Monday, December 8, 2014

Meltdown Madness; Sensory Processing Disorder & Cognitive Overload

A requested repost from an earlier date>>>>>>>>>

I want to talk about the ACC and ASD phenomenon of meltdowns.
First we must establish that a meltdown is not the same thing as a tantrum:

In a typical tantrum from either child or adult, one observes that they have control over their
behavior, choosing to engage in it.  The goal of a tantrum is specific to something one wants or does not want...if the individual gets what they want, the tantrum can rapidly end.  During a tantrum the child or adult focuses on others around them, communicating, yelling at them and drawing their attention directly.  Typical in a tantrum the individual is looking for a reaction, can talk, negotiate but with demands and yelling, even hitting or kicking or destroying property.

Meltdowns, on the other hand occur when the brain is overwhelmed with stress chemicals and has entered the fight or flight stress reaction; the stress building up to the point that the brain overwhelms and loses the ability to cope. 

In a typical meltdown, the individual seems to be in a panic mode, has no control over their behavior.  They are unable to talk or problem solve, negotiate or reason.  Cannot easily or at all follow directions, argue with you, generally so overwhelmed they cannot even engage with you.  Someone experience meltdown feels unsafe and reacting from extreme fear.  If you try to talk to them, it will be nearly impossible to identify the cause of their emotions, or any wants or demands. The two most common causes of meltdown are sensory overload, cognitive stress or social demands that exaust the brain's resources.

Rather than what is seen in a tantrum, the individual is not trying to gain something they want, but escape what is overwhelming them.  They will often attempt to flee or escape the situation, but not seek attention. The only time someone in meltdown would become violent, hit, kick, bite, scream is when you try and attempt to calm or redirect them, if you back away from them, give them personal space, remove any demands made on them and stop interacting, the aggression will likely cease immediately. Unlike a tantrum a meltdown takes time to dissipate, needing time to escape stress, regroup and  reset.  The one having a meltdown often expresses remorse for their meltdown and actions occurring because of it.

In both ACC and ASD meltdowns are precipitated by fright and fear. Fight or flight is triggered and the person tries to escape the source of stress and seeks proprioception (physical stimulus, hitting, self injury, rocking and other behaviors, as these release stress chemicals.  During a meltdown we do not want to interact with anyone or seek their attention, and desire to isolate ourselves, withdrawing for the stressor(s).  If we don't feel safe, we act against the people or property around us to get them to back away, or release stress chemicals.

Sensory Processing Disorder is commonly found in individuals that are ASD and/or ACC and is a common cause of meltdowns. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD, formerly known as "sensory integration dysfunction") is a condition that exists when sensory signals don't get organized into appropriate responses. Pioneering occupational therapist and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, PhD, likened SPD to a neurological "traffic jam" that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly. A person with SPD finds it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses, which creates challenges in performing countless everyday tasks. Motor clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, school failure, and other impacts may result if the disorder is not treated effectively.

Cognitive overload is a situation in which there is too much information to process or too many tasks to perform simultaneously, resulting in the individual being unable to process this information.  This results in a reduction or elimination of the executive functions and higher reasoning, producing anxiety and stress, and sometimes even triggering the fight or flight mechanism mentioned earlier.

This toxic dyad, sensory over stimulation and cognitive overload are part of the daily life of those of us with Autism and/or ACC, and should be understood by parents, caregivers, educators and law enforcement, concerned friends and family (I can think of a few more), and it would make our lives so much better.  Those of us on the spectrum tend towards a lot of self blame and self hatred because what is constantly reflected back to us is that we are choosing our condition/social-emotional situation, that we are inherently broken and "different."

It does not have to be this way.  We can learn to accept the differences of individuals and allow them room to grow and thrive in their own way.  But in order to do this we must educate others.  I hope this post has done just that.

Joseph

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