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  • Writer's picturemahlia-amatina

Supporting a colleague having a meltdown

Note: In her blog, Mahlia uses the term ‘meltdown’. It is a response to stress and some prefer to use other terms to describe this.

How to support someone having a meltdown at work

A meltdown is an intense outward response to an overwhelming situation. It can happen when an autistic person becomes completely overwhelmed by their environment and/or situation, which leads to a temporary loss of control. This is then expressed verbally (crying, shouting, screaming) and/or physically (lashing out, kicking, biting). It is by no means a temper tantrum and should never be mistaken for this. Plus, I’d emphasise that the person is by no means being an attention seeker – no one wants to experience a meltdown. Instead, it is simply the sensation of being overwhelmed beyond anything comprehensible, that the body then needs to release these very intense feelings.

I’ve experienced meltdowns in different situations (airports, festivals, workplaces), and they are scary, embarrassing and exhausting, and the after-effect stays with me for days.

If someone you know is experiencing a meltdown at work, then there are various tips I have to support the individual. However, I have two important points to note before any of these:

  1. Each autistic person is different, so please do check with each person in terms of how best they would like to be supported through a meltdown. No guidelines are a replacement for this.

  2. It’s always best to do everything possible at work to avoid the meltdown from occurring in the first place, by minimising triggers as best as possible. Common triggers could be a change in routine, sensory overload, anxiety or communication difficulties that may lead to the meltdown.

Prior to someone having a meltdown, the employee may show signs of distress, for instance, pacing, stimming, becoming very still/quiet or seeking reassurance through repetitive questioning. At this point, there’s still a chance to prevent a meltdown. I know for me, at this point, if I can be outside in fresh air with my headphones on and a fidget toy, this can help considerably. Equally having reassurance from whatever has increased my anxiety helps and creates that layer of calm which staves off a meltdown from occurring.

If you’re someone who doesn’t know what triggers a meltdown, then it’s worth keeping a journal to jot down what situations are triggering and create potential problems, so you can identify the causes to help prevent getting to a state of meltdown. I know it took me a while to learn my triggers, and I now understand that my environment is the most significant driver, followed by experiencing stress and anxiety in inducing a meltdown. You can record what happened before, during and after a meltdown and see what patterns emerge in terms of times, places or when something in particular has happened.

Don’t judge!

If your colleague isn’t able to put off having a meltdown, don’t judge them for this, and see the following points as guidance in supporting them:

  1. Stay calm. Your colleague is likely to have had meltdowns before, and they will be used to them. Though you may not have witnessed one before, try to stay calm, patient and non-judgemental – this is what your colleague needs from you right now. Bear in mind that a meltdown is only temporary and that it is caused by a number of stress factors; a lot of which will be beyond your control, so this is in no way anyone’s fault. If your colleague has a mentor, buddy or other trusted friend at work, then it would be worth calling on them if they are free, to provide that extra reassurance.

  2. Reduce anything overstimulating from the environment. Don’t try to move the person, unless you feel comfortable doing this and have agreed this with your colleague ahead of time. Otherwise, try to remove anything that could be distracting and make the space quiet, safe and calm, removing any background sounds and turning down lights where possible. Ask colleagues to move along and not stare and try to keep the attention off the person as much as possible. If your colleague has any items that they have told you about beforehand that they find helpful, feel free to offer these, as they may be helpful – though note that these may not always be receptively received at the time.

  3. Keep conversation simple. Your colleague is likely to have a limited ability to speak and understand while in meltdown mode, so it’s best not to overwhelm them by asking a lot of questions. Keep things super simple and ask questions which require a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response only. If they can’t speak, perhaps get them to give you a thumbs up or down if they can. But otherwise, don’t judge them for this.

  4. Just be there. Unless you’ve been expressively told to leave them alone, one of the best things you can do is simply be there and ride out the meltdown with your colleague. You can be a calm and understanding presence – even if you’re on the other side of the room from them. If it’s suitable, you can bring them items of comfort like a fidget toy if they have one, some tissues or a cup of water.

  5. Give your colleague plenty of time to recover from a meltdown. They are immensely draining to experience and in no way can someone simply ‘snap out of it’ straight afterwards. Recognise that the person is likely to feel very vulnerable during and after a meltdown, and therefore kindness and reassurance of this being no one’s fault is useful here.

These are only guidelines

As stated earlier in the blog, these are guidelines to what is a very individual experience, that should be understood from an individual perspective, but hopefully these are helpful suggestions in understanding what a meltdown can entail.

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