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Why Autistics Have Meltdowns

Why do autistics tend to have so many meltdowns? Many people mix meltdowns with tantrums, and try to scold or shame the meltdown away (which in a true meltdown, doesn’t even register until later, when we’ve had a chance to calm down). There’s a very clear difference between meltdowns and tantrums which you’ll begin to spot, as soon as you understand what to look for.

In a tantrum, the background emotion is anger. Behind the behaviour is a stream of thought that goes something like, “I’m not getting what I want, and I’m going to do whatever I have to do to make this person understand that this is really important to me. I should get to have what I want, or I shouldn’t have to do what I don’t want.” You will often see the person who is having a tantrum looking at you, checking to see what your reaction is like to the display that he or she is making, and whether you’re going to give in or not.

Now, meltdowns are different. And they’re really hard for me to talk about, because I can’t talk about them without feeling them. Meltdowns are coming from a place of hopelessness, helplessness, and utter overwhelm. There are so many sensory inputs coming in that we autistics haven’t a hope of integrating it all, never mind understanding it.  And there is so much inner turmoil and stress happening, we haven’t a clue what else is going on around us.

When this happens, we have no way to cope with all of it. We’re beyond ourselves, unable to translate our surroundings fast enough, usually because they are painfully overwhelming to a sensory system with everything turned to high volume.  So what happens is survival, a lashing out with everything we’ve got because we have no control over the stress and pain we’re feeling.  If we happen to meet anyone’s gaze, it’s an accident.  In case you’re wondering, it’s worse to experience than to support; I’ve had it both ways.

So what can you do to make a positive impact, help reduce tantrums, and help speedier meltdown recovery? You actually do very similar things. First, move the upset person out of the upsetting situation, as soon as possible. Ideally, move him or her into a natural area where there will be a lot less sensory overwhelm, and away from whatever it is that is causing the tantrum, or away from whatever it is that is causing the meltdown.  The quieter, calmer, or more greenery-covered the space is, the faster the calm returns.

As best you can, get yourself calm and sympathetic.  In both cases, the more that you’re able to be a loving and calm presence, the faster your upset autistic companion will be able to emulate your calm.  At that point, you have a lot more opportunity for doing some problem-solving, figuring out what was going on, and hopefully helping that upset individual come out of that upset space.

If someone is using tantrums to try to assert his or her willpower, he or she will quickly learn that this is the fastest path to not getting what is wanted, and will try other things, growing out of the tantrums.  On the other hand, we humans (not just autistics; I’ve seen grown neurotypical men having meltdowns) never grow out of meltdowns, and the more stressed we are, the more often they crop up.  Because autistics are under such high levels of stress and pain, meltdowns are difficult to avoid altogether.

However, meltdowns can be prevented, and this is something that I go into much further, in my online programs and teacher trainings.

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If you or someone you love could use more information on how to Thrive With Autism, please join us for one of our upcoming webinars;

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And if you’re tired of the frustration of not knowing why you’re not making the headway other people seem to, in optimizing the gifts, and minimizing the challenges of autism, please join Susan Watts and I for our next  online series.  We’d very much love to help you get more of the improvements in function and quality of life that you most want, sooner.

Thank you for caring about someone with autism!

Best Wishes, Jackie

2 Comments

  1. laurie says:

    Wow i have to say that was truly eye opening for me. I now have a beter understanding of myself and my children. Thank you so much for who you are and what you do.

    • Jackie McMillan says:

      I’m so glad, Laurie… the best way to help autistics with greater levels of challenge is to help the people who help them, but there are so many things we more-integrated autistics can do to get better quality of life, too!

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