Author: Bill Nason, MS, LLP
Originally published on the Autism Discussion Page on November 9, 2013
Shared with permission.
Some of the adults on the spectrum that are fans of this page want to discuss some of the adult issues. Several of you mentioned dealing with meltdowns. So here are my thoughts! Please comment and share your experiences.
Many of the strategies for dealing with meltdowns in children are similar in adults. However, adults are expected to implement their own strategies, advocate for themselves, and be aware of their own stressors and overload. The strategies for adults on the spectrum need to be a self management plan, rather than one that a parent or teacher designs and implements. So, what was once an external designed plan needs to now become a self managed plan.
1. Start with your nervous system! Your nervous system is fragile and more likely to be vulnerable to stress. It is important that you eat well, get regular exercise, and get plenty of sleep. Make sure you don’t skip meals, eat mini snacks, and keep a nutritious diet. Try and give yourself 30 minutes of exercise daily. Exercise is important for regulating your nervous system. And of course, you need plenty of sleep and rest breaks during the day. Since your nervous is more fragile, it will become taxed very easily if you are hungry, or fatigued.
2. Adults on the spectrum need to be keenly aware of their own tolerance levels to avoid overload. This includes sensory sensitivities, social tolerances, informational overload, and mental energy levels. You need to know what types of stimulation to avoid, how to make modifications and advocate for accommodations in your work and living settings. Be aware of what sensory stimuli in commonly visited settings are irritating to you, what may overwhelm you, and how you can accommodate and adapt to them. Modify the environment if you can, if not, build in adaptations to cope.
3. Make your daily settings sensory friendly. Try and make modifications to your home and work setting (soften lighting, muffle noise, partitioned work area, etc.) to make the environment as sensory friendly as possible. At home, even if your family will not make modifications, try and make one room of your home sensory friendly for you to escape to when your need to rebound.
4. If you are going to new events try and visit the setting ahead of time, if possible, to check out the setting and evaluate the sensory bombardment you may be entering. This way you can figure out what accommodations you may need. Plan ahead for all events, and review before going.
5. Keep a sensory “tool box” (sunglasses, rim hat, gum, ear plugs, mp3 player, fidget items, etc.) at home, work, and in your car. Don’t wait until you start to feel stressed to use your accommodations. Always appraise the settings you are in; be proactive and use these accommodations and coping strategies to avoid accumulating stress that will lead to overload.
6. Monitor your social demands. For most adults on the spectrum, interacting can be very taxing. So, know what your limits are. For most individuals, interacting one on one with someone you know can go okay for short periods of time. However, trying to regulate in a group conversation, or navigate a group activity can be very taxing and overwhelming. Try to avoid such activities, or only stay in them for short periods of time. Know your limits. If you are at parties, try and find the least active area that will minimize the amount of social contact you have. Let people come to you, rather than mingle around the room. That way you can control the level of interaction you have to regulate.
7. At work know your physical and social environment well. Group meetings where you have to present or interact extensively will be very taxing for you. Try to arrange your social interaction to be brief and familiar to you. Try to avoid the crowded coffee room, cafeteria, and social stops where others may put you on the social hot seat. Try to get an individual office, or partitioned work area. Listen to music to block out conversations and background noises.
8. If you are a parent, or live with others, you will need to give yourself a spot to get away and regroup. Home should be a safe setting for you to be yourself and meet your sensory, social, and emotional needs so you can regroup for the next day.
9. Try to avoid work tasks that require a lot of multi-tasking. Try to do one task at a time, and break longer tasks into simpler steps. Keep a very organized home and work area; everything has a predetermine spot and keep it there.
10. Develop consistent routines and schedules throughout your day to keep yourself organized and reduce confusion. Map out your day (time and events) and leave yourself plenty of time between events. Many people on the spectrum have a difficult time judging how much time tasks will take. Then they get rushed and anxious, increasing chances of overload. It assures you complete needed tasks, and allows you to relax and regroup between tasks.
11. Remember that your mental energy, as you move from one task to another, will drain easily. Plan frequent breaks to rebound and re-energize. Again, don’t wait to you feel taxed to take breaks. Proactively schedule in frequent breaks to avoid being taxed and overwhelmed. Once you start to get tire, your energy drains more quickly, and overload can set in before you have a chance to react.
12. The more taxing the event, the more time you need to rebound and re-energize. If you are going to a highly taxing event, don’t plan a consecutive event immediately afterwards. For highly taxing social events (concerts, parties, etc.) you may need to spend the next day doing very little. If you know you are going to go out socially on Friday night, take a good portion of Saturday to regroup.
Escape and Rebound
13. Always have a means of escape if you feel yourself being overloaded. This can be to the bathroom, outside, your car, or a separate area away from the group. It is best if you give yourself these breaks periodically throughout the event to proactively minimize overload. Remember, it is not wise to wait until you start feeling stressed to react. It may be too late!
15. When going into any new setting map out a means of temporary escape if needed, and to take breaks to regroup. Also come late and leave early to avoid overload. Keep a sensory tool with you to help you regroup once you escape.
16. Learn the early signs that your body is telling you that stress is building up. Many adults on the spectrum report poor awareness of their body cues that they are getting stressed. They do not have good self awareness of their internal states which tell us that we are starting to get stressed. This is important in order to be able to pull out of stressful situations before becoming overwhelmed. To effectively be able to avoid meltdowns you have to be aware of when you are in the beginning stages of build up. There is new work being done with meditation and mindfulness exercises to help adults become more aware of their body sensations as to lower their stress levels.
17. Identify and practice a few relaxation coping skills (deep breathing, positive self talk, fidget item in pocket, gum, etc.) to help relax your nervous system while in high stress settings. Distraction (music, mental tasks, etc,) can help you block out some unwanted stressors.
18. Lastly, when feeling a meltdown coming “escape” as soon as possible. It is important to leave immediately. It is better to flee than act out! Get away and engage in you favorite calming strategies. You can always apologize later. You do not have time to problem solve at that time. Your coping skills are minimal and going quickly. If needed, carry a small card that explains why you are leaving (escaping). You may not have the words to explain. Just get out, escape, and rebound!
I hope some of these suggestions help. Please feel free to share your experiences and add additional recommendations.