Where do I even begin with this one? I’m sure that many of my followers already know that I have Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, from reading two of my previous articles: one where I debunk myths about autism, and one where I explain the hardships I faced when growing up with autism and how I overcame such hardships. If you haven’t already seen those articles, you can find them here: https://untamesaluki.wordpress.com/2015/01/20/experiences-of-an-aspie-blogger-4-reasons-why-being-an-aspie-child-sucks-and-why-it-gets-better-in-adulthood/ and here: https://untamesaluki.wordpress.com/2014/12/21/experiences-of-an-autistic-blogger-myths-about-autism-and-why-theyre-bs/ Some readers won’t even know what the hell I mean by “autistic meltdowns.” In terms of autism, a meltdown is a period of time where a child (sometimes even an adult) with autism has a strong, negative emotional reaction to stimuli. A stereotypical meltdown is hard to miss–basically, it’s when the child appears to be throwing a tantrum. The most obvious outward behaviors are thrashing about, screaming, crying, stomping, and flailing her arms about. Most neurotypicals (an actual term for people without autism, for those of you not close to the autism community) don’t like meltdowns. They’re loud. They’re obnoxious. And for god’s sake, you’re trying to enjoy a romantic meal or a walk in the arboretum. We get it. But meltdowns aren’t any more fun for us than they are for you, and if we could help it, we would. When we’re melting down, we’re not just looking for attention or trying to get on your nerves. Fortunately, as an adult, I rarely ever have meltdowns anymore. When I do have meltdowns, or if I feel one coming on, I developed methods and tools in order to calm myself down. I’m hoping that as I get older, I’ll eventually stop having meltdowns altogether, or at least get even better at managing them, so that I don’t have such outrageous reactions. In order to be able to fully explain a meltdown, I must first talk about how autism biologically manifests itself in the brain.
The truth is, there are very few, if any, structural differences between an autistic brain and a neurotypical one. An autistic brain is about the same size as a neurotypical brain, and in pictures, it’s hard to see any differences. However, a scan of the activity of the brain reveals the main anatomical difference between one with autism and one without: the electrical activity isn’t the same.
The shocking fact (terrible pun absolutely intended) is that the brain of a person with autism has much more electrical activity than a normal brain. One of the results of this is that it’s easy to overstimulate such a brain. The autism community often talks about “sensory overload.” The mind of a person with autism can simply shut down because the sights, sounds, smells, and even textures of certain things combined are just too much to process. It’s also entirely possible for a child with autism to have a meltdown due to being emotionally overwhelmed. In my case, meltdowns usually happen when I feel a powerful sense of sadness, anger, or even guilt. That is the cause of a meltdown: the person is overwhelmed, either due to strong emotion or too much sensory input. As I said before, an Aspie having a meltdown is not trying to piss you off. She’s instead having an extreme emotional and physical reaction to something that is genuinely devastating her brain. Unfortunately, when faced with an autistic child having a meltdown, many parents, teachers, and similar figures will reprimand or punish the child, because they think that the child is just misbehaving. A meltdown is more complicated than that. Meltdowns are every bit as painful for us to experience as they are for you to listen to–if not maybe even more so. It’s not healthy or ideal to punish an autistic child having a meltdown. There’s a three-letter word that teachers and parents often throw around when dealing with autistic children.
That word is “bad.” It can be hard for some people to believe that a shrieking toddler isn’t “bad,” but it’s not. What exactly does the word “bad” mean? “Bad” is a subjective term. The dictionary lists many definitions for the word “bad.” In the way it’s used to describe a person, dictionary.com defines bad as “having a wicked or evil character; morally reprehensible.” Does having a meltdown really make someone “morally reprehensible?” Is it a sign that they have “a wicked or evil character?” Some people may interpret that definition in ways different than I would, but I consider a “bad” person to be someone who deliberately causes pain to others, either because they benefit financially/gain power (politicians lying to get more votes, puppy mills over-breeding for profit, big corporations shutting down US factories and saving money by taking advantage of impoverished people in developing countries) or simply because they derive pleasure from such actions (setting up a cock fighting ring for entertainment, raping someone for sexual pleasure, a serial killer chopping up body parts for enjoyment.) An autistic child having a meltdown doesn’t fit into either category.
So, what does a meltdown feel like?
“Meltdown” is a pretty apt term, because it feels something like this:
As melodramatic as it sounds, whenever a person with autism has a meltdown, it feels like the apocalypse. It’s the overwhelming feeling that death is upon us all, or at least me. It’s as if the gods have written some kind of horrible fate for me to just be consumed by fiery anger or black sadness. It feels like being lost, abandoned, or in a train wreck. The first stage of a meltdown is when the emotional tide is coming in, washing over me, and I feel as though I am drowning. I swim against the current, but it’s too strong, and my efforts are futile. It may appear to be that the meltdown was caused by something stupid, like someone yelling at me or my medication missing, but it’s actually a combination of the event that seemed to cause it and other things earlier in the day that have stressed me out, up to that moment, until I reach my breaking point. That’s why most of my meltdowns take place at night or in the late afternoon. Then, my body heats up. My face and arms turn red, because my blood flow is becoming heavy. As if I actually was drowning, like in my passage above, my breathing becomes rapid and shallow. Then the tears arrive. My heart will beat rapidly and so hard that I almost feel like my pulse is actually moving my body, and it actually feels like my heart might rupture. Sometimes I experience heart palpitations, where I almost feel as if my heart stops, squeezes really hard but isn’t really beating, and then restarts. My muscles begin to shake uncontrollably. During a particularly bad meltdown, I might feel dizzy, nauseous, or get a headache. The day after having a meltdown, I will usually wake up with muscles still tense, especially if the meltdown took place at night, kind of like how your muscles might feel sore, stiff, or tight after a long workout or period of high stress. When the meltdown is over, I have reduced feelings of happiness. I’m usually quite a happy person. After a meltdown, however, I usually feel so-so, but leaning more on the unhappy side. I will feel drained of energy; having a meltdown sucks a lot of energy out if you, and it takes time to recharge. Post-meltdown, I feel embarrassed and ashamed. Well, how does an authority figure dealing with an Aspie, or someone who’s an Aspie herself, handle a meltdown? The good news is that I have tips for those on both sides of the meltdown.
For Neurotypical Parents/Teachers:
Don’t punish or yell at the child.
The worst thing you can do when faced with an autistic meltdown is punish the child. It may seem ridiculous to suggest that the child shouldn’t be punished, but in actuality, he’s not doing anything wrong. Punishing the child will only damage his self-esteem by causing him to think that when he’s dealing with something he can’t understand and doesn’t know how to cope with, he’s being bad. Then, you end up with a child who thinks that something is wrong with him.
Don’t comfort the child–keep Pavlovian Conditioning in mind.
This may seem to conflict with the previous tip. “First you’re telling me I’m not allowed to spank my kid, yell at my kid, or lock my kid in a closet, and now you’re saying that I can’t give him a nice hug and a ‘There, there, it’ll be okay’”? You have to keep in mind Pavlovian conditioning. The goal is to reduce the number of meltdowns the child has, as well as to help the child find ways to handle meltdowns. Comforting the child actually reinforces the behaviors you want to get rid of.
Keep your vocabulary varied.
Pavlovian conditioning is also a reason to keep your vocabulary varied. If you keep using the same words and phrases when dealing with the child, eventually she’ll learn to associate those words and phrases with meltdowns, to the point where hearing them not only stress her out and make her uncomfortable, but may even trigger meltdowns. In my case, there are certain words and phrases that family members, peers, and teachers commonly used whenever I had meltdowns that sometimes stress me out, and if I’m already stressed enough, can cause meltdowns. Such phrases include “let it go,” “shut up,” “shut your mouth,” “don’t start,” “behave yourself,” and “control yourself.” Raised voices also make me nervous.
Give pet therapy a go.
In my opinion, animals are better than humans. There’s a reason why hospitals, nursing homes, and other services hire therapy animals. Even the nicest human in the world is less compassionate and more judgmental than pets. I went to a school for kids with Asperger’s, and they had therapy dogs. I enjoyed playing and interacting with the dogs. I linked a video of a dog helping an autistic woman through a meltdown. Of course, dogs are a lot of work and aren’t for everyone. Good news! There are lots of other kinds of animals used for similar purposes. I’ve read about therapy cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, horses, goats, donkeys, and even llamas. You can also create a nice, scenic fish tank. Although your child can’t necessarily interact with fish the same way he can interact with a dog or cat, simply looking at beautiful, colorful fish swimming around in their aquarium without a care in the world can be comforting and therapeutic.
Find a therapist.
Preferably, find a therapist experienced with autism and Asperger’s. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is particularly effective. CBT teaches the client to alter the pattern of their thoughts, and consequently, their behavior, in order to get himself into an ideal mental state.
For Autistics Plagued with Meltdowns
If you can, get away from others as soon as you feel a meltdown coming on.
Meltdowns are a phenomenon that most people don’t understand. To the layman, it looks like you’re just freaking out over something silly, but it’s much more complicated than that. The last thing you need when having a meltdown is someone yelling obscenities at you, telling you to grow up, or laughing at you. If you can, get away from the people around you as soon as you can.
Talk to someone you trust.
Of course, the whole world isn’t against you. Find someone you really trust–a family member, a friend, a coworker, or anyone you have a close relationship with who will understand and not be rude about it. Sometimes, just venting and having a pair of ears to listen is all the help you need. In the section with advice for neurotypical parents and teachers, I also mentioned pet therapy. If you have the time and money to do so, consider going to your local animal shelter and adopting a new best friend who will offer you nonjudgmental support that no human will ever give you.
Develop a sense of humor about it.
This is much easier said than done, but I promise you that it’s worth the effort. “Yeah, I have autistic meltdowns. Your ass looks fat in those jeans, and poor old Amal can’t catch a break because people won’t leave her alone since she married George. We all have problems.”
Find a distraction.
Read a book. Watch TV. Listen to music. Take a walk–along with a distraction, exercise is a good way to reduce stress. Something humorous might put you in a better mood. Instead of reading the Warriors series, read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Instead of watching the news, watch South Park. Instead of listening to Guns n Roses, listen to Weird Al Yankovic.
Taking advantage of your creative talents are an excellent way to let out some steam and show the world how you really feel. Are you a musician? Write a song. Are you an artist? Paint a picture. Many of my darker poems and even parts of my novel were written when I was in the midst of a meltdown. I even wrote a poem about autistic meltdowns.
Understand that it’s not your fault.
In a society that looks down on people with autism and tries to discipline children for having meltdowns, it’s too easy to fall into the trap of shame. Too many people with autism, myself included, have struggled with the notion authority figures plant in our heads from an early age: “Your behavior is bad and you should feel bad.” You have to remember that your behavior is caused simply by being overwhelmed, and there are ways to control it.