Autism And Meltdowns

Before I start writing this blog I need to define exactly what I mean when I use the word ‘meltdown.’

Meltdown: is usually the result of sensory overload and the resulting behaviour is as a response to this overload. This can be uncontrolled and forms of behaviour can take bursts of anger, physical expressions of upset (lying on the floor, lashing out etc) and also inward responses such as situational mutism. Both inward and outward responses often result in the person having the meltdown and being unable to communicate their feelings and needs. 

Tantrum: an uncontrolled outburst of anger and/or frustration as a result of a need or want that isn’t forthcoming. Tantrums are usually short-lived (I do say usually because there are always exceptions) and can be calmed when the need or want is met and/or explanations are given as to why the need/want cannot be met. 

You can see that they are both similar when looking from the outside in. For example, a child could be screaming in a supermarket because they want something so much that they can’t have and they react as small children often do to get an adult’s attention, with noise and movement. This works because the parent/carer is likely to be moved into action to solve the problem. 

A meltdown can also manifest itself by screaming and movement, but the need isn’t a ‘thing’ like a book or a toy or not wanting to leave a playdate, it’s the environment and situation causing uncomfortable feelings that the autistic person just cannot get away from (in that instance). These can be sounds, noises, movements, the busyness of the environment, anxiety about what they are doing, not understanding instructions, feeling lonely, really, the list goes on. 

Public meltdowns are judged by society as bad parenting. I’ve heard it myself when people make comments about children who are having difficulties with being in the moment. But I do think that with advent of the autistic community taking more ownership of Autism than ever before and educating the masses through blogs (like this one), discussion groups and forums and also the wearing of lanyards to indicate a neurodivergence, things are slowly changing. 

Autistic people experience meltdowns in different ways, and you may have heard the term ‘fight or flight.’ Personally, I’d like to add ‘freeze’ to the list because my son isn’t a runner or a fighter when things get too much, he will become situationally mute and be unable to verbally communicate. This is every bit as much as a meltdown as one where the person runs away or starts to throw a chair. Often situational mutes are mistaken for children who are just quiet (this is often the comment from my son’s teachers) but the huge, apparent, change in personality when my son is at home -he’s loud, energetic, makes random noises and movements, talks nonstop about his hyper focusses etc- show that who he is in school is not who he actually is when all the stress of school life is removed. 

The psychologist who assessed my son commented that more needs to be done when listening to parents when they share how different behaviour is at home than at school. So often it’s seen as a parenting failure, but my son doesn’t have behaviour problems it’s more that he is so much happier, and able to express that, out of school than he is in school. Good behaviour isn’t always good for the pupil, and we must be aware of that. 

My meltdowns are a mixture of fight and freeze (with a little bit of flight occasionally). Depending on who I’m with, where I am and how safe I feel I can react in different ways when it’s all too much. I can become snappy, overly sarcastic (I do lean that way anyway, but I am very ‘pithy’ when I’m overwhelmed) but also explode with large arm movements. It does take a lot for me to explode but when I do it is a little like Vesuvius. 

I know I mask because people often remark on how calm I am which, even after years of this, I am always surprised at. I think of myself as someone who doesn’t cope and is anxious (my overactive brain that will not switch off at 3am tells me I am) but it’s clear that’s not how other people see me. Like my son, I am aware of my differences, and this adds to the feelings of ‘not quite fitting in’ that we both experience.

My son uses the words ‘fear’ and ‘scared’ to describe how it feels (to him) to be overwhelmed. His meltdowns are very much from an anxiety base and knowing this means we can at least try to support him in situations we know he may find difficult. 

I would use the words ‘too much’ and ‘noise’ to describe my meltdowns. Mine are very much sensory based (with a side order of anxiety too) meaning lights, sounds, smells, too many people and disorder are very much my triggers. I find myself, ironically, losing my ability to be able to decode sounds into what they are and what they mean, and it all becomes a bit of a blur. I literally can’t think straight, and I feel I need to escape. I’ve noticed I use my hands and arms to metaphorically ‘push’ away the sounds and other overwhelming feelings (not people though). The picture I’ve chosen for this blog is an excellent visual example of how I feel during a meltdown.

Again, like my son, I know my triggers and are now putting in steps to avoid certain things; use strategies to calm or self-soothe myself or self-advocate for what I might need. I am able to ask for help when I need it and I am happy to say, ‘I’m autistic and could you help me by….’ Having the diagnosis gives me not only a recognisable language in which to express how I feel and what I might need but it also gives me a confidence that no, I’m not going mad as I have often thought in the past. 

Meltdowns form a function for autistic people and this needs to be understood. We aren’t misbehaving and we don’t need more discipline, we need understanding and support to be able to manage the different environments and tasks that we find ourselves in and have been asked to do. A meltdown is a way for the autistic brain to say, 

‘I’ve had enough’, 

‘This is too much’,

‘I need something different’,

‘I may need help’.

Meltdowns aren’t a waste of time but a very effective way to communicate because there’s an honesty in how we feel in that situation and if we are listened to, we can teach those who care for and about us, more about what we need to feel safe, understood and happy. It’s a very basic form of communication that isn’t the way society would want us to communicate, but it is communication all the same. 

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