Autism & Escape

At home or in the classroom, an autistic individual needs a place of escape – someplace that feels safe and secluded when social seizures or meltdowns occur. One of the harder things for parents and teachers to accept is that an autistic social seizure is not a choice. This is not a case of throwing a temper tantrum because the child is upset. A meltdown is far deeper than that.

I’ve heard social seizures compared to a psychological Control + Alt + Delete, but, in some cases, it may be more appropriate to describe them as hard reboots. Many factors can lead to this reboot, and it is seldom one specific trigger that leads to the meltdown. A variety of stimuli begin to create conflicting processes in the brain, and they become impossible to sort out, prioritize, and deal with. The result is a social seizure.

When (not “if”) these occur, it is important that the autistic individual be able to remove him- or herself from the immediate environment and escape to a safe place. If not provided, the child will often create a safe place, such as a corner, under a desk, or in between bookcases – someplace where external inputs can be limited and monitored. By selecting a safe place ahead of time, you create a predictable structure to follow that benefits both you, the child, and other students in the class.

While the student is in his/her safe place, it is also important not to force them out too early. Just like you can’t go printing a thesis the moment you reboot a computer, it will take time for the child’s brain to return to its normal functioning level. Once back, the autistic individual may be able to carry on as if nothing happened at all. Break the process too early, and a more severe meltdown or outburst may be the result.

Even among the most high-functioning autistic individuals, social seizures are a fact of life. They may grow more rare with time or medication (in more severe situations), but, regardless of how intelligent or rationale an autistic child may be, caregivers and teachers need to have a plan in place when that rationality breaks down. A basic step in that plan is a place of escape when meltdowns occur. Create a safe haven for the child where he or she can recuperate, and you will save yourself and the child a great deal of grief.