Meltdowns can be a daily problem for those on the autistic spectrum. But what is a meltdown?
You’ve probably seen a child experiencing a meltdown in public and not realised it. It usually involves screaming, shouting, running away from parents. Unfortunately no amount of reassurance or offers of toys from the parent seem to work. Many people may confuse this with a tantrum and can often judge a parent without realising what’s really going on.
Meltdowns are something that all those with autism experience. The causes and how it appears will be different to each person but all people with autism have meltdowns.
Even those with autism who have jobs, relationships and children can still experience meltdowns.
This includes me.
Yes, I have a full-time job, a long-term boyfriend and I run my own household but I still have meltdowns. They aren’t nice, they aren’t desirable and they certainly aren’t quick to recover from and sometimes they occur at just the wrong time. But I’ve never known anything different. I’ve always known that at any minute, something may happen to cause them and there isn’t always anything I can do about them.
So, what does a meltdown feel like?
For me, it’s the same as that surge in emotions you feel when you’re in survival mode. If you were in a car accident, you’d expect that rush of adrenaline, that split second choice of fight or flight, that sick, exhausted feeling you have when you come down later on.
To me this is what a meltdown feels like. Something happens to trigger it and all of a sudden my body reacts as though it is a life or death situation. I find I have 3 choices:
For me I very rarely fight. I’m well aware of how weak I am physically and fighting anything or anyone is unlikely to be successful. Plus I hate unexpectedly being touched so fighting would often make things worse. Luckily, as an adult, there aren’t many things that trigger this, though it takes all my strength not to fight when I have to get needles!
Or in other words run away! Depending on the situation, I might run away but I’m not very good at it. Usually if I try to run, I’m more likely to trip over my own feet than actually get away! But I do withdraw and if there is another room to go to then I definitely will!
This is my go to state in a meltdown. I freeze. I can’t talk – it’s like my words get stuck and I can’t make my lips move in the way I want to. Looking panicked, I’ll stand there staring until (eventually!) I’ll figure out what to do or (more usually) someone will come and help me. I’ve been told I look panicked and this is often how I feel.
I think this is what led to me not getting a diagnosis of autism until I was nearly 30.
The Problem with Freezing
If you have a child who fights every time something unexpected happens you’re going to notice it. It’s likely it will be spotted in school as well and people will investigate it. This often leads on to a diagnosis.
If you have a child who runs away when something happens, again you will notice it, as will other people working with your child. Often those with autism are unaware of danger and whilst in flight mode, they can be in more danger, such as running into roads. Again people will see this and recognise that it isn’t typical behaviour and will investigate.
If you freeze, it’s very easy for people not to notice. If you freeze, you withdraw into yourself and there can often be very few outward signs that you are upset. In your mind you are still trying to process the new situation and figure out what to do next but you are unlikely to say what you’re actually experiencing.
This is both a blessing and a curse.
It’s a blessing as it’s easier to appear ‘normal’ in an environment where you are expected to be normal e.g. work and school. If something happens that triggers a meltdown in work, I can usually find a quiet space to gather my thoughts. I close my eyes and try to stop my heart from racing and remind myself that everything is okay.
It’s a curse as you appear ‘normal’ and so one of the last things anyone will suggest is that you might need help or support. They also may not see that there is a situation that needs looking into more.
Once the particular trigger of the meltdown is removed or the problem solved and explained, it doesn’t mean a person will feel better straight away. It’s not a tantrum and easily fixed by doing what they want. It’s a panic situation and just like in any other event, once the immediate shock has gone you can feel sick and anxious and exhausted.
I spent most of my teens and early twenties being investigated by Drs for constant feelings of nausea and episodes of sickness. I now know that the nausea was and is due to anxiety, whilst the sickness usually occurs after a meltdown. I’d often feel sick at home but I’d be sick in school, where the sensory overload and trying to figure out friendships and what people meant would often be too much for me.
In my next post I’m going to talk about possible triggers of meltdowns and what you can say and do to help someone who is having a meltdown.
Let me know your thoughts – does the fight, flight, freeze response happen to you or your loved one with autism?