On meltdowns

Writing this because I’m fairly sure I’m in for one during the next month as I can’t change the situation enough to achieve stress homeostasis. You can tell I’m stressed because I honestly can’t think of a more cognitively accessible way to phrase this concept than “stress homeostasis,” and people who’ve seen me commenting elsewhere probably know that writing has become a lot harder for me than I’m used to in the past few weeks.

So, as the above paragraph may have tipped you off: Autistic people don’t grow out of meltdowns. Or, at least, I didn’t and most autistic adults I know haven’t, either. Meltdowns can be reduced in frequency and managed through mindfulness and stress-management and what have you, but we don’t just grow out of them.

Meltdowns are not something that autistic people can control. We can manage them through trying to avoid conditions that cause them, but once those conditions are met, a meltdown is happening. If an autistic person is extremely upset and trying to retreat from you, let them go. I retreat when I know I’m going to melt down because I don’t want to upset people and I don’t want to damage anything. Let me go. Let me melt down. It will be easier for both of us if you let me leave. Do not follow me. Do not try to reason me out of it. Do not try to bully me out of it. Input will make it worse. A meltdown is a supercell storm of emotion, and reasoning with it is like trying to reason with a tornado.

There seems to be this myth that meltdowns are wholly sensory in nature. I don’t know about other autistics, but for me, meltdowns are rarely only sensory. Sensory contributes by lowering my meltdown threshold, but almost always meltdown cause is either a case of many little frustrations and then a final-straw moment or a case of too much change in a period if time for me to deal with or some combination.

A big thing for allistics to remember is that a meltdown trigger is often not the same as a meltdown cause. The trigger is whatever set it off. The cause is just that: the conditions that made meltdown unavoidable. For me, once conditions result in a stress level past a certain point – I call it my “meltdown threshold,” a meltdown is almost unavoidable. The only way to avoid it is to immediately go into what I call “meltdown avoidance mode,” (a term I believe I’ve mentioned on this blog before but don’t have time or energy to dig up the post) where I stop all social commitments and responsibilities and just devote two or three days to de-stressing. Even then, it doesn’t always work. If I realize I’m getting stressed before my meltdown threshold is reached, simply cutting back and making sure to follow my routine more is often enough to avoid the meltdown.

As a case in point: One time, a meltdown trigger was that the road to the theater was flooded so we couldn’t go through with the plan of going to see a movie, but that wasn’t the actual cause. The actual cause was that my week had been full of unannounced changes like getting called out of school for a doctor’s appointment without being told about it ahead of time and a pep rally in the gym I wasn’t warned about so on and so forth, plus a worse-than-normal bullying week. Frankly, even if we’d gone to the movie, the noise in the theater would’ve induced the meltdown anyway. I was past meltdown threshold at that point and any trigger would set me off.

Now I’m at the point when I can recognize I’m approaching or past my meltdown threshold and take steps to de-stress. Meltdown avoidance was a difficult, but very necessary, skill to learn. I wasn’t able to learn it until I was living on my own, though, because family was less-than-supportive on that front. At my worst, I had meltdowns almost daily. Now, I’m generally a few months between meltdowns. Meltdown avoidance as a skill has two parts: stress recognition and de-stressing. Stress recognition is what it sounds like: Knowing your own emotional signs that you’re getting stressed. De-stressing is also what it sounds like: Knowing what things lower your stress level and doing them.

I might have a meltdown in the next month just due to unavoidable stress and a lot going on. I can already feel myself getting close to it – the near-constant ache on the sides of my skull and in my stomach and behind my eyes that signals I’m way too stressed for my own good. I unfortunately can’t change the situation without life-altering consequences that I don’t want to face, so I just have to take myself away whenever my stress spikes so that if I do melt down, I don’t do it in a place where I’d upset others or damage things.


10 thoughts on “On meltdowns

  1. autisticook says:

    Some jumbled thoughts, because today doesn’t seem to be a day of coherence for me.

    Sorry to hear you’re stuck in a high stress situation. Hope you’ll get out of it intact. Will be keeping you in my thoughts.

    On sensory meltdowns. I think it’s sort of like a constant background stressor, with differing levels of intensity. But I agree with you that a sensory event is rarely the immediate trigger for meltdown. It’s more that it pushes me to that level where I can’t regulate my emotions anymore. I can handle a lot more (changes, stress, emotions) when I’m not in constant sensory overload. So in that sense, it does feel like a sensory meltdown, but without a sensory trigger. If that makes sense.

    More thoughts on self-regulation: very important to recognise that it’s a skill people have to learn. And that it’s so much harder to learn when your emotions and stressors are not seen as valid. It’s like “fight this invisible demon that isn’t acknowledged by anyone and we’re not giving you the tools to do it either because duh, it’s not real and you should just get a grip.” So yeah. Very good explanation of your management skills there, and how you learned to do these things.

    • ischemgeek says:

      Background stressor is a good way to think of it – maybe it’s not so much that it lowers my threshold as that it increases my baseline stress?

      Also. Yes. Self-regulation definitely a thing that needs learning and hard to learn when you’re getting sabotaged by those around you. Unfortunately, most autistic ppl I’ve met have had to learn it on their own after they leave HS, and a lot of us (me included) tend to learn how to shut down instead of melt down in middle or high school around when authority figures start terrorizing you with jail/court involvement if you don’t “learn to control yourself” and then confuse shut down with emotional regulation (when the two are incredibly different things and for me at least shutdowns tend to trigger situational depressive episodes and are even worse for me than meltdowns which is saying something).

  2. alexforshaw says:

    Having a bit of trouble with words myself right now – high stress in my personal life. I want to say that I know just how it feels and I hope you manage to de-stress, or if not that you can recover quickly from the meltdown.

    • ischemgeek says:

      Thank you.

      I just hope it is a meltdown and not a shutdown I have if I reach critical mass. Meltdowns are bad and disruptive. Shutdowns worse by far for me b/c they can sometimes trigger depressive episode (erm, not sure of right term? Like situational depression only shorter but every bit as dark) for me. And ugh I do not need to fight through three-six weeks of “nothing matters everything is shit anyway so why should I care?” brain while preparing for my qualifying exam and proposal defense. Do. Not.

  3. Is there anyone unstressed enough to give me any clue whatsoever how to help my son realize he’s reaching that threshold and what to do with himself when he is. I really want to help and I can see he’s about to crack under school and home pressure and I try to make his visits here safe…but I learned this morn he’s skating on the edge of being turned over to court system at school. I can’t do anything about the school or home but ANY help in how to help him learn this necessary skill is appreciated. Had already planned some things working in that direction as he gets close to adulthood but didn’t know it was such a crisis situation NOW

    • ischemgeek says:

      Karla’s ASD Page has good resources on how to help kids in schools re: meltdowns & such. She has it in very understandable slide + written explanation format on her Facebook page and I really can’t add much to what she has written there. I could maybe try to elaborate more some time when I’m less stressed, but in the meantime, hopefully her FB page will be able to help you out. She also has a wiki for such things, which might be easier to navigate. Given your issues, I’d imagine you’re looking for her advocacy, IEP and health resources.

  4. Barry says:

    I confess I’ve never had a meltdown, even as a child. I was very passive in nature, and while I did at times feel somewhat frustrated, I seemed to accept that things were the way they were. On the other hand I have always been sensitive to sensory input and according to my mother, I would withdraw into a shell whenever I had a sensory overload. I developed intense migraines at around puberty, which in hindsight were probably the result of overloads.

    I’m now in my sixties and a chronic migraineur. The more I research, the more I’m convinced that there is a relationship between sensory overload, stress and migraines. I’m coming to the opinion that instead of having a “typical” meltdown, I react by succumbing to a migraine attack. I can’t know from experience what a more “typical” meltdown is like, but I wouldn’t wish the severe migraines I experience on my worst enemy (if I had one).

    • ischemgeek says:

      Your withdrawals sound like shutdowns, which is the quieter cousin of the meltdown. Basically, in a shut down, you implode instead of exploding. I am about split 50/50 between the two, but I find that while meltdowns are more dramatic, intense, and immediately unpleasant, shutdowns are actually more disruptive to my life. When I melt down, I melt down, sleep it off, and am largely fine in the morning or within two or three days at the worst. When I shutdown, it takes weeks to fully recover.

  5. […] the process of asking for help. Mainly because, due to the emotional state I described in my post on meltdowns and a meltdown that I correctly predicted followed by an almost-all-weekend shutdown, I realized […]

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