The Dreaded Meltdown
Parents of autistic kids speak the word in hushed tones, afraid of invoking the beast. Autistic adults can feel them coming on, but often don’t know how to stop them or ride them out. We all hate the thought of a meltdown happening in public.
What Is an Autistic Meltdown?
Simply put, a meltdown is what happens when our brains are overloaded to the point that we are unable to function. They can involve inconsolable crying, an inability to speak or move, screaming, or other uncontrolled behavior.
The keyword here is uncontrolled. Meltdowns are never on purpose – they are always a loss of control caused by sensory overload or another kind of overwhelm.
I’ve often wondered if meltdowns might be neurologically similar to seizures, but as far as I know, there haven’t been any studies done comparing the two.
Meltdowns Are Not Tantrums
The biggest misconception among parents and caregivers of autistic people is that meltdowns are tantrums. This could not be further from the truth. A tantrum is purposeful and has an end goal. A meltdown is an outward expression of not being able to cope – there is no goal to a meltdown, no distracting or placating the person out of it. They have reached their breaking point and they just have to put themselves back together again.
We Hate Them, Too
Meltdowns are hell.
We may thrash, scream, rock, or do any number of things that leave us in pain afterward. In a full-on meltdown, I’ve wrapped my arms around myself so tightly that I was sore for two days – I couldn’t even get my arms that far around my body on a normal day. On another occasion, I rocked so hard against a wall that I bruised my back. I’ve cried so hard that I couldn’t breathe, or I ended up giving myself a migraine. After a meltdown, we have to recover physically as well as psychologically and emotionally.
Meltdowns are humiliating.
Louder for the people in the back – Meltdowns. Are. Humiliating!
Once we cross the edge into a meltdown, there is no going back. We can’t “calm down”, despite people telling us to do so – sometimes yelling at us to calm down (tell me how that makes sense). We may lose the ability to speak, which leaves us unable to ask for help or to explain anything. As our brain shuts down, we may lose coordination, we may collapse to our knees or curl up in a ball, and our senses may dull or shut down in self-defense. In short, we become a helpless, incoherent, sobbing, shuddering mess. Nobody wants to be seen in that condition!
A public meltdown is an autistic adult’s worst nightmare. The shame of losing control can be almost as overwhelming as what triggered the meltdown in the first place. Autistic children are embarrassed by public meltdowns, too. They know how other people react to them, even if they themselves are non-verbal.
Ways To Head Off Meltdowns
There are ways to help prevent autistic meltdowns. It’s a very simple equation: if we don’t get overwhelmed, we don’t have meltdowns. So keeping stress levels low is key.
Stimming is a great way to keep our stress levels down. As an autistic adult, you can work stimming into your workday to stay on an even keel. For an autistic child, encouraging a stim like petting a stuffed animal or rocking can help them stay regulated.
Sensory-oriented products like weighted blankets, compression vests, sensory swings, etc., can also help us calm down before we reach meltdown levels. Speaking for myself, my weighted blanket is instantly soothing and a few minutes on a swing set is like gold! If I can’t get either of those, rubbing a GoodFeel texture like fleece or something else soft is helpful. Most of my wardrobe is now made up of GoodFeel fabrics, so I’ve almost always got something on me to stim with.
If we’re heading into an overstimulating environment, it helps us to be prepared. Surprises are a form of overwhelm in themselves, so the more we know what to expect, the calmer we can be. Autistic adults can research the place, the agenda, the entertainment, the food, and make contingency plans for themselves. Autistic kids may ask a million questions about where we’re going, what will it be like, how many people will be there, what will happen, etc. We don’t do it to be annoying, we’re trying to prepare ourselves! We need to know if we might encounter crowds, loud music or noises, bright lights, or other sensory issues.
And a note to friends of autistic adults – don’t assume that we know that a tourist area will be loud and bright, or that there will be crowds because we’re going to a popular place. If we’ve never seen a place before, we have only a blank slate in our imagination. Berating us for not being able to handle what we didn’t know we would be facing is cruel and verges on gaslighting.
How To Survive the Dreaded Meltdown
So you’ve done your best to hold it together, but something happened or it just built up, and you can feel a meltdown coming on. It’s going to happen whether you like it or not. What now?
Get somewhere safe.
If at all possible, go home. Stimming can help to hold it off until you can get to a safe, familiar place where you can fall apart and recover in peace. Surround yourself with things you can’t break, grab a pillow to scream into or beat to a pulp, maybe squeeze yourself into a small space if that’s a comforting thing for you. Leave your phone and other electronics out of arms’ reach if you’re prone to throwing things and make sure other people know to leave you alone.
Let it happen.
Once you’re in a safe place, don’t fight it. Your brain is like a frozen computer, forever spinning that little circle of death, and it needs to reboot. Let your body express what your brain can’t – scream, cry, rock, kick – just try to aim any destructiveness toward soft inanimate things instead of yourself. Ride it out, knowing that it will pass and you will be ok afterward.
When you come down, you’ll probably be a little out of it. Don’t rush yourself. When you feel able, get some water – you’ve probably cried a lot – and eat a little bit if you find you’re hungry. Breathe deeply and evenly. You might want to go directly to sleep; if you can, go for it! Sleep will help your brain reset. Otherwise, keep the lights dim and your environment quiet while you recover. Maybe put on some comforting music or TV (I like cartoons for this or TV or audiobooks with British accents). After a while, you’ll feel like yourself again and you can go on with your life.
Meltdowns are awful, but they’re part of life as an autistic person. You can work to prevent them, but they’ll happen every once in a while no matter how good you are. Sometimes, our brains just have to reboot. It’s ok, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of it, any more than a diabetic should be ashamed of having a blood sugar crash.
Let’s get a list of meltdown coping tips in the comments! What do you do to get through them or head them off? Do you have a “meltdown corner” in your home? I’ve considered setting one up myself. The first thing to go in my meltdowns is my speech, although I can still write, sign or type – which senses or abilities go on the fritz for you?