Sensory meltdowns and what can be done
What is a sensory meltdown?
Sensory meltdown is a response resulting from being overloaded with too much sensory information that an individual is unable to process (SpecialKids.Company, 2018). Sensory information which can cause meltdowns are information which we gather using our senses; these include smells, sights, sounds, etcetera, that we face daily (SpecialKids.Company, 2018). While most of us regulate our sensory information well automatically, there is a proportion of the population who has difficulty integrating this information, resulting in them being overwhelmed and triggering a flight or fight response (“Tips for Managing a Special Child's Meltdowns”,2020).
In a flight response, a child might shut down by not responding or escaping from the overwhelming stimuli. An example would be running out of the playground when there is too much sensory stimulus for them to process. Hence, the child who is running to escape may disregard any form of danger (running towards the road) that might happen. In other words, they are so overwhelmed that their brain’s higher functioning may be impeded. In a fight response, a child may be aggressive towards themselves or others. For instance, they might bite, hit, or scream when they are feeling overwhelmed (Cheng & Boggett-Carsjens, 2005).
There may be periods of times where it is observed that a child can maintain their calmness facing the same sensory information that triggered a meltdown days ago or days later. This does not mean that a child is able to control when they have a sensory meltdown. Rather, sensory information differs from day to day, environment to environment, and as third parties, it is very hard for us to truly gauge if an environment is the “same” as a prior observed one. Furthermore, their tolerance may also vary depending on other factors. It is important for caregivers to understand that a meltdown is not a means by which a child uses to gain attention or control over the adults. A meltdown is not a behavioural problem. Instead, it is an involuntary reaction displayed by the child and he or she is usually unaware of what they are doing. In fact, during the periods when a child is calm, it merely means that the sensory information is within their threshold. Likewise, if the sensory information has exceeded their threshold, it results in a meltdown (Cheng & Boggett-Carsjens, 2005). Therefore, it is important that we, as teachers, parents and/or therapists, use strategies that enable them to regulate themselves, such as changing certain aspects of the environment to remove the possibility of a child being overwhelmed by sensory input and thus reducing the occurrence of a sensory meltdown.
What can be done?
Strategies to de-escalate a meltdown:
If a child is having a meltdown, there are a few ways which can be done to help de-escalate it.
Identifying and removing the stimuli that is triggering a meltdown.
Understanding the triggers that cause meltdowns would help parents to prepare and act accordingly for such events. E.g. Prepping a child to use noise cancelling earphones when going to a birthday party.
It is important to remove any triggers of the meltdown. For example, if the sound of the children screaming causes the meltdown, moving the child to a quiet area will help the child to calm down. Adults can also prompt the rest of the children to be quieter to help the agitated child cope.
Keeping the child safe
It is also important to ensure that there are no dangerous objects around the child as this may pose a danger to the child. For example, hard objects, glass items and etc. Similarly, transferring a child to a clutter-free room can help to ensure the safety of the child.
When a child is having a meltdown, it is important to stay calm. Sudden movement or aggressive action can be seen as a threat and may result in violent behaviour or retaliation.
In order to reduce the frequency of meltdowns, it is essential for us to reduce the sensory stimuli and allow time for the child to adapt and cope with it. When the child is able to tolerate and adapt to the minimal amount of sensory stimuli provided, we can gradually increase it. Furthermore, we can also make use of different ways to help the child cope with the sensory stimuli they may face.
For children who are overly sensitive to auditory stimulus, sounds that trigger meltdowns can be played at low volumes and gradually increased to help them learn to tolerate it and increase their threshold. Having rugs or carpets to reduce echoes or other sounds (e.g. footsteps, grating sound from chairs).
Likewise, for those who are overly sensitive to touch, inform the child before touching them and when touching them, use a firmer pressure. Children can also be engaged in activities that provide proprioceptive input. Some examples of activities that provide proprioceptive input are swimming, digging and pouring, riding on a scooter etc. These activities enable the children to regulate their touch senses and which help reduce tactile defensiveness (‘What is tactile defensiveness, 2020). Lastly, gradually incorporate different tactile activities for the children to adapt to different textures and sensation.
Oral and Olfactory
Children who are orally defensive are highly sensitive to texture, tastes, and smells of certain food items. In order to enable children to adapt to food of different textures, the gradual introduction to foods of different textures is crucial. Additionally, exploration of food items can be done as well. Both caregivers and children can talk about the colour, texture, taste and smell of the food items that they are exploring. This helps to introduce different or new food items without the pressure of eating them (Grogan, 2020) . Besides food, children who are orally defensive will usually struggle during tooth brushing as they are uncomfortable with the sensation of brushing their teeth. Caregivers can desensitize the children by providing vibrating toothbrushes with different brush tips (Lowsky, 2012) . Lastly, oral motor exercises can be done to desensitize the children who are orally defensive.
The use of sunglasses/tinted glasses and/or dimmed lightings are some intervention techniques that can be used to help children to cope with sensitivity to visual inputs. Similarly, lightings that are used in the room can be modified to reduce brightness. Using colored light bulbs can provide softer lighting. Furthermore, keeping the environment cluttered-free visually by reducing the amount of posters/pictures on the wall.
Managing meltdowns can be frustrating and tiring. However, it is important for us to understand why our children have meltdowns. When we can understand what triggers them into meltdowns, we can successfully reduce or prevent it from happening. Moreover, with greater understanding, we can also act quickly to prevent escalations as a meltdown may occur very much outside of our expectations even if we have prepared for it. Armed with the necessary tools and knowledge, we will be able to calm our children down or prevent them from getting themselves unnecessarily hurt.
Written by Venezia.
Cheng, M., & Boggett-Carsjens, J. (2005, May). Consider sensory processing disorders in the explosive child: case report and review. Retrieved March 11, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2542921/