Many autistic children or children with sensory processing disorders can experience sensory overload, which in turn can lead to meltdowns and shut downs. I’m going to try and explain how this works by putting you in the shoes of one of these children on a normal school day.
Imagine you are sat in a classroom. Your ears are over sensitive so the sounds you hear are extra loud and noticeable, some even hurt. You can hear the buzz of the artificial lights. You can hear the noise of children talking, giggling, breathing, sneezing. You can hear the scrape of each pencil as it moves across the paper and the dripping tap behind you.
Now imagine you have sensitive eyes. The bright artificial lights are hurting your head and you are seeing too many things. There are colours everywhere, work all over the walls, people everywhere you look.
Now imagine you can’t understand expressions on people’s faces. You are in a classroom of 30 children and two adults and you don’t know what they are thinking, why they look the way they do, if they are happy or sad or cross or excited.
Next imagine you have a very literal understanding of language so for instance if someone said “hold this for a minute” you would count sixty seconds then drop it. You can also only remember two instructions at once. The teacher just gave the whole class the work to do but some of what she said didn’t make sense to you and you were trying to work it out so you missed the rest of the instructions and you have no clue what to do.
One time during the lesson the teacher tells the class to “be quiet or you will miss treat time” but you weren’t making any noise so that wouldn’t be fair. Another time the teacher starts shouting at someone but they didn’t say a name first so you don’t know who is in trouble and it could be you, which is very worrying because you don’t know what you might have done wrong.
Imagine if light touch felt like pain to you but firm touch was reassuring. Someone in class walks past you and brushes your arm by accident. They think nothing of it so wouldn’t think of apologising but it really hurt and you can’t tell if they did it on purpose.
Imagine all of this is happening at once, all of the time and you are constantly noticing and thinking about it all. You are starting to get overloaded with information, sounds, feeling, light, busyness, anxieties and at the same time trying to process information you don’t understand and do your work so you don’t get in trouble.
It’s only been five minutes of the lesson, imagine facing this for an hour without being able to control the environment you are in.
Imagine you can’t cope with it all anymore, you have experienced too much stress and your body starts to go into a fight-flight-freeze response. You lose the ability to process the information coming in to your brain because it is already too overloaded. You are in the middle of chaos and everything starts to spin out of control. You are scared, hurting, confused and overwhelmed with anxiety. You can’t hear what people are saying to you or process whats going on around you.
Imagine because of all this you explode. You run or you shout or hit or kick or throw or push. You cry, scream, jump or fall to the floor. You bang your head and you dont even know whats going on.
What you have just experienced is what many children with autism spectrum disorders or sensory processing disorders experience.
You have experienced sensory overload and ended up having a meltdown.
Now instead of experiencing the meltdown above, imagine you managed to put up with the sensory overload for the whole day and then when you got home your brain said “woah too much” and started to shut down the information coming in. You might feel exhausted and unable to connect with the outside world. Your body closes down, you withdraw. You might “shutdown”.
If a child experiences a meltdown or shutdown what can you do?
You can not stop a meltdown, you can not distract or talk the child out of it. Their brain is that full they can’t take anything else in. Definitely don’t shout at them or tell them off or try to talk to them about what they might have done wrong when they reacted and hit Barnaby before the meltdown started. You can address that later in a better way.
The best thing to do is to not put any demands on the child at all and make sure they are safe and not going to hurt themselves. If you can, give them a safe place to be, where everyone else can’t watch, somewhere calm and quiet. Dim the lights if you can, understand what they are going through and wait for it to pass.
Experiencing a meltdown can be totally exhausting and the child may need a calm place to rest or sleep afterwards.
A child experiencing a shutdown will seem disconnected from the outside world. They might rock or stare into space or hide. They might cuddle into you or lie on the floor.
If a child is experiencing a shut down, be patient. Find them somewhere to recuperate with minimal sensory demands. Dim the lights, make sure it is quiet and not too hot or cold. Let them sleep if they need to.
You may be able to stop a meltdown or shutdown happening before it gets that far. You can get to know the child’s triggers and minimise them as much as possible.
You can keep an eye out for any signs the child is getting stressed. Are they covering their ears or shutting their eyes? Do they look agitated or fidgety? Are they getting easily wound up or impatient? Have they withdrawn a little from whats going on or do they appear distracted? Are they pacing or stimming?
If a child is getting sensory overload they may not realise whats going on or know how to make it stop. They might not be able to tell you they are feeling stressed or anxious even if they normally talk to you. They may not be able to remove themselves from the situation. If you can work out the triggers then you can try to minimise or remove them. You may need to tell the child to put their ear defenders on or take off their jumper. You may need to take them out of the room to a calmer place for a while or give them a break from what they are doing. You may have to dim the lights or open the windows. You may have to let them have a little walk or give them a weighted blanket.
Every child is different. Every childs triggers are different. Every childs responses are different and therefore every child’s preventions are different.
I hope this has given you some understanding of meltdown and shutdown and how you may be able to help.
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