Recently, in an online group of adult aspies I belong to, meltdowns have been a topic of discussion. This is a very serious aspect of Asperger’s syndrome that can create tremendous social struggles. It is among the reasons some adult aspies fear to leave their homes. With the permission and encouragement of the other members of that group, I’m going to use some of the insights from that discussion, as well as my own experience, to help my readers understand meltdowns and how they relate to the social anxiety so many aspies experience.
I want to begin by defining what a meltdown is. According to Merriam-Webster, the definition that best fits what I am describing is “a breakdown of self-control (as from fatigue or overstimulation).” Notice that it does not reference autism or Asperger’s syndrome. I believe it is possible for anyone to experience a meltdown. As I told a neurotypical friend not long ago, I believe anyone would display the same behaviors after being tortured sufficiently. Also, notice that a meltdown is different from a tantrum, though they may look similar, especially in children. The purpose of a tantrum is to manipulate, as most parents are well aware. A child throwing a tantrum will stop once they get what they want. A child having a meltdown is not really concerned with your response to the behavior. The only thing on that child’s mind is the condition that triggered the meltdown. The meltdown will continue until the child recovers from it, which won’t happen unless the condition that triggered it is changed or removed, or the child is distracted from it. The same is true of adults.
What triggers a meltdown may vary from person to person, but there are some themes that came up in my discussion with other aspies. All of us mentioned some form of sensory overload as a trigger, though some of us expressed specific sensitivity to different things. Also mentioned were forms of information or emotional overload. Here are some specific examples from our discussion: sudden or repetitive loud noises, high-pitched noises, flickering (or fluorescent) lights, bright lights, unexpected changes, disruptions in routine, crowds, other people getting too close, and more information or emotional data coming in than one can easily process. This is not an exhaustive list, and it should be noted that triggers may vary between individuals. I, for example, enjoy the sound of a motorcycle, while many aspies will struggle with it. If there is an aspie in your life that you care about, it is a good idea to learn what his or her triggers are, as well as to identify signs that a meltdown is approaching. You just might be able to help…
I believe most of us aspies are aware when we are approaching meltdown, but if we see no immediate way to change or get away from the trigger, we will likely feel helpless, which only makes things worse. Below are some descriptions of how it feels from some of my aspie friends:
“I get tense. My answers go from overly verbose to overly terse. My breathing changes, my jaw starts to clench and I get stomach cramps. Recognizing all these symptoms has helped me avoid major meltdowns for several years now, but not always- sometimes they still sneak in. I will become forgetful about things I shouldn’t such as eating, drinking water or even going to the bathroom!”
“I’ve sometimes predicted meltdowns an hour before they even happen because I can ‘feel’ when something bad’s about to happen. later warning signs include pacing back and forth, uneasiness, headaches/stomachaches, sweating, and one time I even fainted.”
“For me it feels like most people describe as a panic attack – stomach aches, trembling, trouble breathing and then feel like crying. I feel like I have to escape the area and hide by myself – I get really stand-offish and I also forget to eat, sleep or do basic things that I need to.”
“I freeze, just stop functioning if it’s really bad, and I feel like I’m so panicky I’m going to explode. I pace, I rock, I flap (my ‘flapping’ is actually with clenched fists.) Sometimes the stimming helps dispel the energy. I can’t talk.”
“I feel suddenly overwhelmed, my heart rate speeds up, I start to breathe fast, feel very panicky, lose any ability to speak coherently or at all, and all I want is to get out of there FAST. Sometimes I burst into tears. It’s a horrible feeling.”
As you can see, the descriptions are very similar, and they give some clues as to external behavior you can watch for. Pacing, shaking, and becoming unusually quiet are external signs many of my aspie friends mentioned. Another friend of mine mentioned that people have told him they feel uneasy and intimidated when he approaches meltdown. I’ve heard similar about myself. I can assure you that I will not intentionally hurt anyone, but if you feel that way with me and are unsure how to handle the situation, I would suggest that giving me some space and a bit of quiet is probably the best course. I am very open to discussing this with others, though, and I have made a few people close to me aware of what triggers I struggle with, what signs to watch for, and how to help me recover. I strongly encourage you to discuss this with any aspies you care about. I also encourage my fellow aspies to open up to their friends. It has helped me tremendously.
I hope at this point that my readers understand that this is a real struggle and one that we can’t always control. It’s certainly not something we choose to do, and the fact that you may not see or understand the trigger doesn’t make it any less real. Many of us are afraid to leave our homes because we may find ourselves falling apart in an unfamiliar situation with no help in sight. Call me nuts (many aspies will), but I’m sometimes willing to risk it, and I have had meltdowns around other people. Some people have helped me when I needed it, and others were less kind. I suppose the bright side is that I know who my real friends are, and I hope other aspies are encouraged to step out into this messy world. On behalf of those that do, I’d like to say that I don’t believe anyone should have to apologize for a disability. I don’t think any person with a heart would expect, much less demand, an apology from a wheelchair user who needs a door held. I have two arms, but I think any person with a heart would be willing to offer brief assistance after I explain that my left arm is paralyzed. In the same sense, I believe a person who feels offended by the behavior of an aspie having a meltdown should be willing to understand after being given an explanation. To those who disagree, I ask: What if it were you?