24 year old Joseph Scanlon explains how he experiences a meltdown and how people can help.

How does feeling overloaded and experiencing a meltdown affect you?

When I’m overloaded by sensory information, it’s like I’m being submerged in water – everything becomes blurry and unclear, I can’t speak clearly or at all and it feels like I can’t breathe. For me, the closest comparison to a meltdown is like drowning without water.

Can you share your story about a time you felt overloaded or had a meltdown? (at school, at work, at the shops etc.) 

I was shopping in town when an unexpected parade came through the centre. The combination of many different loud sounds, bright colours and the sudden crowd that gathered triggered a meltdown. I ended up on the floor in the street, rocking to calm myself, with my hands clamped over my ears and my eyes shut. A lot of passers-by found this odd and either laughed or made comments about how I must have been taking drugs. Some shouted things at me, which only made my meltdown worse. Eventually, two women recognised I was distressed and I managed to tell them I was autistic. They then moved me to a safe, quiet place and contacted a family member for me.

What can people do to help/did people do to help? 

Showing compassion is the biggest help. Also, keeping calm and questions as simple as possible – yes and no questions are even better. It helps if people allow extra processing time as I am still trying to take in the chaotic environment and anything you say might take a while to get through! The best thing to do is to stay with us, make sure we’re safe, remove us from the stressful situation if possible and be patient and understanding! We may be very tired afterwards and a place to rest securely is

What would definitely not be helpful in this situation? 

Don’t try and stop us stimming (repetitive behaviours like rocking or tapping) as this is usually our way of trying to regulate sensory information. Preventing it might prolong or worsen the meltdown. Don’t make assumptions about why we might be behaving oddly – this does not automatically mean we must be on drugs or drunk!

Is there anything else you would like to tell us? 

There is a big assumption that kids having a meltdown are being naughty or throwing a tantrum and adults having a meltdown are badly behaved or under the influence. This feels very unfair and upsetting when we are overwhelmed and stressed. Think about how you might feel differently if the autistic person was someone you loved in distress.

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