Autistic meltdowns are one of the most difficult parts of autism for me. My meltdowns were not dealt with well in my childhood. My parents thought I was just throwing tantrums. They thought I could control what was happening, which was not the case at all. I was usually locked in my room during these meltdowns. This has added trauma beyond belief, to have been shoved into a room and have the doorknob ripped out of my hand while all I wanted was some deep pressure. I still have night terrors where I wake up screaming about being trapped. Of course, I couldn’t verbalize what was causing the meltdowns and my parents had no interest in figuring it out themselves. It was just easier to lock me away.
Even after I got older and stopped having constant meltdowns, it was still an issue. My parents seemed to think autism would go away when I grew up. Anytime they caught me in a meltdown or even just stimming they would say, “Why are you doing that?” I would respond, “I’m autistic.” The rebuttal was always, “Haven’t you learned how to control that by now?”
This is one of the most important lessons I can give to neurotypicals who want to support us. We can’t control meltdowns. A meltdown will occur for a number of reasons. Sometimes there is too much stimuli for us to process. Other times it could be because we had to mask all day and now have to deal with the consequences of holding in all our stimming. The possibilities are endless and most of the time, we can’t verbalize what is happening to us or why.
It’s taken me years to be able to figure out and explain what causes me to meltdown and I can’t give out any of that information mid-meltdown. I go practically non-verbal during meltdowns. At the most, I’ll repeat one sentence over and over. And there is no way of stopping the meltdown. Once that train departs the station, you’re stuck until the end of the route.
My support people know the techniques to use to help me through the meltdown. When I’m in a meltdown, I tend to try and hurt myself. The biggest danger is me hitting my head repeatedly with my fist or banging my head into a wall. I’m allowed to do things like punch my thighs or pinch myself, but if I start hitting my head, my support person will stop me, if there is one in the area. Oftentimes, I just have to ride out the meltdown alone. Deep pressure also can lessen the intensity of the meltdown. Having my safe person squeeze my shoulders always helps.
I have some advice specifically for parents. Try and figure out the patterns in your autistic child’s meltdowns. You need to be a detective because we can’t tell you what is going on. Does a meltdown always occur after a trip to the grocery store? Or maybe there is a certain noise that gets your child very upset? If you can either remove or adapt the situation, it could help lessen the meltdowns.
Meltdowns are incredibly scary and embarrassing as an adult. One of my biggest fears is having a meltdown in public and having the police called. I’ve had autistic friends who have had that happen to them. Since they were in mid-meltdown, they weren’t able to explain themselves and they got handcuffed and brought to the mental hospital. That would be the most traumatic thing in the world for me.
I am very lucky that I have been able to determine what causes me to meltdown the most. I know to always have headphones when going into public places. I know that decompression is very necessary for me. I know my limits, although it took a long time and a lot of trial and error to find them. I know meltdowns are going to happen and I prepare as best as I can for them, which sometimes is all you can do.
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Nera Birch is a self-advocate who is passionate about speaking and writing on what it is like to be autistic. She lives in Cleveland, OH with her beautiful commune. Check out her website "I'm Not Drunk, I'm Autistic" at https://theautisticpinup.com/