This can’t be said enough — an autistic meltdown is not a tantrum!
Sure, some of the outward exhibited behaviors may appear the same, but the causation of an autistic meltdown is often vastly misinterpreted.
So what’s the difference?
A tantrum is intentional, manipulative behavior someone exhibits in order to get something they want that they are told they can’t have. If they are given that thing, the unpleasant behavior ceases. On the contrary, there is nothing manipulative about an autistic meltdown, nor is it in any way intentional.
An autistic meltdown is a physiological, autonomous response caused by prolonged exposure to cognitive distress, conversational difficulties, social pressures and anxieties, transitions, sudden and unexpected change, and sensory integration issues. Any one or any combination of these stresses can overload an autistic person’s mental and physical abilities to cope or compensate.
Once an autistic meltdown begins, there is nothing that can be given to the individual to stop it, as they were never seeking anything in the first place. It has to run its course until it’s over, and the only thing that will end it is the passage of time.
It’s analogous to an overloaded battery – its power dissipates due to the load, ultimately resulting in total depletion of all its stored energy. There are things that can help, with the first and most crucial being to remove the person from the source of the trigger or the environment that is causing the stress.
Recently, I had a frustrating session with my therapist which resulted in my experiencing a serious meltdown afterward. The gist of it was that my therapist had mentioned my autistic traits, and in my attempt to clarify if I was on the spectrum, I was met with an unexpectedly apathetic response. You might assume this frustrating session itself was the trigger that sparked the meltdown, but it was not. It never is. In this particular case, the severe traffic jam I got stuck in after the appointment was the final trigger.
Heavy traffic is a common meltdown trigger for me – and it’s a very dangerous place to have a meltdown. It wasn’t a situation where I calmly pulled over to the side of the road and casually decompressed. I panicked — jerking the wheel, steering haphazardly, totally unaware of the presence of other cars. Then I slammed the brakes to a skidding dead stop on the shoulder of the road.
What followed was an immediate reaction of furious fists pounding the steering wheel, shaking uncontrollably, screaming at the top of my lungs, and fits of inconsolable crying. It’s ugly and the extreme fear of police finding me this way is very real, as if that did happen, they would certainly have detained me for evaluation in the psychiatric ward.
Although a meltdown can be triggered by one event, typically it is a combination of factors. This is what confuses people. They see an autistic person seem to overreact over one minor incident, and they assume that one thing was the root cause. That is rarely the case. What people don’t know and don’t see is the steady build-up of stressors that manifest and grow exponentially, compounding over the course of the day, to the final point where any additional trigger, no matter how small or minor, is the last straw.
Every autistic individual experiences meltdowns differently, but there are generally two broad types of autistic meltdowns: implosions and explosions. And they can co-occur – an explosion followed by an implosion, or an implosion followed by an explosion, or even simultaneous occurrence of both kinds. The traffic meltdown I described earlier was the latter.
It is difficult to describe in concise words just what it feels like to have an autistic meltdown – it simply cannot be fully explained as it’s incomprehensible to most neurotypicals, plus everyone has their own unique experience. If I had to describe it with words, a meltdown is like a total assault on my mind and on my body – like having multiple seizures and blackouts at the same time. Thoughts in my mind become an altered version of reality; it’s like being as totally out of control of yourself as you can possibly imagine.
I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t know who you are, and I don’t know who anyone else is either. I don’t know where I am anymore. I don’t know where you are, and I don’t know where anyone else is either.
Tremendous pressure builds inside my head. Auditory and visual information becomes depleted, compressed and filtered into a muffled tunnel too small for the ingress volume. In my brain, thoughts are stilted as trillions of synapses audibly misfire, causing a loud snap-crackle pop-rocks sound effect that impedes and truncates coherent thought. It’s like my brain is floating in the aftermath of a mega-tsunami of randomly competing thoughts, each colliding and combining together into an incomprehensible string of misinformation spinning violently around in my head.
My thoughts have no pattern and are unpredictably random, like a pinball bouncing wildly around inside a pinball machine. That pinball is my thoughts, and that pinball machine is my head, until finally that pinball drops straight down into a deep dark hole of emptiness.
That deep black hole is the recovery phase, and it may be quick or it may be slow – I never know. If it’s a particularly severe meltdown, the recovery is very slow. I may stay there cowering in the emptiness of that deep dark hole for a very long time. Hours or days may go by while my body and mind try to recover.
Cognition is very slow to return. Words are merely partially patterned rhythmic syllables, phonetically formed groupings of letters that seem to float in the air then suddenly fall, an alphabet soup of magnetic letters strangely arranged like a ransom note stuck to the refrigerator. A cerebral perception of polarity pulls the groupings ever so slowly across the surface towards each other, each movement met with a varying intensity of resistance, but eventually, I become aware of their presence.
At first, I see just single letters all at once – a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle of letters that somehow find each other, almost by rumor, to finally join together to form coherent words that then mysteriously morph into complicated combinations of word pairings, marching in curious cadence, with final comprehension to arise somewhere in the uncertain future – if at all.
Although the words are now there, I’m utterly exhausted from this assault. I collapse in a heap and sleep until I’m finally ready to tolerate being amongst the humans again, and throw the dice one more time in the Meltdown Monopoly of my Game of Life.
Games usually end – but oh no, this game’s not over yet. It’s never really over, because I only lie in wait until the next one comes. It’s not a matter of “if” it will come again, but of “when” it will come again – because autism is a lifelong condition for which there is no cure.
That is as close as I can describe to what I experience when I have an autistic meltdown. I can’t speak for everyone, as this description is only my personal experience, but having a public meltdown is extremely embarrassing for people on the spectrum. If you’ve ever witnessed an autistic meltdown, you know how disturbing it is to watch – but you may not know that it is exponentially more difficult to experience.
The thing is, as horrific as an autistic meltdown can be, it can also be a good thing. It’s a much-needed release, a rebooting of the system. And when it’s all over, we pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, dust ourselves off, and continue on with life on the spectrum.