One of my Facebook family asked me to write this and I wondered why I have never written on this topic before given it can be such a huge challenge. The issue, for want of a better word, is ‘meltdowns.’ And if people have a better and less alarmist name for it please let me know.
What is a ‘meltdown?’ My understanding is that it is the result of an overland of information, sensory and social input and / or emotions. A person can only experience so much overload before it takes hold and they express it in a way which can be distressing for people – and it is often most distressing for the person having the ‘meltdown’. I am yet to meet an autistic person who feels OK about meltdowns. When we have one we regret it and really don’t want to have another one. We often worry about loss of reputation because meltdowns are poorly understood, even by those who work with autistic people. Wider society has some very dark views about ‘meltdowns’.
A ‘meltdown’ is basically what happens when there is too much difficult or stressful input coming in and not enough time or opportunity to deescalate the issues before they come to a head. A meltdown is not the fault of the person having it. It is not intentional poor behaviour and it is not a ‘tantrum’ designed to get attention or force a decision. Generally autistic people are not intentionally manipulative, even if some people believe that our behaviour is manipulation.
For me, when I have one I became very stressed and emotional, paranoid at friends I usually like and angry. It is almost impossible to control how I respond to the overload once I am in that state. Thankfully I tend to only have meltdowns when I am around people that understand me so it is easier to work through afterwards. On one occasion I had one at work which was very challenging. Even though I am an autistic advocate so am usually articulate when speaking of such things, I wound it very hard to explain what had happened and felt quite guilty.
When I was a kid I had meltdowns on occasion. This was in the early 1980s so the understanding of autism was pretty much zero. I wouldn’t gain a diagnosis until 1994. When I had a meltdown it was viewed as me being pushy or difficult. So I decided not to have them. This might sound like a positive thing but it really wasn’t. Over the six years I was in high school I squashed down my overload, so the metaphorical ‘tank’ just got more and more crammed with stress and I didn’t release it. I was bullied badly all through high school but I kept my metaphorical emotional drill sergeant on patrol and didn’t let anything out. If any of you have read my autobiography about the hell I went through in my twenties you will get an idea of what that approach did to me. When I finally released the pressure it basically propelled me into several years of chaos. I cannot speak for others but this does make me think that if the level of overload is there, suppressing it may not be a good idea.
‘Meltdowns’ are one of those areas where autistic people can be viewed as ‘other’ and distant form the rest of the humans. I den’t think that is the case at all. I think autistics feel, see and experience things on a very heightened level a lot of the time. Our senses are often highly tuned, our thinking is often at a heightened level, we tend to worry and ‘overthink’. Put someone experiencing that into a world where they might be mistreated, ostracised and bullied, where things don’t always make a lot of sense and where we are not respected or listened to…well it’s no wonder the overload can turn into something like ‘meltdown’.
What is the solution? I know a lot of autistic people who are terrified of having meltdowns in public or at work or school, and with good reason. Meltdown is not well understood by most people it seems. I even attended an autism event once where the wife of an autistic man gave a presentation about his meltdowns and talked about him like he was an errant child! In practical, immediate terms, learning your triggers and some deescalation strategies can really help. More broadly, if people understood the reasons for a meltdown, if people understood autistic experience better and were more understanding and respectful, I think the issue would be less challenging for us. If we lived in a genuinely ‘autism-friendly’ world, there would be more of a chance to avoid or deescalate overload before it got to the critical point. And if we knew that people would understand meltdown better and the reasons for it and not judge us then even if we had one at work or at school or in public it wouldn’t be such a mortifying moment because – as I do when I have meltdown in front of friends I trust – people would understand and not judge so much. Yep, neurodiversity can do a lot of good stuff. Let’s just make a more respectful world where people understand us.