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How to Prevent Violence During a Meltdown

by Sally Willbanks
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How to Prevent Violence During a Meltdown

I received a request to ask this question of my Instagram community:


Autistic adult would like advice on how to stop swearing, biting, hitting and lashing out during meltdowns.  Already tried ripping up phone books and swear jars. Can’t use a punching bag.


I have had so many people asking for the answers, looking for some help themselves, so I am sharing in the hopes more people are helped.  The following are the responses I received.


“I have a found that once the meltdown starts, I can’t control it - so I’m not sure how to give advice on something you can’t control. The key for me has been learning how to better keep the meltdowns at bay - how to regulate my surrounds so a meltdown doesn’t happen. I assume it’s different for everyone but knowing your triggers and not pushing yourself to continue to function when overwhelmed is what helps me not get into meltdown state. Not sure that helps.”


“I'm focusing on prevention...but yeah. Hard and not always possible and I still don't really know how, where, and when.”


“Is there a way to help prevent meltdowns in the first place? I have phone alarms to remind me to check in with myself and asses my needs for food, quiet, sensory... Self-care BEFORE the point of meltdowns helps a lot if it’s something that is accessible to you.”


“Try to learn how to recognize the symptoms of a meltdown in the making. So, it won’t have to develop to be that bad. Regular moments of meditation/rest to regulate sensory input. I don't quite know how to behave differently during the meltdown itself. I slowly conditioned myself to show less destructive behaviour. But during a meltdown I still fear for myself that I will do something to myself. My destructive behaviour went from furiously hitting my head (with my hands or against a wall) or damaging my hands by punching a wall when I was younger. I now hit my legs if I really don't know what else to do. It doesn't have to be perfect, it's already way better than it was. So maybe don't look for a solution so it won't happen, it will happen! But see if you can redirect it to less "disturbing/damaging" behaviour over time.”


“I’m still trying to work this out too, but if you can feel the meltdown coming on and that burning feeling hits get a weighted blanket and lie completely flat underneath, it sometimes it helps.”


“Make sure you put just as much thought into finding out what the trigger was so you can be proactive before an overload happens instead of reactive to the stimulus.”


“It might sound easier said than done but emotional regulation sounds like it’s needed - when you feel a meltdown coming on, you need to remove yourself from the situation if you can and stim as much as necessary. I find that humming helps when I’m in public and doing covert stims like clenching my hands in and out of fists and tapping my feet. You don’t have to be around anyone or anything that makes you feel so uncomfortable that you have a meltdown - anyone who tells you otherwise is an asshole.”


“Making myself step into a cold shower usually resets my nervous system in the moment. It's a shock to the system when you try it for the first couple of times, and can feel miserable, HOWEVER, if I focus on breathing in and out during these few minutes, I find the meltdown mode is interrupted because my body is forced to focus on the cold stimulus. Then I let the water warm up, so that I feel some comfort before drying off, while still focusing on breathing.”


“Put oranges in the freezer in advance. When I’m having a meltdown, I peel the frozen orange. It’s hard to do and takes force. It also smells grounding.”


“Get a chewable piece of jewelry and bite on that, see if the lashing out is triggered by something (I only lash out if someone touches me).  Have a safe space that’s only used for being calm and feeing safe, swearing can be a good outlet but if you don’t want to try using other words like chicken nuggets or something. It’s hard to control what you’re doing in a meltdown so any of these things will probably take time. Also wearing a thick sweatshirt all the time has helped me when I have a meltdown and bite myself because I have more protection. I hope this helps.”


“Screaming. In a pillow or without.”


“If possible, have a space you can go to be alone or a rule that someone leaves the room you’re in. A swear jar sounds like it could be encouraging shame. I apologize afterwards if I swear and acknowledge hurt feelings. With myself I've found that over time I can recognize during a meltdown my language is not nice and say so out loud. I also ask my loved ones to help me by offering to take breakable items off me. It takes time which can be frustrating, and it helps to talk about meltdowns when you're calm.”


“It's very difficult to control myself when I have a meltdown. My nervous system is just so triggered and in crisis mode...but I try to take some deep breaths and think about my special interest. It helps ground me and calm me down. I think that having a comfort sensory item always in your pocket/bag can be helpful too. For me it's soft fabric and a squishy ball.”


“Music, sensory space, a certain food or object she likes the texture of.”


“Start by asking those that are usually around them to support them by stepping back and stop talking, we get a lot of lashing out when people don't give space or try to keep talking or touching us when stressed. During a calm time have the autistic practice using all their body weight in their palms flat on the floor, pushing down into the floor, head down on the floor like child's pose in yoga and all the energy in their body being pushed, as focused as they can with their palms into the floor so they're not hitting punching etc but they're using deep pressure. Same with deep breathing - have them practice when calm deep slow breathing using their belly and pelvic floor not their chest and blowing all the air out their mouth into the floor. Rather than being up where the body is flailing where panic can increase and breath gets shallow and used to talk, we go down to the floor to that child's pose and give that proprioceptive deep pressure into the ground to feel safer & calm.”


“Holding/squeezing an ice cube, getting some of those chew things made for kids to have something safe to bite on, doing push ups or just pushing against a wall, writing down or typing all the swears into the notes on the phone.”


“A few things that help me that maybe you/they should try is using some kind of chewing sensory jewelry because you can bite down on those very hard, but they are safe to do so. For hitting I know you said no punching bag but there are blow up things you can hit, and they bounce back but it doesn’t risk injury (I think they’re usually like a weird clown design). Sometimes using very strong stress balls with resistance rather than a soft one like if it’s filled with dough or sand. As for swearing, vocal stims tend to be some of the most obvious and so swearing while having a meltdown could have negative effects. Limiting vocal stims could also be negative so maybe just making sure there’s one location where it’s safe to but I’m not sure on that one. Hope it helps a little.”



I hope these answers help a little.  I can see how people’s experiences are so similar, but different things help different people.  Many answers focus on prevention because meltdowns can be so uncontrollable.  I will be trying some of these tactics with my kids going forward, and I will start using some myself.  How very grateful I am for this autistic community!

by Sally Willbanks


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