Meltdowns and tantrums: know the difference

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.

Sigh.

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 more complicated – 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.


Related posts
Living the Nightmare
Assaulted by the Detail
What’s Wrong with Labels?
It’s no Excuse

The Aspie Guide to Surviving a Family Christmas

Christmas is an intense time, even for neurotypical people, and it can be so much harder for autistic people, especially if you are undiagnosed or your family do not accept your diagnosis. There is more social pressure at Christmas than at any other time of year, to “do the right thing”, and you might feel your own needs are being lost in the tidal wave of traditional expectations.

Don’t be afraid to look after yourself. It is not selfish to protect yourself (and others) from the consequences of you becoming overloaded!

1. Schedule some down time: if you’re spending Christmas in company with more people than you are used to, make sure you schedule some time alone, at least once a day – more often if necessary. Tell others in advance that you’re planning to do this, but don’t feel you must apologise for it. Explain that for you to stay relaxed and happy (rather than getting stressed and grumpy) while in company with others, you need to pace yourself, and know you can get away (and recharge your batteries) when things get too much. If they don’t like it, that’s their concern, not yours. Your concern is looking after you.

2. Cut down the input: if you’re expecting to be around small children, consider investing in some earplugs. Seriously! The type used by musicians allow you to hear what’s being said, at the same time as cutting out the worst of excess noise. If you can’t get hold of any of these, regular earplugs are available from all good pharmacies.

3. Watch what you drink: remember how tired you will be by the end of it all, and think about whether you really want to add a hangover to that.

4. Be prepared for change: actively think about how your routine will be affected by the festive season, and try to anticipate any potential feelings of discomfort/distress. Knowing in advance why you’re feeling so unsettled (even if it’s always obvious in hindsight), goes a long way to helping you cope with it at the time.

5. Try to relax: if you’re playing host this year, you’ll probably have everything planned down to the last detail! But try not to let yourself get frustrated and/or anxious if things go wrong, or timings slip. Do not beat yourself up trying to provide the “perfect” day (there is no such thing). And even if you don’t feel the need to make a complete escape, make sure you schedule some relaxation time into your plans.

6. Get out for a walk! Try to get out of the house at some point during the day, however sluggish you feel or reluctant you are to go. Fresh air and exercise will work wonders! It’s also a great excuse to escape (even if you have company) from the pressures of being confined to the house with other people.

7. Get plenty of sleep: try to ensure you get enough sleep in the days leading up to Christmas, and afterwards. There’s always a strong temptation to wrap that last present, tidy that final corner, or prep one more bowl of veg before the big day. If there are still chores to be done, it might be better to get up early and do them in the morning (when you are fresh, and more efficient), than struggle on late at night and then be so overtired that you can’t sleep.

8. Don’t feel under pressure to be “normal”: there are so many expectations surrounding Christmas – about the food you should have, the kind of presents you should give, how you should decorate your house, who you should spend the time with. Yet there is no “should”. If, for example, you have no responsibilies, and just fancy spending Christmas alone with a box-set and a bottle of wine, you do just that. It’s possible that others secretly want to do the same!

9. Remember medication: this isn’t a trite or frivolous suggestion – it’s so very easy to forget regular medication (which could be anything from vitamins to antidepressants) when your routine is disrupted; but if Christmas is likely to be stressful, it’s all the more important to make sure you have all the help you can get!

10. Show this post to others: if you want support to convince others of your need for adopting these coping strategies, consider showing this post to your partner/parents-in-law/friends/etc., so they can see that this is a very real issue, and that their support will go a long way to helping you enjoy your Christmas too.

And remember, in just a few short days, it will all be over for another year!


A-Z of Autism

A is for Autism, Asperger’s, Aspies, Ability, Abuse, Attwood, Acceptance.
B is for Bullying.
C is for Clumsiness, Communication, Colour, Crowds, Confusion, Claustrophobia.
D is for Detail, Diagnosis, Doctors, Depression, Disability, Distress.
E is for Education, Employment.
F is for Focus, Fascination, Friends.
G is for Genetics.
H is for Humiliation, Honesty, Headphones, Humour.
I is for Ignorance, Intelligence, Interest, Input, Isolation.
J is for Judgement.
K is for Karma.
L is for Light, Loss.
M is for Meltdowns, Misunderstanding.
N is for Noise, Nightmares, Neurotypical, Normal.
O is for Oops, Organisation, Obsession.
P is for People, Pretending, Planning, Processing.
Q is for Qualifications.
R is for Rejection, Routine.
S is for Spectrum, Synesthesia, Stimming, Stress, Solitude, Silence.
T is for Teasing, Texture, Taste, Touch.
U is for Understanding
V is for Validation.
W is for Weird, Wiring.
X is for xx
Y is for Yabbering.
Z is for Zero

I’ve tried to avoid using words that mean the same thing, or represent the same concepts, and have stuck to those that mean the most to me. I’d be interested to know what words best represent your own experiences of autism, either directly or indirectly.

Living the Nightmare

I am almost always trying to achieve something in dreams, and other people are ‘getting in my way’, usually physically (physically blocking me), or bureaucratically (I’m sorry, madam, you can’t do that), or a combination of the two.

Dreamworld expectations are always realistic and reasonable – like I just need to get through a barrier to retrieve my rucksack (I never know how I come to be on the wrong side of the barrier), and my rucksack has all my stuff in it, including my car keys, and I have to get the kids from school, so I just need my bag… but the man won’t see that. The man will tell me I have to buy a ticket to get through the barrier, and the conversation will go like this:

Me: But I already have a ticket.
Him: I need to see it then.
Me: It’s in my rucksack, just over there.
Him: I don’t know that.
Me: Well if you’ll just let me get my bag, I’ll show you.
Him: You can’t come through without a ticket.
Me: But I have a ticket – how d’you think my bag got there in the first place?
Him: Your friend might have put it there.
Me: But I’m here on my own.
Him: I don’t know that. You’ll have to buy a ticket to come through the barrier.
Me: But my money’s in my rucksack too. I just need my rucksack.
Him: If you can’t buy a ticket, you can’t come through the barrier.
…and so on.

And then I’m trying to find someone to lend me the money to buy another ticket, and everyone’s looking at me like I’m deranged. And no one will help, because they think I’m a freak, but I’m just trying to get my rucksack, so I can get my car keys and pick up my kids, and I can’t even phone the school to let them know I’ll be late, because my mobile’s in my bag too, then suddenly I have a phone in my hand, but I don’t know the number, then I see it’s a smartphone, so I try looking it up on the internet, but there’s no data signal, and AAAAAARRRGGGHHH

That’s when I lose it. Big time. My worst nightmare: a meltdown in public. I scream and shout and cry and collapse on the floor, banging my fists and pulling my hair. Everyone looks at me saying, “there, we knew you were a freak…”

I get this dream, in various guises, maybe twice a week, and I always wake up with a sense of failure and loss and isolation that stays with me all day. Other people with Asperger’s syndrome might relate, and understand why this scenario haunts my dreams: in reality, it’s never that far away, and particularly when dealing with real-life jobsworths (such as our friend above), the nightmare sits on my shoulder daring me to lose control. The last time I got close to this, there really was a barrier – 2m high, and the guy wouldn’t let me though – so I climbed over it, literally*. And boy was he pissed. And boy was I smug.

One day I hope my dreams will catch up with my growing real-world confidence, and I can wake up feeling like a sucesssful freak instead.


*Being on my way home from the climbing wall, where far more technical climbs of 8m are the norm, his little 2m job was a synch. If only it always worked like that!