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I was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum when I was 15 years old. Back then, meltdowns were common for me. Even now, meltdowns can be hard for me to handle. What may have helped when I was a child doesn’t help as much as an adult. But over the years, I’ve learned what has helped the most and why.
When I was a child, I didn’t know what to do with myself when I was having a meltdown. I just knew I was upset. So the first thing I needed help with was finding the coping skills that worked best for me. This included strategies such as wearing headphones to block out overstimulating noises, stimming — a form of repetitive movement to self-soothe — in a safe way, and focusing on my breathing.
Once people helped me to come up with these ideas, I had the strategies. The issue is that during a meltdown, I can’t think straight. So I would forget to use those coping skills right away. This meant I needed help in a different way. I needed people to gently remind me to use the coping techniques. There were times I felt so upset, I couldn’t stop thinking about the issue that caused the meltdown in the first place. It helped when people reminded me of the situation once I’d calmed down a bit so we could work on solving the problem again. In fact, this is still something I need to be reminded of occasionally.
As I got older, I started to recognize on my own when I was beginning to have a meltdown. This takes a lot of self-awareness, which came with maturity for me. At this point, it helped to have a codeword or a phrase to say to others when I needed a break to prevent it. (Just make sure the people who need to know about it are aware.) Eventually, my parents and even close friends were able to figure out when I needed a break without me saying a word.
In the end, if I do happen to have a meltdown, the most important thing you can do to help me is be patient. Understand I’m not trying to be difficult. Once I’ve learned to use my coping skills, allow me the time and space to use them. And once I’ve calmed down, we can work on solving whatever issue caused the meltdown in the first place.