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Autistic Lens

Helping an Autistic Loved One Through a Meltdown

February 1st, 2023

Aly Laube

For Allies

If someone you love experiences meltdown, it can be difficult to know what to do to be supportive; these tips can get you started.

Assess how you can help

If the person you’re with is able to speak, ask how you can help. If they’re non-verbal, consider using an AAC device, communicating with gestures or texts, or being silent until they’re in a more comfortable environment.

With triggers out of the way, you can focus on getting your loved one into a sensory-friendly environment.
Consider the environment

Sometimes, meltdowns happen when you’re not able to reach somewhere comfortable, like in a shopping mall or on public transit. This can be incredibly upsetting for autistic people, especially if they’re already hypersensitive to overwhelming stimuli. It can be difficult to think and feel in control of your body, and it doesn’t help when people start staring or reacting negatively. 

Get them to a safer place

If the environment is part of the problem, priority number one should be to help your autistic loved one get to a safer place. With triggers out of the way, you can focus on getting your loved one into a sensory-friendly environment. If possible, this would be a space with dim, steady lighting, quiet, and access to noise-cancelling headphones, stim toys, and music they enjoy. Keeping the space stocked with healthy snacks and drinks can also make a big difference.

When an autistic person is in such a state of intense distress, their fight-or-flight response could be triggered by unexpected or unwanted touch.
Consensual touching only

Unless the person you’re with gives you express consent to touch them, or communicates that they want to be touched, avoid unnecessary contact. When an autistic person is in such a state of intense distress, their fight-or-flight response could be triggered by unexpected or unwanted touch.

Give them time to recover

There is no time limit or expiration date for autistic meltdowns. If your loved one is in a state of prolonged stress, the most supportive thing you can do is help them take care of themselves. Remind them how much you love them. Do what you can to keep them comfortable while their nervous system regulates itself.

Practice compassion and selflessness

Meltdowns and their consequences can last much longer than anyone would like.

It’s natural to want to do your part to make your loved ones happy, but remember to decentralize yourself when they’re in crisis.

One way to do this is simply to be there. There are times when people need solutions, and other times they just need company. Getting sensitive about how well you’re doing at “fixing” the situation doesn’t do much to help anyone, and bringing ego into the equation is rarely helpful.

Pay attention to aftercare

Many autistic people will be completely exhausted after a meltdown, and if you love them, a thoughtful way to show them you care is to get them sensory-friendly items — stim toys, weighted blankets, comfort foods, for instance — and help them tick tasks off their to-do lists.

If they want to talk about the meltdown, provide space for that.
Talk it out post-meltdown

If they want to talk about the meltdown, provide space for that. Ask them if there’s anything they would have liked to have from you, or if there’s anything you could do differently next time to better support them. And if they just want to be alone in the dark for a while afterwards, that’s okay too. Rest looks different for every individual, as does offering assurance — but both matter when it comes to caring for an autistic person post-meltdown.

Keep learning

These are just a few examples. Once you’ve been through a few meltdowns together, you should have a better idea of what helps and what doesn’t. Consider creating a custom care plan to assist in those moments. This will help you when you need a reminder of which strategies work best for your relationship and your loved ones’ needs.

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