How to Handle Meltdowns

by dpreyde

A meltdown is something that most autistic people experience at least once. It’s what happens when we become so overwhelmed that we can no longer function. Some autistic people scream, or cry, or throw things, or rant incoherently, or laugh hysterically, or simply go Blue Screen of Death. Or some combination of the above. Usually it lasts between ten minutes and a few hours. It’s not just a bad day, and it’s not just a tantrum. It is intense and frightening for everyone involved. One of the most loyal, unflappable Maintainers I’ve ever met admitted to me once that his Aspie’s meltdowns scared him. This particular Aspie was once arrested by the police in the middle of a particularly severe, public meltdown. If he hadn’t been white, he probably would’ve been killed. That’s the worst case scenario. Usually meltdowns occur when an autistic person is young: in their childhood and adolescence. The more serious a person’s autism is, the more serious their meltdowns are. It’s not uncommon for people with severe Asperger’s or classical autism to continue to have meltdowns throughout the course of their lives. Personally, I stopped having meltdowns some time when I was a teenager. I don’t remember when my last one was. So how do you deal with meltdowns? If You’re Having a Meltdown:

  1. How do you feel when you’re freaking out? I know it’s hard to try to identify feelings, especially in a moment of crisis, but try. Do you feel angry? Sad? Scared? In what quantities do you feel these feelings? Are you mostly anxious and a little ashamed? Half nauseous, half angry? Also, where in your body are you feeling these feelings? It might take a few meltdowns to figure this shit out. It might help to talk to someone in order to expedite the process.
  2. Once you’ve figured that out, you’ll have to start paying attention to your moods and listening to your body. You have a thing in your brain that makes this difficult, and it might very well take some practise, but you’ll get the hang of it eventually. The feelings you identified, the quantities of those feelings, and the places in which they occur are all red flags. When a red flag goes up, you need to do the following.
  3. For starters, ask yourself what’s triggering you. What is it about the situation you’re in that’s freaking you out? More importantly, what aspects of the situation can you change, and what aspects are beyond your control? Only worry about the stuff you can change- and don’t focus on changing anything when you’re in the middle of a goddamn situation. When you’re actively trying to avoid having a meltdown, just focus on…
  4. Getting the hell out of there. Remove yourself. Find somewhere quiet or at least quieter and do something that calms you down. I would also recommend talking to a Maintainer about how you’re feeling. Once you’re feeling better, you can work with your Maintainer on changing the distressing, controllable aspects of the situation you were in.

If Your Aspie Is Having a Meltdown

  1. Remove them from the situation. Most meltdowns are the result of sensory overload, so guide them to a sensorily neutral location.
  2. Encourage them to engage with one of their special interests. You know they have a couple of things that they never shut up about. Give them access to one of those things, or- if they’re not available- talk with them about it.
  3. Be physically present. They might not be able to have a conversation with you. You may not be able to calm them. As scary as this sounds, you might have to let the meltdown run its course. Make sure, of course, that they don’t injure themselves or others, and try to make sure they don’t break or damage anything.
  4. When they’re calmer, see if you can engage them in the steps I outlined above for people experiencing       meltdowns. Ask them what they were feeling during the meltdown. Ask them why they were feeling it. They might not know. Emphasize that you are available to support them.