Spectrum Warriors: Life Through The Autism Spectrum

Why Meltdowns Can Seem to Happen Without Warning

This story was shared with us by Valerie, one of the members in our Facebook Group – Autism Parents Group NB. Valerie is raising a teenage son with autism and is quickly becoming my go to for advice on our school system because she’s been navigating the waters for her son a lot longer than I have for MJ. She often has a fresh perspective on things and I have a lot of respect for her, plus she raises goats, has a pet turtle and horses, so she’s pretty much the coolest person ever in MJ’s eyes.

Many years ago when her son was in elementary school the autism resource mentor used this anecdote, to explain meltdowns that occur “for no reason at all”, and it really hits home. So please take a moment to read.

The story goes: A lecturer was standing in front of a group of teachers, Mentors and other educators. In his hand he held a tray, the type typically seen in cafeterias, by his side was a pile of objects of various sizes. He explained that the tray represents the day and the objects represent different incidences which occur throughout the day.

tray_ff_PLFFT1418RR-lThe day begins with a fresh start and an empty tray:

  • Except last night the child didn’t sleep well, so the first object is placed on the tray;
  • Everyone overslept a bit, on goes another object;
  • They were out of his favourite breakfast food, on goes object 3′
  • His favourite shirt is in the wash (object 4);
  • His other shirt itches (another object goes on the tray);
  • He gets to school only to be greeted by a substitute teacher (another object );
  • One of the overhead lights is flickering and humming in the classroom (another);
  • The weather isn’t nice so they can’t play outside (another);

And the day continues. By now the lecturer’s tray is quite full yet he continues. Finally the lead breaks in the child’s pencil (a final small object is placed on the tray causing it to tip and crash to the floor startling the educators), the child has a meltdown “because his pencil broke”, ( aka for no reason at all).

Autism Meltdown poster Cafe Press

Each of our days consists of many small stressers, none of which, on their own creates much of an issue yet, the cumulative effect can be very significant, (our trays become full) especially in someone very sensitive.

Both Valerie’s son and MJ have had some meltdowns over the last week. In Valerie’s case, a lot of things over the week took their course, scout registration, a late bus, a substitute teacher etc..

This can explain why, especially in my house, we sometimes get the end of day meltdowns. Any one item on it’s own that is happening in school may not seem like it should cause a meltdown, but this tray analogy shows us how things can build up and explode.  For MJ, she is still getting used to all the changes and differences in school. Transitioning between school and daycare, the weather and light changes etc. So at night when she comes home, her tray is so full that something so seemingly insignificant as mommy absent-mindedly using the wrong word while preparing dinner, or mommy having to work a little later and daddy starting dinner preparations can send her into a tailspin.

The next time your child has a meltdown for almost ‘no reason’, take out a pencil and list out all the little differences or changes that have taken place in last few days. If you find yourself making quite a list, then this could very well just be the meltdown that releases days of built up tensions.

Hoping for a meltdown-free day,


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