I am vexed at how the word “meltdown” is being slowly hijacked by the general population, and used to describe someone having a massive tantrum. Let’s be clear right from the start: an autistic meltdown is not a tantrum. Not even remotely. Not ever.
A tantrum is defined by Chambers (12th ed.) as “a sudden fit of childish, uncontrolled bad temper or rage”, and has the synonyms: temper, rage, fury, storm, outburst, fit, flare-up, blow-up, scene, paroxysm, paddy, and hissy fit. A tantrum is what people (aged two onwards) have when they’re angry about not getting their own way.
Meltdown (in the non-nuclear sense) hasn’t made it into Chambers yet, but online sources define it as “an emotional breakdown” (The Free Dictionary), “a very fast loss of emotional self-control” (Merriam Webster), and “an uncontrolled emotional outburst or a mental collapse” (Oxford Dictionaries). Synonyms include: freak-out, crack-up, fit, disintegration, collapse, tantrum, hissy fit, breakdown, angry, and crazy.
What is a meltdown?
Firstly, let me tell you what a meltdown is not: it is not a tantrum, a hissy fit, or a mere loss of emotional control – any emotions I experience are the result of the meltdown, not the cause of it. In reality, it goes much, much deeper than that: for me, a meltdown is a processing failure, like when a computer becomes overloaded with too many instructions, and goes haywire. A meltdown is a loss of cognitive control – I can no longer think. If we use the analogy of an epileptic fit as a hardware problem, a meltdown is the software equivalent.
What triggers a meltdown?
Many of my stress-triggers are the same as neurotypical people’s (fatigue, illness, hormones, hunger, conflict, etc.). Then add the autistic stressors that neurotypical people somehow filter out: noise (particularly sudden loud noise), bright lights (particularly flashing ones), visual clutter (e.g. too much mess, traffic, people), frenetic activity, unwanted physical contact (including from my own clothes), change of plans or some other disruption, all the noise in my head, etc. Throw too many of those at me at once, and I just cease to function.
Sometimes, it might look like the meltdown has been triggered by my not getting my own way, e.g. disruption of my plans; but in that case, the need to work out how to manage my day differently from how I’d planned (in order to accommodate someone else’s plans), on top of all the other things I’m trying to manage, becomes the final processing-request that freaks out the computer. It’s not that I’m unwilling to engage with the idea, I just can’t process it. Not at the same time as everything else.
What does meltdown feel like?
For me, the only emotions I feel during meltdown are extreme frustration, panic and fear. I am not angry – not in any way.
I am frustrated by not being able to function properly (often because I’m failing to understand something, or make myself understood), panicked by being overwhelmed, and I am scared because I can’t work out what just happened, what is happening now, and what is going to happen next. It’s not just that I can’t think straight – I can’t think at all. To begin with, the words I speak might stop making sense. I might roar, scream, shout, and/or cry. I might pace about, and rarely I might throw things or hit things (only things, never people) – but even then… even if I appear to be in a rage… let me say this again: I am not angry.
Alternatively, I might go straight to the secondary stage (which I call ‘shutdown’ – like when a computer freezes altogether), where I can no longer work out how to speak or move. In this stage I will curl up in a ball and become mute. I will probably close my eyes, put my fingers in my ears, and want to cover my head. I’m trying to shut it all out.
So you see, a meltdown is not a tantrum, and a tantrum is not a meltdown. They are totally different things. This is not to say some autistic people don’t have tantrums too, but it’s vitally important to know the difference.
A tantrum is a hissy fit, where the person is acting out his/her feelings of being hard done by. A meltdown is a loss of executive function brought about by cognitive overload, or in more simple terms – I am temporarily unable to do anything that involves thinking, i.e. reason, remember, plan, problem-solve, or perform tasks: there is only chaos in my mind.
How to help me during meltdown (any hopefully other aspies too)
- Please don’t panic – meltdown is a temporary state (like an epileptic fit), and I will recover.
- I don’t need a doctor or medication – all I need is peace, quiet, and time.
- If possible, get me to somewhere quiet – preferably with subdued lighting or no lighting at all. I will recover most quickly in silent darkness!
- If there is a window, please close the blind/curtain.
- Please do not touch me (very important).
- Please ask other people to stay away, and try to ensure no one comes bursting into the room.
- Please ask “what can I do to help?” but don’t press for an answer; some of us become mute in meltdown.
- A glass of water will probably be welcome.
- Please don’t offer or ask me anything else – I won’t be able to process the question.
- You are dealing with a highly intelligent adult, so please resist any temptation to speak in a sing-song voice.
- Please stay with me if you can, but at a distance, and please don’t try to make small-talk; this will seriously delay my recovery.
- Bear in mind that once recovered, I will be exhausted (and possibly embarrassed), and will probably just want to go home. This is okay – once I am functioning again, I am perfectly safe to leave on my own.
- I might not be able to express my thanks effectively at the time, so please don’t be offended if I simply walk away. I will be enormously grateful for your care and understanding.
This is a very personal subject, and one that’s close to my heart. Thank you for reading to the end.
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