Concerning social anxiety and meltdowns…

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?

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16 Comments

Filed under About Asperger's Syndrome, Disability, Social Interaction

16 responses to “Concerning social anxiety and meltdowns…

  1. drgrcevich

    Great post, Carlyle!

    From a clinical standpoint, I see this quite often in our patients with Asperger’s, as well as in kids with OCD and other anxiety disorders characterized by lots of perseveration upon unpleasant thoughts. In kids with Asperger’s, the use of medication to treat ADHD often exacerbates meltdowns…when folks prone to distraction aren’t distracted any more, they tend to become intensely more aware of unpleasant or distressing thoughts and have a much harder time letting go of those thoughts…worsening the informational or emotional overload you describe.

    For my patients prone to meltdowns, I find that “busy is better.” The more folks have to occupy their minds, the less likely they are to get stuck on the distressing thoughts that leads to meltdowns. Social isolation results in my patients having too much time to dwell on painful thoughts and emotions. That’s another reason why it’s especially important that Christians be inclusive in creating welcoming environments for persons with Asperger’s.

    • Thanks, doc. You just described one reason why I chose to stop taking meds. (For those reading this and thinking the same thing, please discuss with your doc so you can make an informed decision. I did.) For me, they helped in some ways and hurt in others. I actually think one of my meds contributed to my worst meltdown in the last few years. Your last paragraph agrees with my experience. In particular, I find that I’m less prone to have a meltdown in an environment where I feel loved and accepted. I’m also much quicker to recover when a person I feel loved and accepted by stands or sits close to me.

  2. Lisa Monzon

    I need to show this to my husband. When we are in social situations, especially with his rather large and noisy family, I sometimes just have to leave. It is time, and that is all there is – if we don’t leave, I will lose it. That’s what I call it – but meltdown is accurate too. I can tell when this type of episode is coming, because I suddenly feel totally exhausted, and then, I lost control emotionally. My husband is very social, and so there have been fights over this – he thinks I’m being mean or something. It’s like falling off a cliff – once started, it doesn’t stop until I’ve landed.

    • It hurts when you hit the bottom, too. 😦

      • Lisa Monzon

        Does it ever!

      • Lisa Monzon

        I do have to say, my husband has learned, just in the past year or two, to take me seriously when I say “we have to leave now.” He doesn’t put up a fight anymore, and we leave very soon after I say it’s time. I remember our first trip together; he introduced me to about 10 new people in a single day. I said “if I have to meet anyone else, I’m going to cry.” At that exact moment, his brother, whom I had yet to meet, came in. I shook hands with him while tears poured down my cheeks. He was taken aback, as was I. I had no idea what was “wrong” with me at that point in my life. I came out to him, my brother in law, on Christmas day – he had a kind of “aha!” look in his eyes.

      • To her credit, my wife has never pushed me to be social. Since my diagnosis, though, she has planned escape routes and hiding places for me. She has also done an excellent job of explaining it all to her family.

    • grace&marlin

      I am researching this because my daughter just had a meltdown after a few days with relatives….she started talking about suicide even! I sent her one of the relatives’ apartment by herself…..she watched a movie and was able to calm down….but it’s good to read that others have similar problems with family gatherings….I’m outgoing, but a couple of my children are ultra-introverts.

  3. Wow I see so many parallels between Aspie meltdowns and the ones I have due to my MS fatigue. I get so tiered and sometimes just get so emotionally overloaded I burst into tears for no reason. And all I need is to sit and rest with people who love me and understand. So I totally understand what can happen to youwhen you have a meltdown. I just wish I was closer so I could sit with you and help when yer having a meltdown. I am so glad you have your wife with you to help. 🙂

  4. Sal

    Carlyle,

    This is a great write up! Very helpful for NTs that care about Aspie friends. Helping us understand and know what to do to be helpful in situations is an awesome benefit of your blog. Keep this conversation going!

  5. Katie Fox

    Yes, it is helpful! Thank you for helping me to understand the need for an aspie to “get away”. Since I tend to be a “fixer” I would most likely try to follow and “help” to make the aspie feel better! Knowing this, helps me to know how to actually help! I do have a question, though, where children are concerned (C – you know why). How would I know the best escape for an aspie child? I would tend to agree that I have found myself “badmouthing” parents with “naughty” children who are throwing tantrums. Personally, I would not think an adult who “loses it” is throwing a tantrum, but with a child, what would be the best way to handle such an outbreak? If I were the caretaker of a child who is having a meltdown, I can’t just leave them alone in certain settings. If trying to talk calmly to the child results in more harm, then I am at a loss…

    • I think it really depends on the child and what can be changed about the situation. I think you’ve already seen that I’m not easily distracted when I’m falling apart, but as a mom, I think you know that kids can often be easily distracted. With that in mind, if you were dealing with me when I was a child you could try distracting me or removing me from the situation. Of course, neither of those would necessarily get me to stop immediately. I would like to point out that, as a child, I never felt I had much choice or influence on my situation. As an adult, I can often remove myself from what’s bothering me. That actually makes things easier. One way to accomplish this for a child at home is to designate a safe place for the child, so the child can go there and get away from everything when needed. Liane Willey (author of Pretending to be Normal) recommended that, though I can’t recall exactly where at the moment.

  6. Katie Fox

    Thank you ~ that does help and just may come in handy! I know that with my neurotypical children, I have always made it clear that their room is their safe haven and often times, I would find my son in there just playing and being happy in his own environment. There were other places that were for punishment – so that makes sense!

  7. Debbie

    Thank you for posting! I have an 8 year-old Daughter with Autism and I am finding information like this helps me understand what is happening with her and what I can do to help her.

  8. Very interesting and very helpful thank you for posting xx

  9. Karla

    I would like to talk to someone pretty much anyone via e-mail about my issues with a boyfriend of nearly 2 yrs who has been diagnosed with Aspergers in December of 2012. He’s been talking marriage but my therapist and friends say get out.

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