want the meltdown to end. It's very much like being a helpless observer in someone else's body. They're going to feel bad enough about the situation after the crisis without you drawing extra attention to it by pointing, laughing or taking photos/video.
Don't attempt to lecture or accuse during the meltdown. The aspie isn't in control and won't be able to process information. Save any recriminations and discussion until the meltdown is over.
What to do
- Make the situation safe
Take a good look at the meltdown and the objects/people around. Look for anything which is unsafe, such as glass objects, dangerous things which could be thrown or used as a weapon and move them safely out of reach. If others are in harms way try to get them to maintain a safe distance and if you have extra supervision, have that supervisor clear them from the area.
Watchers, particularly youth watchers can often contribute to a meltdown by teasing and laughing. You'll also be helping the aspie to keep their friends if you can isolate them in times of crisis.
- Remove the trigger
Although meltdowns usually serve a longer term and less visible "feeling", there is usually a trigger for a given situation. Sometimes this will be something simple, like building blocks and sometimes it will be a person. If it is possible to remove the trigger safely, then do so. If the trigger is a person, then remove the person from the room or at least out of reach/sight of the aspie.
Sometimes it will be better if the aspie is escorted away from the trigger. If that's the case, you'll need to entice them rather than attempting to drag them.
- Attempt to get the aspie into a stationary position
If the aspie is moving about they're far more likely to cause harm to themselves, others or objects. If you can get them stationary, you'll be more able to control the situation.
There will be times when you do need to chase them to intercept, such as when they're heading towards a busy road. In general, however, you should allow the aspie to separate from a situation provided that they stop a short distance away. One of the cardinal mistakes that police make with aspies is chasing them or restraining them unnecessarily.
Often, if you sit down, the aspie can also be convinced to sit down - albeit, some distance away.
- Desensitize the Environment
It should come as no surprise that meltdowns occur more frequently in noisy, overcrowded environments. Don't forget that aspies have a lot of sensory issues. If you can reduce these by turning off any background music, bright lights, sound etc, then it will often reduce the intensity of the meltdown.
- Co-habit but don't touch
If it's safe to do so, you might want to sit near the aspie who has had a meltdown. Your presence may be enough to calm them down. Note however that if you're wearing strong scents, you could pose a sensory issue. Most importantly however, don't touch. You can tell the aspie that if they want a hug, they can have one but don't initiate. Touch is a very critical sense and during a meltdown, those senses are already on overload.
- Forgive and Move On
When the aspie has calmed down enough to participate again, please don't hound them with recriminations. You'll want to discuss the incident but give them time to get over it and process what has happened before demanding apologies.
- Be a Mentor
When the aspie has calmed down, discuss with them how they felt and what they could do better next time. Ask them what they think they need, what made them feel better and what made them more angry.
We need our young aspies to learn how to deal with meltdowns, and how to recognize and avoid their triggers. After all, there's a big difference between a child's meltdown and an adult one.
You might even like to practice some scenarios and develop some code words so that the aspie can leave the room safely before a situation explodes and without their classmates noticing.
Your advice as a mentor will make a huge difference.
For more information on meltdowns, you might want to read some of my earlier posts on the subject;