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 – 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

Why a Good Friend is Like a Good Cup of Coffee

 
Having been brought up on a diet of instant coffee and bullies, I disliked both coffee and people. There was never any point giving either of them a second chance; why bother when you know you’re going to hate the experience? Besides, before I could ever try (or retry) anything new, I had to understand how it worked… in meticulous detail, and neither coffee nor people seemed worth the effort.

So I wish I could remember what peculiar circumstance took me out of my comfort zone and into Costa for the first time. The discovery that there existed something other than Nescafé transformed me from a tea-shop-bourgeois to a coffee-bar-chick. It was a happy occasion, and just reward for my bravery. (Oddly though, and despite my now-renowned love of the stuff, it took until today’s barista treated me to an impromptu latte-making lesson, that I realised I’ve never needed to understand the process to enjoy the coffee.)

People have taken me a little longer.

I had long-since got as far as realising that I don’t really hate people, per se. It was my inability to make sense of how they work that rattled me. I’ve always been frustrated by the lack of a blueprint or data-table to reveal the hidden workings of human interaction; there is nothing tangible for me to dismantle, inspect and put back together. If only people were more like coffee machines, I could understand them better, and perhaps be more trusting.

My aspie diagnosis was my Costa moment: it has enabled me to realise that the people I love are not just those who profess to understand me, but those whom I don’t feel the need to understand – people I can let be without having to know every detail of their every motive. It’s like not just letting someone else drive, but being able to shut your eyes while they do it: unnerving to begin with, but so much more relaxing once you get used to it… a bit like your first taste of good coffee after a lifetime of granules.

Uniforms

 
I went to a Macmillan coffee morning on Friday, which was bizarre enough in itself, but the thing that stood out most, in that country house, with its stone-flagged kitchen floor and fine stairwell, was….er… me.

Having just returned from a week in the hills, I was still favouring my Scotland kit: walking boots, a (bright green) waterproof jacket and a pair of cleanish jeans. Everyone else was wearing designer clothes, perfect hair/nails and names like Felicity. I have a lot else in common with these women, but I didn’t cut the mustard in my semi mountain garb; they didn’t recognise me as a middle class, middle-aged, country-dwelling mother, but rather as some tramp who had wondered in off the Downs. Despite knowing half of them by name, no one spoke to me. The coffee was good though.

Conversely, if I’d turned up to Corrour Bothy last weekend with anything other than a pair of Zamberlains (or similar), hair awry and broken nails, they’d have thought I’d taken a wrong turning at the carpark (the souvenir shops are ten miles the other way).

I confess I felt a little at odds while searching for a friend amongst last month’s Thunder in the Glen gathering (Harley Davidsons R Us). Despite being a biker myself (Moto Guzzi), and being in a pub I know well and love, I didn’t fit; I was wearing the wrong uniform. But I didn’t mind. Besides, bikers are much nicer than the snobby-mothers brigade.

I feel all right in my ten-quid jeans and a pair of boots. I’ve tried and failed to smarten myself up over the years, invariably reverting to my own uniform, that one that says “ME” and the one in which I feel most comfortable. I reckon if people don’t like that, I probably didn’t want to talk to them anyway!