Distressed behaviours arise when our life experiences (sensory, emotional, social, demands etc.) exceed our capacity to cope and we feel overwhelmed and lose control.
Distressed behaviours in neurodivergent individuals may include:
meltdowns – an ‘out of control’ state which may include shouting, crying, throwing or breaking things
physical or verbal aggression directed towards others
shutdowns – individuals may hide or curl up in a ball, withdraw to a space that feels safe or stop communicating/moving. Shutdowns can sometimes be for a prolonged period (please see info on autistic burnout and catatonia-like breakdown for more information)
taking flight – running from the source of distress
It’s important to view these behaviours as being similar to a panic attack, or an external expression of someone’s internal turmoil, that is often the result of an accumulation of factors that leads to overload. Distressed behaviours aren’t under the individual’s control or something that they choose to do. They’re very different to a tantrum, which is usually short-lived, with a clear trigger and purpose, during which an individual is normally aware of their surroundings.
Sometimes distressed behaviours show more in one environment than in others due to masking – when emotions and difficulties are camouflaged they may then be released either when an individual reaches an environment where they feel safe or when they can’t be ‘held in’ any longer.
With PDA, distressed behaviours usually occur after a hierarchy of avoidance approaches have already been in evidence but have not been noted or acted upon (please see what is demand avoidance for more details on this).
And usually once things have reached the point of distress it’s impossible for others to intervene, so the priority is then to keep everyone as safe as possible.
Supporting distressed behaviours
First things to remember
Distressed behaviours are not a ‘battle’ to be lost or won, but a crisis to be managed. This isn’t a ‘learning opportunity’ and the threat of sanctions or offer of rewards will be ineffective at this time (you cannot ‘teach a drowning person to swim’ as the saying goes).
You are a person’s emotional brakes. How you manage distress makes a difference to outcomes. Try to separate your relationship with the person from the behaviours; and try to remember that anything that gets broken or damaged during distressed episodes can be replaced (if there’s anything precious maybe keep it safely tucked away somewhere).
Protect yourself and others in as ‘low key’ a way as possible. This might be by stepping back away from the distressed person whilst keeping forward facing/sideways on; clearing the area of any objects that could be thrown and cause harm (ideally in advance) whilst having other soft objects available; or having something like a pillow available to block any possible blows. It’s usually better to remove others rather than try to move a person in distress, but it may be necessary to place yourself between the individual and others in order to protect them.
Things you can do
Prevention is better than cure. Be aware of possible triggers and look for signs that anxiety is rising. Anxiety might be expressed in many different ways: increased avoidance, anger, shouting, crying, laughing, not talking, boredom, tics, ‘obsessing’, skin picking, withdrawing, masking and lashing out. Act and adapt quickly to de-escalate rising anxiety – ideally have plans in place that you and the person you’re caring for or working with have collaboratively agreed on in advance for times such as this.
Keep calm and level at all times. Shouting or getting angry won’t help either of you, keep your facial expressions and body language as neutral and non-confrontational as possible.
Reduce stimuli that may add to the sense of overwhelm – for instance, turn down TV/radio volume, ask others to keep quiet, not intervene and leave the area if possible.
Keep communication to a minimum: instructions should be short and simple; speak in terms of what you would like to happen rather than what you would like to stop, e.g. “you may feel calmer if you stand still” rather than “stop running around”; try offering simple reassurance, e.g. “it’s OK”.
Give emotional and physical space. Take a step backward from the situation, rather than forward into conflict.
Encourage access to a safer place, if possible. Some people may prefer to hide away in a den or under a table or cover themselves with a duvet or coat.
Physical intervention should be a last resort and only to keep the person or others safe.
Be aware of environmental risks, for instance scissors, knives or objects that may be used as a weapon. Other hazards may include glass doors, moving vehicles or proximity to a road.
If someone takes flight whilst distressed, provided there are no immediate safety concerns, following at a distance is more effective than chasing after them (because pursuit increases the ‘flight’ response).
Support following distressed episodes
Recovery time will be required, ideally in a safe space.
A favourite snack or a drink may help.
Provide reassurance. Let the person know that you understand they didn’t feel in control at this time and that you still care for them.
Some individuals may be very upset and may express remorse or be angry with themselves; others may not. Try to move on and start afresh.
Some people find it helpful to talk and this can provide insight into triggers and causes. However, this kind of debriefing can be too stressful for many and may precipitate further distress. Or there may need to be some considerable time and space between the distressed episode and any discussion about it.