Sensory Overload: Meltdowns and How the Public Handles Them

autism meltdowns

Recently in the media, stories have been popping up about the characteristics of autistic temperament. Written to showcase how the general public treats those with ASD, these anecdotes help educate the reader on interacting with a person with autism.

Recently, as a result of uninformed decision-making, Daniel Ten Oever, a 9 year old boy with ASD from Ottawa was handcuffed by a police officer in his school during a significant meltdown.

Out of the many key characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder, the most difficult to deal with would arguably be what is called a “Meltdown”. Completely different from a textbook temper tantrum, an individual experiencing a meltdown loses all control, and experiences a total sensory invasion. While triggers of temper tantrums and meltdowns are similar (when a specific want is not met), a temper tantrum is a ‘controlled’ situation, meaning the individual does it to specifically get what they want.

The morning of the incident, Daniel had a minor falling out with another boy with ASD on the way to school, which resulted in the two of them being separated into different rooms while the school worked to diffuse the situation. Calming down momentarily, he left the room but soon lost control; he had begun to go into a meltdown.

The boy started to become aggressive: throwing objects, breaking things and lashing out at those around him. Daniel was taken into the principal’s office so his team (the principal, a therapist and two educational assistants) could help soothe him and ride the meltdown out. A police officer was next door in the vice-principal’s office, and upon hearing the commotion he entered the office, putting Daniel’s hands behind his back and handcuffing him. Upon questioning the officer, she responded that it was ‘standard procedure’ to detain anyone that posed a ‘threat’ to themselves or others- regardless of a disability.

Such behavior not only calls into question the education and training that Ontario police officers are receiving in the handling of incidents such as this, but why Daniel’s team had allowed the officer to ‘defuse’ the meltdown in an unproductive way. The main characteristics of a meltdown showcase the absolute loss of control of the individual, including when and how a meltdown winds down.

Unlike a temper tantrum where the episode stops as soon as the individual gets what they want, a meltdown escalates quickly and winds down slowly, regardless of the environment or situation. This means that using handcuffs to calm an overly agitated child down (with or without ASD) would do nothing but make this a traumatic experience for them.

It’s important to understand the ways that a meltdown is completely different than a common tantrum. A child in the middle of a meltdown is not looking for a reaction from others and has no interest in the social situation around them. They lack concern for their own safety, and they wind down slowly only in a secure and comforting environment. Labeling this simply as as childish manipulation is not accurate or fair for a traumatized child on the autistic spectrum.

Daniel’s unfortunate incident should also bring to light that a situation such as a public meltdown should not be considered a ‘standard police procedure’ as his behavior was sensory and not environmental. These situations need to be handled with care, patience, and compassion for those who sometimes have no control over their behavior.

Written by Sydney Chasty, Carleton University in Ottawa

This entry was posted in Autism Action Alerts, Autism Advocacy, Autism Awareness, Autism Education, Autism International, Autism News, Autism News and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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