Autism Spectrum Australia

Lights, noises, meltdowns!

  • Posted: 22/05/2014
  • Author: Thomas Kuzma
  • Comments: Loading.. .


Aloha readers, welcome back to ‘Aspire’ presented by someone who can quote every line from Shrek.  This past week I finally had my 23rd birthday party. Amongst the fun and excitement, I had stimulation overload! So I occasionally left my own party for a little bit to restabilise myself.

This Friday begins the exciting illuminous event known as VIVID. People from across the land come from near and far to Sydney to see fantastic light works displayed on buildings, roads, sculptures – even the Sydney Opera House. This event is enjoyed by young and old. However this poses a problem, with large crowds all over the place, lights flashing and copious amounts of noise, it can cause major problems for people on the spectrum.  A major part of having autism is having sensitive senses. Areas like this can cause a meltdown. But we still want to go to these events.  Help is not lost on us, there are ways of coping. Will I show you how to handle these situations? NO! But here is someone who will.

A professional opinion

Traversing the hypersensitive volcano of meltdowns I met up with one of our occupational therapists, Rebecca Middeldorp. Here’s a large snippet.

“'Hyper-sensitivity', also known as sensory defensiveness, is when a person’s tolerance to sensory input is much lower than normal.  It presents as a tendency to react negatively or with alarm to sensory input that most see as 'typical' or 'normal'.  It also means they may notice things much more than others. This can happen in any of the senses (vision, hearing, touch, taste or smell.)

Temple Grandin explains her sound sensitivity as likening the school bell when at school to hearing a loud dentist drill.

Someone with sensory defensiveness may take day to day environments with anxiety, alarm or perceive certain places as dangerous or scary.  This often leads to learned patterns and habits to either avoid the sensations or to seek calming sensations. Some might  'stim' (self-stimulatory behaviours e.g. rocking, humming, chewing things) when feeling overwhelmed in an attempt to self-calm.  Overwhelming sensory inputs may trigger "fight or flight" reactions in their brain resulting in meltdowns complete with crying, screaming, or aggressive responses.

 Everyone's nervous system is unique; therefore meltdown coping strategies are different for everyone.  It’s important to help to calm the person before entering a meltdown causing environment.  Proprioceptive input activities can help calm someone down. This includes tight hugs, 'hot dogs' with blankets, or 'sandwiches' – squashes under a pillow. Headphones or ear defenders are an easy option for cancelling out sensitive hearing.  Other essentials methods are to cognitively prepare them as well with social stories so that they know what to expect.

 It’s important to understand WHY someone is having a meltdown. Their brain is no longer responding to thinking, judgment, and reasoning and has shifted to brain stem level during a ’fight or flight’ episode. It helps to provide a retreat when at home or in a classroom. If you are out in public, there are items designed to calm eg. vibrating cushion, fidget toys, weighted items – make sure you know what works best beforehand).  If possible, try removing the person from the stimuli that is upsetting them or decreasing it. Make sure that they are moved to a safe place without restraint. Keep language simple, and use visual supports where possible.”

My two cents

Hypersensitivity and I have crossed paths in the past. Long ago in the faraway lands of ancient Lithgow, we had fairs and early morning soccer games, because who doesn’t like waking up early on a Saturday morning?

Anyway, the fairs were fun but I started to get hypersensitive at the night time events. One night there was a rodeo. Now I will admit back then I was interested in seeing someone getting tossed about by an animal, but what I didn’t expect was the noise. As the enraged bull grunted and the rodeo hopped on its back, I was excited. All of a sudden I could hear a BANG! Jumping up, the crowd roared as the cowboy struggled to stay on top of the beast trying to throw it off. As the crowd roared I covered my ears, doing my best to drown the hurricane of noise. After clinging to my heroic dad who enjoyed the show with my older bro, we walked over to the far end of the fair to watch the fireworks.

Being the young age of 5 or 6 at the time, this was the first time I had seen fireworks live. I had no idea of the sudden impact that came from the skies. Looking up I could see the shower of light as the fireworks went off in the dark night time sky. The unfortunate thing for me was that I had no clue when these firey demons were going to shoot up and explode sending shockwaves to my ears.

In conclusion

I have many more examples of my own hypersensitivity. Like that Dad’s snoring keeps me awake -  from the other side of the house. I could also mention my escape from Darth Vacuum and Emperor Lawn Mower. Neurotypicals have it pretty easy sometimes. The only way I could sum up hypersensitivity is that it’s kind of like listening to life through a loud speaker. I have a hard time getting to sleep at night because of my senses. I have a much easier time if I sleep in winter sheets because of their texture and I have pillows over my head to drown out the noise of the wildlife.

So what have we learnt today? Even though meltdowns are a part of our life, we do have strategies and ways to cope with these problematic moments in life.  By finding a place to collect ourselves or having a stimulus toy on hand, we can reclaim our conscious and exit our fight or flight modes.

But how about those at home, have you had instances where you have witnessed hypersensitivity or a meltdown? just reply in the answers below! 

So until next week folks, may your jazz be smooth, your lights dimmed and your mind relaxing.

Till next week Thomas is out!


Some may say I’m very square

But I roll more than a pear

People use me for fun and pleasure

But I have cost many all their earned treasure.

What am I?

Answers Next Week

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Lights, noises, meltdowns!