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How to Avoid Meltdowns: Calming Strategies for Adults on the Autism Spectrum

“As a young adult with Asperger syndrome, I know what it feels like to have a meltdown. It’s no fun. It turns my emotions and day upside down. Before a meltdown, I start to feel like something is wrong. Then, I quickly get anxious, and I tense up. I get so overcome by the stress that sometimes when I respond, I sound outraged, aggravated, and a bit mean. But it's one of those things I sometimes can't control. Sometimes I cry, sometimes I get mad and throw something. After the meltdown passes, I usually do something to help me get my mind off of what just happened (for example play games on my phone), because if I keep thinking about it, it only gets worse. My question is: what can I do to help myself avoid meltdowns or at least make them less intense?”

In order to understand what calming strategies will work for you, you first need to determine what things stress you and have some understanding of the context in which you “melt down.”

Here's a basic plan:
  1.  Recognize the physical signs (e.g., muscle tension) and the environmental triggers (e.g., transitioning from one activity to the next) that indicate you are becoming distressed, and intervene immediately. Redirect yourself to an alternative activity, something that you enjoy.
  2. Remove yourself from the area where your meltdown is beginning to build-up steam and go to a “safe zone” (i.e., a place that feels calming to you). For example, if you begin tensing-up while sitting in the living room watching the news, go outside on the porch for a few minutes and breathe deeply 10 times while visualizing a pleasant scene or activity.

The main idea here is to:
  • (a) get your body in to a different location,
  • (b) get fresh oxygen to your brain (when we are anxious, our breathing becomes very shallow, which in turn sends a message to the brain that there really is something to be upset about),
  • and (c) get your mind on to pleasantly distracting thoughts (e.g., visualizing that Cancun vacation you took last year).

This may seem like an overly simple process in order to deal with what is a very challenging issue. The key is to be consistent so that you will always know what is coming. A meltdown usually takes several minutes to build-up. Use this to your advantage. You don’t want to wait more than a few seconds to start your plan of action. Waiting just 3 minutes before intervening may be too long. Once a meltdown is up and running, the only option then is to simply ride out the storm.

You can – and may have – developed a habit of melting down. You can also develop a habit of initiating a relaxation response.

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