What is a Meltdown?
An SPD meltdown is, essentially, when a person’s nervous system has been so bombarded, so horribly attacked by its outside environment, that it basically throws in the towel. Everything that matters to you in the world just looses all of its value. Now, it’s pure survival mode, and nothing is off limits!
How Does it Start?
First, you start to feel edgy, like you’re on your last nerve, you’re about to be late to work, that report was nowhere near finished, and your car won’t start. You’re about to totally lose it if one more thing goes wrong. Now, you may not always feel a meltdown coming on like this; sometimes they just seem to flare up out of nowhere, but most meltdowns can be felt long before anyone else even knows you’re getting frazzled. Once that last nerve has been struck through, that final straw pulled, sorry, but you’ve just received the last harmful bit of sensory stimuli your poorly developed nervous system is prepared to tolerate. It’s over for you. There is no more going back. You are in for one of the most painful experiences anyone can go through on a regular basis, an SPD induced meltdown!
All sensory systems start firing! Everything pierces you like a knife! Every sound, every speck of light, every texture against your skin, and everything you can smell. It surrounds you and cuts right into you. Trapped within your skin, like a caged animal under attack, you are basically helpless. You thrash, you heave, you scream, you do whatever you can because you are perceiving something killing you. You need to escape! Everything is hurting you, things that no one else can even believe would be affecting you. The smallest noise makes you want to claw your ears off, the slightest movement of your head might make you sick, and even the dimmest lights in the room make your eyes feel like they are bleeding.
Nothing matters anymore. You only have a few options: fight, flight, or freeze. Let’s explore them here:
Ever been cut? Sure you have! Didn’t putting pressure on the wounded help to make it feel better, or at least stop the bleeding? Well, in a sensory meltdown, imagine the entire body as one massive wound. Essentially, it is, because anything can feel like it is cutting right into your flesh. You seek out the pressure to help! You clench things, you squeeze yourself, you lash out! You grab things and smash them, slam doors, throw things across the room. It doesn’t matter, all that matters to you is the excruciating pain. If something is bothering you, you want to grab it and crush it or smack it out of existence. By attacking what has harmed you, what your body senses as attacking you, your brain believes it can end the assault, and restore you back to the much more comfortable midline. This is why the fight mode appeals to many, regardless of how many of their favorite things they destroy, or how many of their loved ones they hurt.
Ever been chased by a mean looking dog? Did you stand your ground, or first try to run? Chances are, you tried to run. Well, in this case, every sensation around you is a huge rabid animal chasing you down! Even if nobody else recognizes them, they are the only things you care about right now. You can get away though! You can duck undercover, go into a dark, quiet room and bury your head in your arms. It doesn’t matter what it is you are trying to escape, you just need to get out of there and get away from it, at all costs. If things get in your way, you may even resort back to the fight mode, if needed, but if things go well, you won’t need to.
Ever been frozen in fear, just not sure what to do? When your system has been bombarded enough to start a meltdown, you might just freeze up. What do you do? Where do you go? What made you feel this way? You lose it, but you’re unable to do anything. You just sit there, stuck, unable to move or react. This doesn’t help because the pain keeps coming, and your nervous system doesn’t react like other people’s does. It doesn’t call you back down for you. You just continue to be attacked. This generally doesn’t last long. Eventually, you need to do something, anything, to get through this situation. You will likely change to fight or flight soon enough , if you can get over the initial shell shock!
The Meltdown Fades…
Once you’ve done what you could do to try to escape the situation or put an end to the bombardment, you are now left to gradually, finally start to cool down. It doesn’t go easily though. It may last for hours! During this time, you will likely need to be alone, in a quiet, unstimulating place. If it will help, and you are ready, you can start to do the things that make you feel better, that give you peace. These things will hopefully help to return you to your comfortable baseline, where all of your sensitivities, though still present, are in check. Eventually, you will begin to return to your normal self, and you will be more comfortable again. You return to something closer to the ‘real you’. Aaaaahhhh… very relaxing. Problem over, right? Well, not exactly.
After the Meltdown
After the meltdown is over, and you are back to your ‘regular old self,’ you are now left to face the damage that was done during your meltdown. Hopefully, you were able to get away quickly, and people were understanding, and you can just continue on like nothing happened. Unfortunately, especially when those around you don’t really understand this, this is not what happens at all!
“What was that all about?!?”
“What is wrong with you?
“That was the rudest, most horrible thing I’ve seen someone do! You apologize now!
“Why did you punch him/break that?!? You’ll need to be punished!
Now, everyone is mad at you, because no one has any idea what you were just being put through because of your SPD. If they understood it, they would likely want to hug you, and cry because they knew what you just went through, the excrutiating pain you just experiences. Because not everyone does get it though,, you are now met with hostility. You are yelled at, shamed, embarrassed, humiliated, and probably punished. It wasn’t your fault, you were the victim, but you’re certainly in for it now!
Sound like fun? Like something you would like to experience? Didn’t think so! But what about those of us who have no choice, those of us with SPD? We’re stuck! This is our life, and this is our burden to bear.
How To Help, Treating Meltdowns
There is no perfect one solution for treating or preventing meltdowns. Every child’s nervous system is unique, so with each case, there is always a different list of triggers and a different list of activities that can be done to treat a meltdown. While this does make it difficult to advice any particular course of action, there are several routes that are generally successful for a large number of children. There is also a simple process for alieviateing meltdowns: remove and block out all harmful stimulation, add positive, regulating sources of stimuli.
Before the Meltdown – Prevention
Especially in the early stages of treating SPD, and when SPD children are very young, it is not possible or likely for children with SPD to actually be able to communicate when they are heading toward a meltdown. However, you may notice the signs that a meltdown is soon to occur. They will start to get edgy, or tense. Their ears may start to turn red, and they might start to tremble or flinch. They may clench their fists and curl their toes, or grind and grit their teeth. these are classic signs of an oncomming meltdown, and are often soon followed by the fight, flight, or freeze responses.
Take note of the things in your child’s environment that are common offenders in terms of avoided or unwanted stimuli. For instance, if your child generally seems irritated by tags in her clothing, or the smell of a certain fragrence that you use even for personal hygiene, the goal is to expose her to as little of these sensations as possible. You can often tell what is causing your child problems just through observing their behaviour aorund those forms of stimuli. If you need to remove all the tags from her clothing, or find a new fragrence for yourself that doesn’t bother her, do it! She will be happier, and so will you when your child isn’t having so many meltdowns!
Removing Harmful Stimuli
Generally speaking, SPD meltdowns are caused by exposure to an overwhelming amount of aggitating sensory input. Therefore, when seeking to help a child who is going through a meltdown, the first and most important step is to remove all potentially offensive sensory stimuli from the chid’s environment.
When a child is beginning to have a meltdown, immediately reduce sensory input from all around their environment. Make the room darker, or have them go to a room that is not nearly as stimulating. If you are driving in a car, you may even need to pull over or change your route to reduce or remove the sensory input from the moving and turning vehicle. Do not yell, scream, or make a lot of noise. Make sure to monitor your child’s behaviour. If he is getting more aggitated or becoming more explosive, then what you are doing to remove the harmful stimuli has not been enough. It can be very hard, and it is always frustrating. Sometimes it just seems as though your child can’t handle any sensory input whatsoever at this point, and that is often correct. Do not give up though!
Adding Positive Stimuli
This is a difficult thing to do at times, but what is critical is that you learn what forms of sensory input your child seems to always love. As the meltdown seems to have stabilized, your child is in a sensory reduced environment and seems to be beginning to calm down, it can be beneficial to add some of these stimuli into her environment. Don’t force the issue. Even though she always tends to love a certain form of input doesn’t mean it is what she needs at this exact time. She may not be ready for it, so be subtle with it at first, and increase the stimuli as she begin to become more relaxed and centered.
After the Meltdown
Once the meltdown has come to an end, the goal for you now becomes helping your child to deal with the emotional upset, guilt, or shame that may follow in the wake of the meltdown. Your child is aware of the way he was acting during this experience. He is aware of what he broke, what he said, and who he may have hurt. It is important to remind him that you understand and that these things were not entirely within his control; they are not his fault.
SPD meltdowns are incredibly intense, and are often fairly traumatic for the child and everyone who lives with him. However, they do not have to control your family. Keep these simple strategies in mind. Help your child take control of his invironment, to reduce the frequency of his meltdowns, and give your child the love and support he needs to get through them when they do come up.
— Written by Daniel Travis, January 2010