Often, autistic people can have meltdowns, shutdowns, or breakdowns if they get upset or overwhelmed. If you’re with them, it’s important to know what to do to calm them down.
1 If the person is verbal, ask them what is bothering them. If it’s an advertisement on a television, or a loud noise, take them away from the area (move them somewhere quiet).
During severe sensory overload, people who are ordinarily verbal may suddenly lose the ability to speak. This is due to severe overstimulation, and will pass with relaxation time. If someone has lost the ability to speak, ask only yes/no questions that they can answer with thumbs up/thumbs down.
2 Turn off any television, music etc. and avoid using light touch. Often, autistic people have problems with sensory input; they hear, feel, and see things much more intensely than others do. It is as if the volume for everything has been turned up.
3 Offer a massage. Many autistic people have benefited from massage therapy. Help them into a comfortable position, gently squeeze their temples, massage their shoulders, rub their backs, or their feet. Keep your movements gentle, soothing, and careful.
4 Don’t try to prevent stimming. Stimming is a series of repetitive movements that are calming mechanisms for autistic people. Examples of stimming include: hand flapping, finger flicking, and rocking. Stimming can help prevent or reduce symptoms of meltdowns etc. If however, the person is hurting themselves (e.g. hitting fists on things, banging their head against the wall etc.) then do your best to stop this. Distraction is preferable to restraint, as it is less likely to hurt them.
5 Offer to apply gentle pressure on their body. If the person is sitting up, stand behind him/her and cross your arms over their chest. Face your head sideways and rest your cheek on his/her head. Squeeze them tightly, asking them if they want you to squeeze less or more tightly. This is called deep pressure, and it should help them relax and feel better.
6 If they’re thrashing or flailing, move any objects that could cause harm to them out of the way. Protect their head by either putting it on your lap, or putting a pillow underneath it.
7 If they are okay with being touched, do so. Hold them, rub their shoulders and show affection. This could help them calm down. If they say they don’t want to be touched, don’t take it personally; they simply can’t handle touch at the moment.
8 Remove any uncomfortable clothing if they are OK with it. Many autistic people would get more angry and being touched and having clothing removed by other people. Scarves, sweaters, or ties may be worsening the autistic person’s distress. Ask first, since the movement may worsen sensory overload.
9 If you can, carry or escort them to a quiet place. If you cannot, encourage any people in the room to leave. Explain that unexpected noise and movement are hard for the autistic person right now, and she would be happy to hang out again sometime later.
10 If the situation worsens, call for help. Parents, teachers, and caregivers may know how to help. They may be able to offer specific insight about the autistic person’s particular needs.