Updated: Mar 25, 2020
Everyone responds to stress with fight, flight, or freeze reactions. People in the autism spectrum often feel overwhelmed in situations that would not feel as stressful for the neurotypical adolescent/adult. It's common for an individual to "lean toward" one or two of the above reactions, but some will show all three in relatively equal measure.
Within fight reactions, I would include any strong "externalizing display of emotion." That is, in a fight reaction, the stress leaps out of the person like an explosion or volcano. Examples may include meltdowns, weeping, screaming, arguing, slamming doors, banging, or verbal/physical outbursts.
WHY DOES THIS OCCUR?
1. Straws, Camels, and Backs
Often, the ASD individual struggles with overall resiliency for daily life. The fight reaction might be in response to a relatively small thing ("she touched me"), but that's really just the straw the broke the camel's back. The meltdown is actually an expression of being overwhelmed because of lack of sleep, touch sensitivity, being made fun of on the bus, struggling to grasp a new concept at school, etc.
The meltdown is a CLUE that the individual is suffering and unable to remain grounded.
2. Sensory Processing
In addition to the above accumulations of stress, I often see a sensory issue as an underlying trigger. For example, consider the 15-year-old boy who was sitting alone listening to headphones in his living room when his rambunctious 7-year-old brother jumped on top of him. The 15-year-old's significant touch sensitivity, along with the fact that the experience was so unexpected, combined to set off a 2-hour outburst/meltdown that resulted in the bedroom door being pulled off its hinges.
3. Anxiety Attacks
In the autism spectrum, what looks like an outburst may actually be more akin to an anxiety attack (rather than an oppositional and willful burst of anger). Remember, the outburst is basically a sign of dysregulation rather than a complex plan to manipulate others.
HOW TO HELP YOUR LOVED ONE WITH CALMING
1. Stay Calm and Provide a Safe Space
Do not escalate your tone, repeat questions like "What's wrong" or "Why are you reacting like that," or "chase" the individual by following him to his room, etc.
2. Do Not Rely on Consequences
A consequence system only works if the individual is capable of doing what you are asking him to do and instead chooses not to. If the boy asks for a cookie, and you say "no" only to watch him walk right to the cookie jar and grab two, then a consequence would be appropriate. But when the individual is melting down and you tell him to "calm down" or face the consequences, you are asking him to do something that he can't do. His nervous system is dysregulated.
3. Give Space
If the individual is highly escalated, providing a quiet space may be the best approach. Attention to safety would also be important. Do not set up a "chase" scenario where you push for him to engage in a discussion.
4. Label the Emotion and Suggest Strategies
If the individual is only mild to moderately agitated, you may wish to label the emotion for him. Sometimes the ASD individual doesn't know what he is feeling or why. You might say, "Wow, that really upset you" or "That looks like it was really scary." Allow him to respond if he would like, perhaps correcting you (which, of course, would be fine).
Instead of telling him to "calm down," suggest strategies for becoming calmer. For example, you could say, "Your ability to feel calm is really important. Do you think your system would feel calm and safe in a quiet space alone? Or do you think you might want to swing outside?" (especially if you know that he likes to swing or be alone when stressed).
Rather than insisting that the ASD individual regulate himself on command, recognize that dysregulation (fight, flight, freeze) is part of the neurology of autism. Help the individual learn strategy based approaches to calming. We will consider the fight and freeze reactions in future posts.