Recently, The Mighty asked individuals on the autism spectrum to describe what a meltdown felt like. This is Sarah’s response to that piece.
Since a meltdown is more than just the event itself, I decided to break it down to what happens right before, during, and after one, and add some advice about what you can do to help me if I’m having a meltdown. I also want to make it clear that my experience does not apply to everyone on the spectrum. While I’m sure some can relate to my experiences, they are not universal, as everyone on the spectrum is unique.
Before the meltdown: My meltdowns are often set off by an outside event. A lot of times, the event is something small — something that seems so minor, people don’t understand why I’m overreacting. But the thing is, the event that causes my meltdown is usually a “straw that broke the camel’s back” sort of thing. I might already be anxious and upset, for one reason or another, and something just sets me off.
On one occasion, my parents and I had tickets to a musical and were planning to have dinner beforehand. The problem was, I forgot to eat lunch that day. I was doing something or another and just didn’t realize what time it was until I realized I had to get dressed and we had to go. I thought I’d be OK because we were going to eat right away. Still, I was nervous because I’d never been to this restaurant before and I wasn’t sure if I’d like the food. So the worries were starting to pile up.
Then, on the way, we got stuck in traffic. So I was getting even hungrier, was anxious, and was now concerned about being late for the show. When we finally reached the restaurant, the lighting was dim and the music was loud. Every clink and clank of silverware and plates became deafening as I neared a meltdown. I immediately retreated inside myself and just stopped reacting to things. At first, my dad thought I was pouting, but I explained I was trying really hard not to melt down. Fortunately, I was able to avoid a complete meltdown. (Also, this may be because I was really hungry, but that was the best macaroni and cheese I’ve ever had!)
During the meltdown: If I can’t calm myself down in time, the meltdown starts, and it feels like a bomb is being set off. My body feels like it’s about to explode, and I begin losing control. I can no longer control my movements, and my body tends to kick, hit and generally lash out. Sometimes, I think these movements are a way of trying to protect the people around me by getting them out of the way before I “blow up.”
Some people can’t speak when they have meltdowns. That’s not the case for me, but sometimes I wish it were. While I’m still able to speak, I lose control of the words that come out. Unfortunately, my speech often takes the form of profanities, if it’s coherent at all. I’ll scream insults and obscenities. All the while, my brain is saying, “Stop that! You don’t mean it, why are you saying that?” but it’s no use. Once I hit full meltdown, I can’t control my body at all anymore. I feel like I’m trapped in a robot shell that’s out of control, and while I can observe what’s happening, I can’t stop it. I’ve screamed terrible things at classmates I barely knew, and lashed out physically at my parents when these happen. And, even though I’ve lost complete control when I do it, I have a really hard time forgiving myself afterwards.
After the meltdown: Even when a meltdown is over, it’s not really “over.” The best way I can explain it is it’s like getting burned (which has happened to me several times; I’m really clumsy, which can sometimes come with Asperger’s). Just because you take the heat source away, the burn doesn’t disappear; it doesn’t mean you can just move on. Now you have a wound that needs treatment. You feel completely raw. The pain isn’t necessarily excruciating, but you’re extra vulnerable to any additional pain or frustration. You need proper care and, most importantly, rest, to recover.
So, from what I’ve written, a meltdown probably seems super scary. It is. It’s absolutely terrible. So how can you help? Well, that’s the thing… you really can’t. For me, at least, the only one who can calm me down is myself. The best thing you can possibly do if you see me in the process of having a meltdown is to give me space and let me fizzle out. If I seem like I’m starting to withdraw, please don’t try to push me further. That’s not going to help anyone. And, please, do not try to hug me or offer me physical contact. This seems to be a common response, but it only makes me more nervous and upset. After a meltdown, once again, the best thing to do is leave me be. Be gentle with me and realize I’m still vulnerable.
Now, I understand this seems counterintuitive. So I absolutely do not expect people to know how to handle these situations. And I know it’s a lot to ask people to be easy on me when I’m insulting and possibly lashing out at them. I am not asking you to magically be OK with what I’m doing or forgive me for what I do. I’m writing this simply to help people understand what’s happening and why.
To sum up, I think a good meltdown analogy — for someone who loves video games as much as me — would be a Bob-omb. You know, those little bombs from Mario games that walk around and have eyes? When they’re walking around they’re peaceful and happy, often helpful. But once the fuse is lit? Stay away until the explosion’s over. That being said, don’t worry, I won’t chase you like a Bob-omb would!