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On Meltdowns

A ubiquitous aspect of being autistic and living with someone with autism is the meltdown. These are occasions where a person with autism cannot control their emotions or their feelings. Eventually these feelings explode out of the person in an explosion of rage, anger and frustration.

Causes of these meltdowns are, typically, a feeling of being overwhelmed by either outside stress or sensory factors. Stress factors are the result of an accumulation of events outside of their control eg money, relationships, work and so on that the person cannot express precisely until it becomes overwhelming. Sensory factors can be too much information being thrown at the person for them to handle effectively, again leading to a feeling of being overwhelmed. This information can be visual, aural, or tactile. It can be down to wearing restrictive clothing or their fingernails being too short. A room being too loud, a house being too messy. Meltdowns can often have some prewarning signals that say one is approaching. These precursors are wide ranging and idiosyncratic. The person can be frustrated and snappy, be restless and uncomfortable. They can also be loud and aggressive, or withdrawn and silent. This then leads up to the final eruption and the meltdown. I think it is important to remember that these are different to a fit of temper or a tantrum. They cannot be placated by simply giving the person what they want or by ignoring it until it passes. They are a culmination of emotions or stresses that the person is unable to articulate. It might be because they, themselves, do not realise they are feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Then when they are going through the meltdown all else shrinks away and they have only this stress, rage or emotional overflowing.

I can only speak from my own experiences and from the experiences my wife relates to me about my own meltdowns. I do not remember having them in childhood but my Mum tells me she would just put me on my own until the feeling passes. I can only remember two specifically since the diagnosis, but I can guess at other times. The first one, post diagnosis, was a full-on panic attack. It ended with me in the boy’s bedroom, in the dark and with my wife attempting to “ground” me. This is the process where you allow the panic to run its course but remind the person that they are safe and that this is something that needs to be powered through. As always, the only thing I know about myself is that I know nothing about myself.

One particular meltdown, which was particularly bad, started with a strange, emptiness in the middle of my chest. I then become aware that my hands were shaking slightly, and my legs started to hurt. I felt overwhelmingly restless and couldn’t sit still. I was up and down like a Bride’s nightie, walking in between rooms and as my mind races. I felt utterly powerless as I struggle to understand what emotions I am experiencing and why I am going through them. Because I do not really know how to explain what I am feeling this leads to frustration and this further exacerbates my panic and my feelings of powerlessness. The causes of this meltdown do not need to be explored here, but it was a culmination of events in life that, kind of like putting a pack of Mentos in a Diet Coke bottle, bubbled, frothed and then exploded. I was out of action for the evening as I needed to be either alone or with my wife. I remember thinking that this was the first time I felt “autistic”. I didn’t like the idea of being out of control and of being “autistic”. I felt like those stereotypical mentally ill people you would see in 90s TV shows. Curled up in a ball and in hysterics. Not being able to express how or why I was feeling this way. Trapped in my own mind and my own skin. On TV the mentally ill person isn’t given an identity or any personal development they are just an ‘other’. They are there to either make the protagonist look caring or the ‘other’ look inhuman. A signpost for the outliers of society. A freakshow and an inmate of Bedlam on display. I was not myself at that moment I was someone with autism being autistic and having an autistic meltdown. I am not proud to admit it and it is a learning experience for me, but I did hate that feeling of being autistic.

Another clear experience of a meltdown happened during my teacher training year. The stress of the work, of home and of finances all overwhelmed me. I remember shouting at my wife and, because I could not find something, storming around the house like an angry giant. In frustration I slammed the draw of my desk a little too hard and the drawer fell apart. I didn’t do it to scare anyone or as a failed display of “ooh, look aren’t I tough” machismo as I was on my own. I just couldn’t think of another way to release the frustration that I felt. I doubt I was thinking, if I was thinking at all rationally, at the time “I will smash this desk and that will make me feel better”. I just hit out at an inanimate object. There is some discussion to be had here about male responses to frustration and a lack of emotional vocabulary leading to a violent outcomes. Is it because I am male that meant I couldn’t handle what I was feeling and as a result needed to lash out? Or is it because I am autistic that meant I didn’t understand what I was feeling which then caused me to lash out?

A podcast I have started to listen to called, “Oh, That’s Just My Autism” by Melissa Tacia, describes her own meltdowns as including some aspects of violence. In her case “punching holes in a wall” when she was having a meltdown. I have worked in Special Educational Needs Schools where children who are going through a meltdown are placed in a smaller room which allows them to lash out safely. So, there may be some connection between a meltdown and violence. Personally, I think that the causes of the violence – the slammed desks, the punched walls and the destroyed classrooms are borne out of an inability to express what is being felt. A lack of emotional intelligence or vocabulary that end ups being focused on an object. This object, in my own case my desk, becomes a stand in for all the frustration, stress, irritation and anger. It becomes a conduit through which these emotions can be focused. I have read that some people with autism can become physically violent to people in their lives – their parents, carers and families. This I do not excuse or condone whatsoever but I am trying to explain. Hurting other people will never stop you from hurting or being frustrated.

This article, Autistic adults have meltdowns too  « AutismMumma, discuss how terrifying a meltdown can be for other people. And my own wife has said that when I do go into a meltdown she finds it incredibly scary. The thought that I would make my wife or child feel this way is not one that I am comfortable with. At all. I despise that something that I do causes the people that I love to feel frightened. My wife has said that she doesn’t worry for her safety or that of my son at all. However, it just isn’t who I want to be or how I want my family to feel.

My own precursors to a meltdown include the following: I start to become snappy at my wife and irritable with the boy. I complain about not getting enough help around the house – this is particularly egocentric and short sighted of me – and that everything starts to pile on top of me. I cannot focus on what I am watching or reading so channel hop or just have a book on my lap, unopened. A signal of intent that I do not follow through on. This then leads to me becoming more irritable. I will look at the house and say it is too messy, or something is too loud, or that I have too much to do, or too much to think about, or I am making too many mistakes, or I am failing too many parts of my life. My wife will then tell me that something is building up and I will tell her that it isn’t. Deny, deny, deny. Then I will go off on the deep end and either have a full meltdown or sink into myself and feel depressed. The more I think about it the more I think that prolonged periods of depression are really meltdowns I have not been able to process. That and depression.

Neuro-normative people have learned strategies to blow off steam and avoid this melt downs. Maybe they go for a walk, get drunk, play an instrument or sport or just talk about how they feel. This release allows them to balance out and avoid feeling like everything is on top of them. Or maybe, they see a messy house, hear a too noisy room and think “I will do that later”, “it isn’t that much of a big deal and I will be away from the noise soon”. They can explain, express and understand the world in a way that a neuro-divergent person finds difficult. So what does this mean for me and other neuro-divergent people? Do we have to accept that melt downs are consistent part of life? Do we have to learn coping strategies that become another form of masking? Or, is there a way that we can learn to recognise the signs and learn what we need to get through them. I do think they will continue to be part of my life and navigating them will always be a challenge for me.

If you have experience of meltdowns, let me know in the comments below. If there is anything you want me to talk about let me know below.


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