I am a professional 26 year old woman with the tendency to throw toddler style tantrums from the most minor of annoyances. ‘Meltdowns’, as they are more appropriately called, are well known in children on the autistic spectrum, but what is often not talked about is that they still happen in adults on the spectrum too, even high functioning adults with jobs and their own families. I remember having them as a child, and how everyone would think I was ‘just throwing a tantrum to get my own way’, and I vividly recall the complete overwhelming frustration and pain I went through during each one, and that they were in no way related to naughtiness and made exaggeratedly worst by that suggestion, or by being told to stop. I remember it so vividly because that’s how they still feel now, every bit as painful and frustrating, and still as uncontrollable.
They do not come out of the blue, although to me it often seems like it. They are an accumulation of too much stress and too many demands, mixed with tiredness and sometimes even hunger. They have rarely been made public; the advantage of being an adult who has meltdowns is the awareness to quickly throw yourself into a toilet or get yourself back home before you take the cap off the bottle and explode. I am fortunate to have a partner who I can happily meltdown in front of and feel no shame, in fact she often tells me I need to have one to get it out of my system and prevent an even larger one down the line! But to be an adult and still have what many consider the emotional reactions of a child, can be incredibly damaging. How do I go from giving a talk at university to a screaming ball of mess desperately stimming under a duvet?
Last week I felt the presence of a meltdown lurking in the background. I needed to go to bed and I had got too absorbed in my work and left it until way later than my usual bedtime. Suddenly I was overwhelmed by how much I would have to do to before I could get into bed, and how much of a mess my room was, and how much stuff I needed to get done the next day. My bucket was over flowing with what seemed like very minor stresses, but I could not reason with any of them. A few days previously I had been once again on the verge. A meeting had gone badly at university; I felt a deep sense of injustice and being let down. Thirty minutes later and I was hiding in my office toilet trying to suppress the inevitable so I could get myself home and raise no suspicions. This meltdown is still whirling inside of me, waiting for a safe space to be let out, and what will seem like ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’. I miss the days when I could be less cautious of my emotions, when crying in public was not the worst possible thing imaginable, and I did not have the fear that I would never be able to stop once I started. As a female who was not diagnosed until her early twenties, I have always had a paranoia of others’ judgements and have constantly monitored how I appear to others to ensure I am fitting in. My worst nightmare has always been, and still is, a public meltdown, and living in fear of your emotions as a result really takes its toll. I mean everyone’s cried in public once, what am I so scared of anyway?
Comparing having a cry with a meltdown is like comparing a puddle to a tsunami. It builds inside like an angry volcano, I snap at all those around me, I swear, I shout, I accuse. If I had any propensity to violence I would probably hit walls and break doors. Then comes a wave of tears and shaking, which feel like they’ll never stop. They go on and on and on, they do not end when someone comforts me or when the problem is solved. They will stop when they are finished only, maybe minutes, but maybe hours. I am desperate and vulnerable and totally raw. I am not a 26 year old woman who gives talks at university during this time, I am someone entirely different. Afterwards the exhaustion hits, leaving me drained and numb for several days whilst I pick up the pieces, coming to terms with the person I can sometimes be. And whilst I know it is not my fault, that I have a condition that sometimes means I get overwhelmed, and that ‘letting it out’ is good, I still feel ashamed of myself.
The best advice I can give for others experiencing meltdowns, in childhood or adulthood, is to learn to lessen stresses and keep the bucket from flooding over in the first place. This is harder as you become older and have responsibilities, but I’ve learnt to keep my socialising to a minimum when I have lots of work commitments, and vice versa when I have lots of social commitments. Or alternatively taking a week off when the previous week has pushed all my buttons. The most common misconception is that only bad stressful events will be triggers. I often have meltdowns after an exciting event, and am often met with ‘why on earth did that stress you out!?’ It’s because it’s sensory overload too and its changes and having to adjust and process, none of that happens smoothly or easily, all requires enormous amounts of cognitive effort. One day I still hope I will be more in control and able to steer clear of the meltdown monster altogether, or alternatively that one day they will be more acceptable and better understood. Either way, adult meltdowns are a very real thing for us folk on the autism spectrum and we can’t just turn them off.