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.