5 ways to support someone through a meltdown

“Meltdown” is a pretty commonly used phrase these days. When I use it I don’t just mean that I lost my shit because something didn’t go my way. I am referring to the frightening, overwhelming, out of control experience of an overload induced meltdown. We most commonly refer to children as having meltdowns, but autistic (and other wise neurodivergent) adults experience them too.

I don’t have them often, but when I do they are traumatic, completely out of my control past a certain point, and to be honest they are embarrassing if they happen in front of other people.

My most recent meltdown involved me having to call a friend to come and rescue me on the side of the road because I was not able to get myself home safely.

After that experience I wrote about how it felt to go through, and I have shared it on my website, hoping that it will help parents understand their child’s experience better, and hoping that other autistic adults who experience this will know they are not alone.

You can read “meltdown” here: https://michellesuttonwrites.com/2017/04/17/meltdown/

In this article I am simply going to list 5 things you can do to support someone who is experiencing a meltdown or the after effects of a meltdown.

These are, of course, based entirely on my experience and I am just one person. If you have experienced meltdowns and have things you’d like to add or comment, please do so in the comments section at the bottom of the page (don’t worry if your comment doesn’t show up immediately- I moderate all comments submitted on this website to ensure this remains autistic safe space as much as possible). I had my daughter read though the 5 points, and she says they would all help her to get through an anxiety induced panic attack, so I guess these aren’t just meltdown specific.

1. Be present

There is a temptation when a person is in a state of meltdown, and you feel there is nothing you can do to help, to remove yourself from the area. It is also difficult to watch someone in distress, and leaving may be more comfortable for you. However, by walking away from a person when they are exposed and vulnerable, you risk giving them the message that they are unlovable and unacceptable when they are overwhelmed and distressed.

Unless the person specifically asks to be left alone, they probably find your presence helpful in some way, even if you are across the room a little. Personally, I like to know someone I trust is nearby, but I do not want them to touch me or talk to me until I am feeling much less stressed.

This may be something you will need to ask them about in a calm and collected moment. You could ask them to tell you what they want you to do next time… “would you prefer me to stay in the room close by, or to give you some space and time alone for a bit? what do you find most helpful?” Just don’t try to get this information from them in the height of a meltdown because they will most likely be unable to tell you and may say something they don’t really mean due to being unable to sort through language well while so overwhelmed.

{Side note: Don’t assume that because a person wants you close by that also means their usual touch preferences also apply. For example, until the crying/screaming/yelling part of a meltdown has passed, touching me will make things worse and talking to me will make me more anxious. In fact, touching me until I am completely calm will make me feel defensive. Even though hugs are usually my preferred form of physical touch, if I am anywhere near being in a state of meltdown I do not want to be hugged. If I am upset it is always best to assume I don’t want to be touched unless I say so. After a meltdown though, I always want a hug from someone I trust. My son prefers not to be touched usually, but finds a steady pressure on his back when distressed to be soothing.}

2. Be calm

I know there is no way to instruct someone on how to be calm or give off a sense of calm. But I can tell you I’ve only experienced the benefit of someone who does that being with me post meltdown twice in my life and both times it was like someone extending a magic soothing breath into my turmoil filled space and it changed everything. It felt like being given a small something warm and precious to hold in my hands, and then having that warmth move through my whole being. Difficult to explain, impossible to quantify, but so very important. Maybe not a helpful point since there is no way to help anyone actually do it, but I couldn’t not mention it.

3. Be quiet

By this I mean quietness literally, as in volume, but also a quietness of presence and attitude. It is possible that part of the feeling of calm I experienced with the two people I mentioned above was due to the ability of the people who gave me that gift to sit in quiet, without needing to speak, or to understand, or to address the current situation. One of the people just sat there beside me without making eye contact or physical contact…. they were comfortable with just being. The other asked a couple of questions to clarify my immediate needs, then offered to talk about something else for a bit as a way to refocus my attention. Both of them were quiet, both in their movements and in their voice volume and in their attitude. They made no demands, which is significant because demands make noise inside my head.

4. Be patient

Meltdowns can take a long time to move through. It is likely that the meltdown started long before you were aware of it. It is certain that the person is exhausted and needs time to process their thoughts and feelings. I am quite serious when I say meltdowns are traumatic. It is horrible to be out of control of your body and it’s responses and reactions. They will likely not be able to respond immediately if you ask a question. They may not respond verbally at all if you make a comment. They will probably be having trouble identifying what they need in the moment, and are feeling overwhelmed by everything. Your calm and quiet presence, combined with your patience and ability to be with them in an unhurried frame of mind allows them to process to their own pace without worrying they are an inconvenience.

Phrases you can use, if the person is able to hear you, include:
“I know this is so hard for you, there is no hurry”, “Take your time”, “Let me know what you need if you think of anything”, “There is no rush”.

5. Be accepting

This involves being non-judgemental, affirming, validating, encouraging, and willing to be present without trying to fix anything. These things need to be done in a way that is genuine, not in a way that shows you are being condescending or helping even though it is an inconvenience to you.

People who have had a meltdown are vulnerable and feeling raw and exposed. If they sense you are feeling stressed by them, or negative toward them, they will blame themselves for your discomfort and internalise that and it will add to their distress.

If the person is able to verbalise how they feel they may say things like “I feel so silly”, “I’m so embarrassed”, “I’m sorry for being a pain”, “I feel bad for taking up your time”.

You can respond supportively with phrases like:
“There is nothing silly about needing help when you are struggling”, “You don’t need to be sorry”, “I am happy to be here with you”, “Everyone needs help sometimes”, “I will always be here for you if you need me”, “There is nowhere else I need to be right now”, “I will stay here with you until you feel safe again and you are alright enough to be alone”.

 

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