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Why do ASD individuals have meltdowns?

Researchers have long discovered and reported that individuals with ASD respond to sensory experiences different from individuals without ASD.

Researchers have long discovered and reported that individuals with ASD respond to sensory experiences different from individuals without ASD. Individuals with ASD has also reported and supported that the difference in sensory processing has caused them difficulties in everyday life. Our sensory input comes in auditory, visual, smell, taste, and tactile form. Deficit in sensory processing is believed to have caused symptoms of ASD.

Auditory processing is one of the more commonly reported sensory that has often caused individuals with ASD troubles or problems. They often reported auditory hypersensitivity such as oversensitive to music or sound that does not bother typical individuals. Selective attention to surrounding sounds have also lead individuals with ASD to have difficulties responding to others. For example, parents may report that the child appears to not hear what is being said or does not respond when his name is being called.

Individuals with ASD also has different visual responding. A study in Yale University reported that when babies with ASD look at a face, they look at the mouth rather than look into the eyes like typical babies. Lack of eye contact would then impair their social skills in the future. Hypersensitive to visual processing would result in ASD individuals over reacting to certain external stimuli.

Oversensitive or under-sensitive to tactile processing is another commonly seen feature in individuals with ASD. Touch can be overly whelming and confusing to some individuals resulting them in anxiety, distracted, and fidgety when in context with different tactile. Individuals who are under-sensitive to tactile on the other hand will have less sensations and often seeks for stimulation. For example, they will have high tolerance of pain or will constantly have contact with objects that have different tactile.

Smell and Taste sensitivity results in picky eaters especially when food textures are involved. Individuals with ASD have preferences of food textured. For example, some might not like chewy food, some might not like crunchy food, and some might not like soft food. They may also get hypersensitive with smells (e.g., avoiding or dislikes certain smells) or under-sensitive with smell (e.g., smelling everything he/ she comes in contact with).


A meltdown in an autism individual is an intense response behaviorally when a person is overwhelmed by the environment or surrounding. A meltdown can be in form of verbal (shouting, screaming, crying) or physical (lashing, biting, hitting, kicking) or in both forms.

Meltdowns are often caused by sensory overloading, information overloading, emotion overloading, too much or too complex demands, and unpredictability. Having different formations of sensory processing compared to typical individuals, ASD individuals are prone to getting overwhelmed by the environment. For example, a stroll down the park for a typical individual may be a relaxing activity. In contrast, an ASD individual might get visually overwhelmed by the sunny bright light; auditorily overwhelmed by the sudden dog bark and cheer leading practice on the field; anxious and irritated by the new shoes he/she is wearing. A combination of overloading in different sensory will then lead to a meltdown situation.

Preventing Meltdowns

Different individuals have different early signs of meltdowns. Noting down what happened just before the meltdown or what you think have triggered the meltdown helps you to identify a pattern or allows you to pin point what causes the meltdown. Different individuals have different threshold before breaking to meltdowns, but there are signs to watch out for. For example,

· Asking to leave.

o For example, a child keeps pulling your hand and demanding to leave a place without a clear explanation or reason.

· Physical signs of tension.

o Unusual or sudden increase in fidgeting or stimming.

o Restless behavior such as looking around uneasily.

o Pacing or repetitive questioning.

o Increased in repetitive movements.

Some ways to help or prevent meltdowns are such as

· Distraction. Talk to the person about something he/she likes.

· Calming strategies. Develop comforting objects that helps calm the person such as using toys, listen to music, or watching videos

· Remove trigger. If you suspect or know what the trigger is, remove it.

· Ensure safety. Make sure the surrounding is safe as individuals may unintentionally hurt themselves or others during a meltdown.

· Give them some space. Try to create a calm and quiet environment. For example, if you are out with your child, bring them to the car park if it is not crowded or a firewall staircase where there is less people and less noise.

· Staying calm. You have to stay calm yourself in such situation to help manage or sooth the person that is having a meltdown.

By: Ms Jolene - SOL Psychologist

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