Note: Adapted from the article from the Aspergian and related to my last meltdown
It wasn’t a bad day, in fact it was pretty good. I had worked out earlier in the day and it stormed in the morning, later I would learn that my parents had issues with their broadband service.
They had called our provider, who by far is the best in the region. They came out and had seemed to repair the issue. Later, we discovered that the Internet was not working after my mother was told that she needed a new router.
In the process of reconnecting, we discovered this and as such had to call the broadband provider again, which they are very nice. After troubleshooting, which when they are over 100 miles away they do their best given all the advances in technology a small provider has, although because of one thing or another we were not having success.
But lo and behold, they put it on and I started getting irrate. I couldn’t even feel it coming on. I was cursing, I was stomping around slamming doors. I said irrational things like “I needed to cancel all my serice (although I don’t live with my parents) and that the person on the phone needs to “pay.”
Of course they scheduled a service call, but the damage had already been done. I was crying, cursing, screaming… I was having what many autistic people described as a meltdown.
After the fact, I could reflect a little more about why that event was so triggering. Because I had mentioned the “Time Tunnel” and then being told it isnt true, I was continuing to be mad, however I spent the rest of our visit telling the truth about the past year.
Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines a meltdown as a breakdown from fatigue or overstimulation. It’s a good starting place to describe what exactly is happening. The Interactive Autism Network describes a meltdown as an “instability.”
Think of it like this: you’re working with a computer, and you’re giving it too many commands at once. What does the computer do?
At first, it kind of shuts down. It doesn’t respond to any of the input that you’re sending to it. But then something interesting happens: everything starts flashing, windows start opening and closing all at once, maybe keyboard strokes from moments ago start appearing on the screen.
You can say the computer has reached an instability and is responding as best it can to all of the input that it has received. That’s kind of what it is like in the autistic mind when a meltdown occurs. The whole system– not just the brain– becomes overwhelmed. This can happen for many reasons; for instance, in my situation last week, it happened because I had the best intentions and had planned something to happen. What actually happened was totally contrary to what I expected… thus: meltdown.
It can be very difficult for neurotypical people to understand exactly what’s going on during a meltdown. They can also be difficult to describe as every autistic person experiences meltdowns slightly differently.
When I feel one coming, it’s like mental pressure building, my movements become more agitated and jerky.
The fact is, meltdowns are not something that we choose to do. These aren’t just emotional reactions to not getting our way. They’re not tantrums, not even in children. They are very much an overloading of our mental circuity.
What is the way forward? What is the best way to deal with meltdowns? It’s all about putting more tools in your tool chest. Knowing your own personal signs and triggers, knowing what it feels like before having a meltdown, will help you be able to prevent them.
If you’re autistic, you need to know it’s okay to to set healthy boundaries for your loved ones by making it clear that you might need to wear ear plugs or sun glasses, stim to help regulate your nervous system, decline some invitations, or take social breaks during events.
If you are a loved one of someone who is autistic, be gentle and kind while the person is having a meltdown and after. Often, they need space. When the person is calm and having a good day would be a good time to talk about how you can best support them when they feel meltdowns coming on, during a meltdown, and afterwards.
Also I think that practicing radical acceptance is key–not only for autistic loved ones, but for those of us on the spectrum, as well. I am autistic and just as much as my ability to pay attention to details is a part of who I am, meltdowns are also a part of who I am. I can get better at avoiding them, but overwhelm will still happen.
It doesn’t make me a bad person, it just makes me autistic. I tend to be a spiritual person, so I see myself exactly as God planned me to be. Learning how to accept and embrace my autistic self– that is my life’s goal.