Thursday, September 22, 2016

Meltdowns and Shutdowns at School

(Lisa's note:  Philip has come a looonng way since starting at public school 2 and half years ago.  At his school's open house, all his teachers had great things to say about how he is doing.  Philip's home base is the autism classroom.  The teacher is trying to help all his students come up with a calming ritual for when they do have trouble keeping it together in school.  He asked Philip if he had any insights into this matter.)

I would like to explain meltdowns in the classroom. Meltdowns can happen for various reasons. Peace to me feels like being able to control my body the way I want to. I have a hard time controlling my body. It does not obey my mind. It acts like it has a mind of its own. A lot of times it either won’t move when I want it to or it won’t stop doing what I don’t want it to do. Faring well at school requires me to keep my body in control for long periods of time.

I am addressing my senses all the time. Loud, echoing sounds and high-pitched cries particularly cause me distress. I mean to turn off the stimuli and focus on what I should. But it is hard. I want to not disturb people so much with my autistic actions. I am powerless to stop my various noises. I am geared to move all the time. I know I can be annoying.

Making myself quiet and still takes all the energy I have.  When I no longer can take trying to control myself, I crash. I have to shut down or melt down. A shutdown is when I cannot function. I mean to participate but I cannot get myself to do it. A meltdown is when my body discharges all its negative energy in the worst ways. My worst fear is having a meltdown and doing something embarrassing. Sometimes I cry and make a scene. Other times I get aggressive. I hate when I hurt or scare people in a meltdown. I want to be able to cope better so I can avoid shutdowns and meltdowns.

My teacher at school is helping me find a coping routine. I work hard and very long at school. I love it there. I learn meaningful things. I make friends. I can try to give thanks. I can pray. Learning to cope better will help me a lot in life. Do you have a coping routine that works for you?


Copyright 2016 Philip Reyes.  All rights reserved.


  1. I am an adult on the spectrum. This is an amazing description of what it feels like to have these issues with Autism. I am so impressed by this young mans expression of this. But it also made me feel sad. I'm sad that he's having to try to control his body for so long. The idea that came to me was having the teacher build in regular breaks where Phillip can let out his energy and NOT control his body. Maybe 10 mins every hour or 20 minutes every 2 hours. The right increment and time would be best chosen by Phillip since he knows his body needs best.
    What he is describing is sensory processing disorder. Each of his senses is being challenged in one way or another. We have seven senses. They are; Visual (Seeing), Auditory (hearing), Olfactory (smelling), Gustatory (tasting), Tactile (touching), Vestibular (movement & special orientation, and Proprioception (Muscle pressure and joint perception).
    There are 3 basic states of our sensory system. Being under aroused, being just right, and being over-aroused. It is only in the just right place that we can function and feel good. Both under-arousal and over-arousal can cause shut downs and meltdowns because it means the brain is processing too little or too much but neither is just right.
    Having said this what Phillip is describing is being tactically (physically) and Proprioceptively (muscle pressure) under-aroused. So in order to register proprioceptive and tactile (physical pressure and touch) input he must keep moving his body or in some kids cases they hit themselves to feel input.
    The best approach for this individual is to have regular breaks where he is allowed to have proprioceptive and tactile input. It can be stretching, running, jumping, rolling around, weighted blanket, weights, etc...
    Doing this regularly through out the day is called a "Sensory Diet". Having a regularly sensory diet helps keep the body in the "just right" place and decreased the under and over arousal moments that lead to shutdown and meltdown.
    Phillip is right meltdown is extremely embarrassing but what he left out is that it also causes physical and psychological pain. Because the body and brain move into flight or fight from this experience it leaves you feeling like you are going to die. It is beyond horrible to am have this experience.
    For you to have an understanding of this experience equate it to being held up at gun point for an hour. So how ever many times your child melts down imagine he's been held up at gun point that many times. I think you would agree that even one time would be too much. But it explains why children and adults with autism often also suffer from PTSD. It also explains why they will begin to avoid simple things knowing that meltdown is eminent. Please please take this serious. I personally know the pain involved and it's reality. Seek the help and services of an Occupational Therapist. They are the ones Who taught me about sensory processing disorder and how to treat it. It has changed my life and allowed me to do things I was never able to do. Not to mention how much it decreased the dreaded meltdowns. They can find an individualized sensory diet for an individual since no two people are alike. Occupational Therapy is also available in the schools. But I advise you to get an outside evaluation then take that treatment plan into the school so that there isn't a conflict of interest between what the child needs and what the school says they can afford. The bottom line is if your child needs it they have to provide it regardless of supposed available funds. Also now that insurance companies are being ask to provide service to people with autism, even if you are an adult you can ask for Occupational Therapy services. It's life changing so don't give up if you are told no. Find a way. Thanks Phillip. We need brave souls like you in the world. (((Hugs)))
    -Jennifer St. Jude, BSW

    1. Hi Jennifer, Thank you so much for your comment. It is so insightful. I read it to Philip and will share it with his teachers as well. I will also be seeking an OT who can help treat his sensory processing disorder. Thanks again!

    2. You are a wonderful mother and advocate Lisa!! Philip is a lucky young man to have such love and dedication in his life. And it sounds like you are a lucky mom to have such a brave and courageous Son with such an incredible soul!! 😘 Blessings to you and your beautiful family.

  2. Body breaks are the way forward. Your son -and every kid in school - should be enabled to take a 5 minute body break every 20-30 minutes, on the understanding that it's to refocus and return to their work.

    He may also benefit from a Kore wobble chair... They use them in my son's school and it really helps him work and move at the same time.

  3. My son takes multiple sensory breaks at school. Often, he doesn't want to, but his teacher and paraprofessional can see he's getting close to overstimulation. This is proactive, but meltdowns still occur from time to time, especially when something unexpected happens. An OT can definitely help with his sensory needs! This was a wonderful way to describe what happens to someone when they meltdown. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Our school allowed kids who needed a break to take one. The teachers invented errands, often taking a note to someone in the office. Break from the classroom and some exercise. (The teacher sometimes told the office the kid was on the way, so the kid didn't roam the halls for too long.) The kids who needed breaks learned that the office was a good place, where they could relax and chat with the principal and other staff, who became friends and confidants. This is much better than a place of punishment filled with enemies. When those kids did act out, which was much less often, they trusted the adults to understand and help them calm down.