If you are familiar with Autism in the slightest, you’re likely familiar with the term “meltdown.” There is no specific definition for this in terms of an Autism behaviour so I’ll give it a go:
A term describing a complete lack of control or reasoning during a temper tantrum as a result from prolonged or overwhelming stress
That’s how I would define it, I think it is specific yet vague enough to explain what it’s essence is. The problem is that it has more specifics such as what causes the stress, such as sensory overload, fear, anxiety, frustration and so forth… which means that there are quite a few things that can trigger a meltdown.
Lack of control or reasoning
When you hear “complete lack of control”, you tend to imagine someone flailing around, screaming and maybe even writhing on the ground but it’s not always that way. What you’re picturing, most likely, is a child.
However, as those children grow older, that type of meltdown will become less likely, seeming far more controlled yet still fitting the definition that I laid out before you.
As an Autistic gets older and they develop language, structure and maybe even a life of their own… they can gain a lot of control over their emotions and thus, learn how to avoid meltdowns. Also, when they do happen, they’ll look entirely different from what you pictured with the child on the ground.
An adult, or even an older child that can speak, may lash out verbally, maybe even physically… they may say the absolute most hurtful thing that enters their mind, they may hurt themselves, they may seclude themselves away from all others, they may even have what would look to us like a nervous breakdown.
For the most part, all of these would appear to defy the definition. People can stop themselves from saying hurtful things or from hitting someone or from hurting themselves. People can avoid a nervous breakdown if they calm down, breath deeply, relax… people can seek out help rather than become isolated.
These seem like choices to us because as we develop, we learn how to recognize these situations and make those choices.
That’s not always true for an Autistic.
A meltdown is still a meltdown even if it seems like something we’d have done by choice. An outburst, a hateful response, violence… these things may be happening completely beyond the Autistic’s control and reasoning.
When this is the case, when it is beyond their control, a grieving period usually follows where there is extreme levels of guilt that they have to get through.
And you and I would think that if there is that much guilt, they’d try harder to not do it next time, or “learn from it” but you have to understand, that’s probably not possible.
I titled this post “volcanic emotions” for a reason… if you can picture a volcano where pressures build and build and build for a while and then finally hit the breaking point where all that pressure is released into a huge explosion of ash and lava… you can then also picture what is happening inside many of these people with Autism.
Young and old, the pressures of stress tend to build and grow until eventually they’re released in an explosion and that explosion is a meltdown. Whether it be flailing around on the ground screaming or lashing out with hurtful words and aggression… it’s beyond their control.
Doesn’t therapy help with this?
Yes and no… it helps. The real progress is made when the person is able to recognize the rising pressures of the stress and take measures to avoid it reaching volcanic proportions. This is a way to avoid it from happening, not from controlling it when it happens.
Why isn’t there a way to control it when it happens? Well, I’m not a scientist and even if I was, I wouldn’t bore you with scientific terminology however I will say that recent studies have shown actual physical differences in genetic make up, pathways, and more within the brain of those with and without Autism. Physical differences.
That means their brains physically work differently. That’s not something you can change with therapy.
Therapy is important, avoidance is important… we all function so much better without stress, without nervous breakdowns and certainly without meltdowns in our lives.
If we can’t control ourselves when it happens, then it’s certainly important to learn how to avoid it from happening at all.
However, in those cases and situations where it’s unavoidable and it does happen.. it’s important to forgive those that went through it as well as to forgive ourselves if we were the ones experiencing it.
We can’t be mad at those that did or said something while out of control nor can we be mad at ourselves. Actually, we can be mad, being mad is quite alright and healthy. After all, those things did hurt. However we must also be able to forgive.
Whether you hurt someone or someone hurt you, you have the capacity to forgive… especially if they feel guilt, especially if they still love you.
It’s not an easy situation to be in, if someone has meltdowns regularly or even rarely… you feel that they should stop after a certain amount of time but they don’t. And it begins to build pressure and stress in yourself… making for two sources of stress coming together.
If you can’t understand and forgive… for their sake and yours… the pressure will only continue to build until a whole new volcano of emotions erupts.