The number of students with autism spectrum disorders in higher education is growing. Yet they also deal with higher levels of stress and anxiety than most, leaving them vulnerable to meltdowns. Because autism support providers are typically the primary partner for preventing or reacting to spectrum meltdowns by students, they should be informed about the root problems that cause such activities and familiar with techniques to help students mitigate such occurrences.
Meltdowns are an involuntary physical and emotional reaction to a situation from which there is no perceived escape. The person is typically unaware of what is happening, so there is no intention to hurt others. Autism-related meltdowns result from peaking stressors and overload of the nervous system, causing an explosive behavioral release. Stressors sometimes simultaneously preceding a meltdown may include:
- Sensory, emotional or information overload.
- Numerous or overly difficult tasks or performance demands.
- Unexpected life and/or environmental changes or having to deal with the unfamiliar.
- Intense frustration due to an inability to regulate the expected outcomes.
- Typical adult life stressors such as work demands, family, money and health issues.
The person experiencing the meltdown may not be mindful of overload-producing stressors but may nonetheless feel driven to escape the stress-producing situation. If that is impossible, a meltdown may ensue. Once a meltdown is in progress, control will usually not be regained until the episode has run its course.