We here at the One Stop Shop Aberdeen and Triple A’s are dedicated to helping people develop their knowledge and understanding of autism.
Drawing on our own lived experiences of being autistic, the professional experiences of our staff members who have worked with autistic children and teens as a teacher and PSA, as well as our experiences of parenting autistic children, we offer insight into what it is like to be autistic, and how to support other autistic people.
While this document does not cover all the information we could share about crisis points, it looks at some of what we feel is some of the most important information to be aware of.
If there is anything you would like more support with, or more information about, please contact us to let us know. firstname.lastname@example.org
Meltdowns, Shutdowns and Elopement
While everyone experiences anxiety, fatigue, fear, emotional overload, sensory overload, and stress, in autistic people, these experiences can be heightened. Many autistic people feel a constant level of anxiety higher than most non autistic people which can, and does, increase very easily.
When the anxiety, stress, fear, or sensory overload becomes too much, many autistic people will sometimes experience either a meltdown, shutdown or run off (elopement). They are fight, flight, or freeze responses, and are what happens when the autist has reached a crisis point. Meltdowns might look like tantrums, but they are very different – here is a table highlighting some of the differences between meltdowns and tantrums.
Not in control
Does not stop when you give into demands
Stops when you give in to demands
Less likely to stop themselves from getting hurt/less aware of danger
May throw themselves to floor/around the room but still aware of the danger
May not be looking for attention/your reaction
Looking for attention/your reaction
Happens because of being overtired/full of emotions (good and bad) /overwhelmed/too much or too little sensory input
Happens when the person wants something
Each individual has their own ways of reacting during a crisis point. It is important to liaise with family/care workers so you know how your autistic pupil behaves when that happens.
Meltdowns are extremely distressing. During a meltdown there are lots of different behaviours your pupil might display. They may scream, cry, shout and possibly lash out or self-harm.
During a meltdown, your autistic pupil has basically gone into survival mode and is lashing out as a means of self-defence. They cannot take any more of the emotions, sensory input, whatever else has triggered the meltdown, and needs space to gather themselves. Meltdowns can lead to shutdowns – this does not mean that they have calmed down, they still need the space.
A shutdown means that the autistic person is basically trying to withdraw from the world. During a shutdown, many autistic people will lie down on the floor regardless of where they are. This can happen in supermarkets, other people’s houses as well as at school, parks, anywhere.
Many autists will become non verbal during shutdowns, cry, may seek out a dark, quiet space. While shutdowns are much quieter, they are just as distressing for the autistic person as a meltdown. A shutdown may lead to a meltdown if they are not given the space to deal with it.
Elopement is possibly what is happening when your autistic pupil runs out of class. They cannot take any more of whatever is going on and they literally cannot stay. They may or may not have a safe place to go in mind, but they cannot stay where they are. They may feel the need to meltdown or shutdown but do not want to do it in front of their class and may not be able to verbalise to you what is happening.
Melting or shutting down may be perceived as “failing” to your autistic pupil, particularly if they have been made to feel bad about them in the past. Eloping may come across as extremely poor behaviour, but it may be a survival tool for your autistic pupil.
Causes of meltdowns, shutdowns, and elopement
Fear, anxiety, fatigue, stress, and sensory overload are some of the major factors that contribute to meltdowns, shutdowns, and elopement. When feeling too much of any or all of those, it’s possible that an autistic person will reach a crisis point and either melt orshutdown, or run off.
These accumulations of feelings can happen very quickly, or over an extended period of time. Sometimes the thing that has triggered the crisis point doesn’t need to be huge – one noise too much, or one demand too many.
Meltdowns, shutdowns and elopements always happen for a reason. It may not be what happened immediately before the crisis point, or it is possible it was the last straw that broke the camel’s back, but autistic people do not meltdown, shutdown or elope without there being a cause.
Common contributing factors can be:
Fear of the Unknown
Not knowing what is happening next. Many autists need to know what is going to happen next, and may want to know what the whole day/week looks like.
Many autistic people feel that they cannot make a mistake. Some of your autistic pupils will only do something when they see the point of it, and if they do something, they feel a need to be able to do it well. Autistic people can be perfectionists. Reassurance that mistakes are good as they show that the pupil is learning can help. As a consequence of this, any perceived criticism can be extremely difficult to handle, and can lead to a crisis point.
Unexpected changes to plans or routines. Sometimes plans do have to change last minute, this is something your autistic pupils have to get used to, but this can lead to a crisis point.
Different autists react to sensory input in different ways. Knowing what your pupil is sensitive to is very important.
Emotional overload doesn’t just happen when autistic people feel negative, too many positive things can be tricky too (e.g., Christmas. Very lovely, very much to cope with). Too many emotions can lead to a crisis point.
The toll of socialising, being around other people, trying to filter sensory information, all these things can be physically exhausting for autists. Physical exhaustion, especially when coupled with any of the other factors above, can lead to a crisis point.
Masking Too Much
The stress of hiding their authentic autistic selves can be exhausting and lead to a meltdown. Many children appear to be ok at school then meltdown at home. They are not ok at school – they are working incredibly hard to appear ok and fit in. They need help to stop masking as much.
While they look different, these fight, flight, or freeze reactions are very similar, and just as distressing for the person experiencing them. They are extreme reactions, and generally out with the control of the person melting/shutting down or eloping. It is not a reflection of their ability to be a friend, or anything to do with their ability to empathise, it is all to do with being overwhelmed by emotions and/or other stimuli.
Remember, each individual autistic person will have different triggers, different amounts of sensory input/stress they can cope with. No two autistic people are the same, even when it comes to crisis points.
When a Meltdown/Shutdown/Elopement Happens
- Stay calm yourself. Even if they are lashing out at you, stay calm. Many autistic people will feed off your emotions too, so you getting upset will make them more upset. Try to keep your tone of voice as normal as possible as changing that might make a crisis point worse.
- Try to remove anything that may have triggered the crisis point that you can see - if possible, try to change the environment to make it easier to cope (lighting, noises etc) if possible, and encourage others to move away.
- Give them space but ensure they are safe. Forcing them back into the classroom they have ran out of will be traumatising. If possible send a PSA to keep an eye on them so you know where they are, and get some help from someone who can either cover the class or support your autistic pupil.
Different autists will need different responses, but some strategies that may help are:
- Empathise. “I can see you’re really upset. Can you tell me what is making you feel so upset?” This will help to validate feelings and recognise the emotion they are experiencing. They may not be able to respond, but it may let them know you are there for them. You may have to wait until the crisis point has passed before they are able to communicate again.
- If they are lashing out, gently say “I don’t think you want to hurt me, that won’t help you.” All communication must be done with consideration and should serve a purpose, and it may be better to remain quiet.
- Give them some space to calm down.
- Tight squeezes help some autistic people to feel better if they can be tolerated, but for some children, a squeezy hug might cause a meltdown. Do not touch the person having a crisis point unless this is an agreed upon course of action decided before the crisis point is reached.
- Don’t hurry them. Extra pressure may exacerbate things. It does not matter if they are going to be late or miss out on something, they need to get through the crisis point first.
When any of these things happen, the autistic person is likely to be physically and emotionally drained. It can take a long time to recover from them, sometimes days or even weeks, especially if they have reached a crisis point several times in a short space of time. No matter how distressing it is for you to see, it is much more distressing to feel that way. Remember that your pupil is not doing it to give you or anyone else a hard time, they are having a very hard time themselves.
Avoiding Crisis Points
Traditional methods for dealing with undesirable behaviour will not stop meltdowns, shutdowns, or elopements. Positive reinforcements for when they do not meltdown do not address the reasons why they are happening in the first place or support them to use strategies for mitigating the crisis point, they just encourage the autistic pupil to mask their autism. Time outs are something many autistic kids enjoy, raised voices will exacerbate the situation, taking away items of special interest will be upsetting and not actually change anything.
In order to best avoid a crisis point being reached, you need to ensure the environment is suitable and the autist feels secure and understood. Talk with the pupil and their family and use the Autism Appropriate Checklist to ensure your class is set up to meet their sensory needs.
Other strategies which will help are:
- Helping your pupil to recognise the triggers of a crisis point and recognise the feelings they have before one happens will help give them tools to avoid them, and how to deal with them when they do happen.
- Find appropriate ways for them to leave the class when they need. Let them put, e.g., a red card on their desk as a way of communicating “I am overwhelmed, I need some time out”
- Building up their knowledge of emotions, how they feel, what they look like when they feel that way will help them to know what is going on with them and help them learn to regulate their emotions. “I see you are feeling really anxious, and that isn’t a good way for anyone to feel. What can we do to help you to feel better?” Increased emotional literacy means they are better able to describe how they are.
- With the pupil and the family, write a list of things that help your pupil to chill out – favourite toys, objects, materials, games, activities. That can be incorporated into a social story, song, video, whatever else might appeal, to remind them of the tools they can use to help when they are stressed before they reach a crisis point. This can be written with the pupil’s family and shared with home. You can put these ideas onto flash cards which can be put on a lanyard for easy access to remind the pupil of how to manage their emotions.
- Share a plan of your day/week/however long they need. Knowing what is going to happen helps many autistic people feel secure. It can be lovely to organise a surprise for your class, but it might make your autistic pupil more anxious if they don’t know what’s coming.
- Let them know they are valued, and you are working hard to understand them. If they know this, they will feel more secure, their stress levels will likely be lower.
- Learn the limits. Three exciting things in one week might be brilliant for the rest of your class, but they might be too much. How good to have another exciting thing kept for another time.
- Don’t make your pupil feel bad about reaching a crisis point. They didn’t intentionally ruin anything with a meltdown, shutdown or running off. They didn’t do it for attention, they probably feel pretty bad. Telling them they spoiled something will make them more anxious. Remind them of the super work they have done, and that you are excited to work with them again.
Autistic people don’t reach a magical age where they stop having meltdowns and shutdowns. These are things autistic people don’t grow out of, but they can become easier to manage once they know their triggers and have a range of strategies to help them cope, and you can help your pupil develop those. One of the most important things your autistic pupil need is understanding though – understanding that it isn’t their fault, that they are allowed to make mistakes, that they are built differently, and that they are appreciated for who they are.
You may have some pupils who work beautifully at school, socialise, manage to process all the sensory input and demands that are placed on them. Their parents may come in and say they have huge meltdowns when they get home. This does not automatically mean that they aren’t coping with their home life, or that school is totally fine for them. Imagine the child is a bottle of fizzy juice. All that sensory and social input they are processing, as well as the school work, that bottle is being shaken up all day long, but they are keeping the lid on. When they get home, they literally cannot keep their lid on anymore, and the emotions (the fizzy juice) come erupting out everywhere.
Many autistic people, especially autistic girls, are very good at masking their differences and difficulties so they can appear to fit in, and this is tremendous hard work. There are a number of reasons autistic people do this. Firstly, many don’t want to be singled out as odd as odd children are often bullied. Second, they may not even realise that what they are processing is tougher for them than other children.
As a society, we don’t always talk about what it is like to process sensory information, so your pupil may not even know they are working harder than their non autistic classmates. Also, as a society, we don’t discuss how much hard work it is to socialise, or the efforts individuals put in to do so. If the family tells you that their child is having meltdowns straight away after school, work with them to help manage the sensory input in school and find ways of helping manage their anxiety.
This is a real problem in the autistic community. Autistic burnout happens when autistic people have had too many crisis points in a short space of time, have been acting too hard to conceal their innate autisticness, or just have too much stress and pressure. It looks a whole lot like depression and can lead to suicidal thoughts even if the person does not want to commit suicide.
When autistic burnout happens, your autistic pupils are more likely to engage in self stimulatory behaviours, some of which may be self harming, and may show heightened defensiveness. Elopement, meltdowns and shutdowns, mutism and extremely high anxiety are all more common. The autistic person is having a hyper crisis.
As discussed above, many autistic people mask for a variety of reasons – to fit in, avoid bullying and often because the mask gives a sense of identity and protection from the rest of the world. It is likely that the “mask” they wear to fit in and not be seen as different will fall off. They cannot pretend they are just like everyone else any more. They cannot pretend their sensory issues are non existent. They cannot laugh at jokes they do not understand, or wear clothes just to look the same as their peers. Being unable to mask their being autistic for someone who has masked for a long time can be very confusing, and depending on how classmates react, can be socially isolating.
The pupil who had managed eye contact before may no longer be able to do so, socialising will be even tougher and some people regress in the skills they have gained. As we said, this is a serious problem for the autistic community.
Unlike meltdowns and shutdowns, burnout can last for days, weeks, months, and, if not addressed, years. The problems the pupil is having may not be directly related to school, but ensuring they are learning in the right kind of environment, have understanding teaching staff, and raising it with the family and any other appropriate agency will help.
Bear in mind that autistic people have a higher risk of suicide, and this is associated with burnout. Autistic women are nine times more likely to complete suicide than non autistic women, and are the only group of women who have a higher suicide rate than men. Supporting and understanding autistic pupils is of great value to their mental health, and providing the right kind of environment, making them feel valued, will increase their sense of self worth. Schools alone cannot tackle these problems, but they can be part of a solution.