Updated: May 11, 2021
How to help someone through a meltdown or sensory overload:
Autism in a gig environment: How to help someone through a meltdown or sensory overload by Cait Johansen
Gigs can be fun for some people on the autistic spectrum like myself, but for others it’s a sensory hell. Sometimes the obvious things like the volume of the music, the brightness of the lights and the busy crowds can trigger a sensory overload or autistic meltdown. Other times it could be the unpleasant sensation of the floor or table that's sticky from spilt drinks, the unwanted feeling of someone touching you (sometimes inappropriately) or a heated argument with a friend. I could go on and on about possible things that could trigger a meltdown, of which there are many. When we feel a meltdown or a sensory overload, the mental wall that we put up starts to crumble until we feel like an anxious animal on bonfire night. Sometimes we break down on the spot, unable to move or speak. Sometimes we run away and hide in what we think is a safe place, away from what triggered our anxiety and stress. I’ve only recently been diagnosed with ASC (Autism Spectrum Condition) so I am still learning a lot about it, but looking back at my gig experiences I now understand why sometimes I ran away from the gig or hid in a quiet place outside the venue. I realised that in my first few weeks of university I had a lot of autistic meltdowns and burnouts because it was such a big change and the full time masking to fit in with my peers and flatmates was exhausting. In the first week of uni, our lecturers organised a gig so that the students on my course could mingle with each other. But of course, this would push me to my breaking point. The venue was filled with constant music and conversations, and there were so many new people to interact with. The social anxiety on top of the constant masking was too much for my already vulnerable self to handle so I ran out of the venue and hid outside crying. After a while, one of my course mates stumbled across me before I reached the point of a meltdown. She comforted me and told me everything was going to be ok. I told her a few years later that that moment had saved me from quitting university. Another time I was supporting my friend's gig, I wanted to support them even though I wasn’t in a good place emotionally. I didn’t understand it at the time but the amount of people, the noise and the lights felt too much. On top of my fragile emotions, I experienced what I now know is a sensory overload. I immediately left the gig and sat down in a quiet dark alley next to the building. My friend found me after his show ended and all I remember is crying and laughing non stop, unable to string a sentence together to explain what I was feeling. It’s hard to explain what a meltdown feels like because it is most likely different for every person. The only way I can describe it is that it’s like a room of chaos is caving in around you. The noises become so loud and distorted, and the lights so harsh and blinding that you have to close your eyes, cover your ears and hum to yourself to try to lessen the pain that's being inflicted. You become so breathless with fear that your body doesn’t feel like your own anymore, yet all your sensations have become so sensitive that you feel uncomfortable in your own skin. You want to become so small and invisible so that you can quietly disappear into a silent, serene place. Other people on the spectrum may feel differently but this is my experience. From what I described I’m sure you can imagine how hard it might be to have a meltdown during a gig and not be able to get out and away from the music, lights and crowds.
Like I mentioned earlier, some people with ASC like myself want to go to gigs however, unfortunately like other disabilities (visible and invisible) venues and gigs were not exactly designed with us in mind. Potential triggers are everywhere!!! If I am in a good mood they don’t bother me as much, but if something goes wrong and I get upset, then all of those meltdown hazards become unignorable monsters. If you have friends or family members who are on the spectrum and would like to go to gigs (once that is an option again after lockdown), it would be helpful for you to know how they might react if things don’t go well and they are triggered by something during the event. Sometimes you can see someone is about to have, or is having a meltdown, but you may not fully understand what that is or how to help. If you find someone you know is experiencing this, here are some basic do’s and don’ts for that situation:
Do speak calmly and say positive things. They may be non-verbal and it may seem like they’re not listening, but they can hear you so speak calmly and try to stay calm yourself.
Don’t raise your voice / shout and get angry with them. Meltdowns can be physically and mentally painful. Before and during a meltdown our senses are very sensitive so hearing an angry, loud voice will only make it worse.
Do ask them if they are ok with being touched. You may feel like hugging them will help but that’s not always the case. Sometimes we want to be held tightly, other times we don’t want to be touched at all. They may not respond if they are non verbal so just stay with them, just having a presence near could help.
Don’t try to move them if they are comfortable. It’s easier to calm our senses if we feel safe and comfortable wherever that may be, making us move may make things worse. If you know what's triggering the meltdown and need to take them away from it then calmly explain why you need to move them to a quieter / safer place.
Do give them time to recover from a meltdown or sensory overload. It may take them a while to recover and they may feel very tired afterwards. It’s a very exhausting experience that takes time to recover from.
Don’t try to interrupt or stop their coping mechanisms. Usually before and during a meltdown they will show signs of coping mechanisms. These could be anything from staying very still, rocking, pacing, hand flapping, head hitting, humming etc. Instead of stopping them completely, try to calmly and slowly distract them or divert their mind from the stress and anxiety they are feeling.
If you want to learn more about ASC there is a lot of information out there. Here are some links to pages that may be helpful: