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It’s Still Not a Tantrum: The Ever-Elusive Adult Meltdown

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“And It’s Still Not a Tantrum: The Ever-Elusive Adult Meltdown”

Dearest Spectrumites,

Today we tackle the adult meltdown. It’s an elusive beast; rare and camouflaged. Like a predator, it lurks in the shadows, waiting to pounce when its victim is least prepared. Its attack is mighty and fierce; exposing the vulnerable with lethal accuracy. It devours all in its path leaving behind only shame, guilt, and exhaustion. It will strike again with little warning, once again paralyzing its prey with no concern for the damage left in its wake. This is the adult meltdown and it’s a savage brute. Some say it’s a myth. I’m here to say otherwise.
Many of autisms challenges are understood and explained from a child’s perspective. As an adult on the spectrum, I spend a good deal of time taking the advice, research, supports, and services that are designed for mini-spectrumites and either adapting them for adult life or recreating them entirely. In fact, much of what we all know about autism and its effects comes to us from work done with children. When we learn about transition, and sensory issues, and the need for strict routine, it is almost always described from the outside observances of parents, teachers, and clinicians. Most of us learn the classic signs, symptoms and phenotypes of autism as related to us from a child’s point of view. But as we know, autism is a birth to death neurology that presents various developmental hurdles for all genders through the lifespan. Yet, rarely if ever, do I see adult transitions discussed, and they exist, trust me. We don’t see much in the way of sensory challenges for adults either. But the thing we hear the least about is the insidious adult meltdown.
Science and psychology tell us that meltdowns are a result of a variety of environmental triggers overwhelming the brain with too much outside information causing the individual to temporarily lose control. The meltdown itself is said to be an emotional response to an overload of information. Meltdowns are often described as looking like the common “tantrum” but do not stop when the person “gets their way”. When it gets described like that, it’s no wonder we only hear about the minis. But meltdowns do not go away over time. You don’t grow out of them. They just get less frequent and you get better at hiding them.

Part of the problem with adult meltdowns is that they don’t look like kid meltdowns. And why would we expect them to? Adult triggers and kid triggers are very different. Kids don’t have to worry about meal planning and paying bills. Adults don’t have to deal with teachers and homework. As with everything in life, the sensory and social stresses change as our environments change, naturally over the course of time. On occasion, that unfortunately means a meltdown. For me, adult meltdowns are generally quieter, less outwardly destructive, and often experienced alone or one on one. But it’s a spectrum, so everybody is different. Still, why aren’t we talking about the adult meltdown? What are we afraid of? I’d like to venture it’s that us adults already deal with plenty of stigma and silent discomfort that the idea of reliving the destruction of a mature meltdown is more shame and guilt than the original meltdown itself. We already abuse ourselves in the aftermath with negative self-talk and other self-harming behaviors, no need to rub salt in the wound by being compared to a child and feeling helpless, yet again.

“And It’s Still Not a Tantrum: The Ever-Elusive Adult Meltdown”And so, I sit here, blinking cursor awaiting my next move, not wanting to relive any of my own meltdowns but also very tired of having to struggle with them alone, in silence. I’m sad to imagine my favorite mini-spectrumite having no adult spectrumentor’s experiences to help him understand his own. I know I can only describe my own experiences and that feels empty, not at all a fair and equal representation of our spectrum of experiences. But if not me, then who will start sharing? Who will describe the rage and frustration that builds up in our chests and hands as the meltdown begins? That moment when we know it is too late to do anything to stop it and counting to ten sounds as ridiculous as aspirin for a grand mal seizure. Trust me, we know how awful we will be during it and we also know the physical pain, exhaustion, and shame that will follow our inability to just stay in control. All I can do is describe my own and hope others will follow my lead.

My meltdowns usually occur after a few days of pushing myself to my limit; a weekend of birthday parties or family events for example. As a kid, meltdowns looked and felt a lot like the way it is described in clinical texts. There was door slamming, object throwing, ear piercing yelling, and a varying display of self-harm. The best way to describe them was like a summer thunderstorm. Coming on quickly, raging loudly, and dissipating just as quickly. The sun would always follow to dry the tears. As an adult, pushing myself to my limit means something very different. Little me could have a meltdown because dinner was different or my routine was changed unexpectedly. Adult me overdoes it socially or takes on too many projects because they are my special interest. Adult me can flow better with changes in plans but cannot handle the unplanned or barely planned social obligations of adulthood. Kid me hated school. Adult me loves my career. Kid me loved getting sweaty and dirty outside. Adult me likes wintertime and the quiet of a snow storm. Kid me slammed doors. Adult me yells mean and awful truths to anyone in range; the kind of truths that cannot be taken back.

When the adult meltdown is close, I can feel it everywhere. Every cell of my body feels like it has had twelve cups of coffee. I can feel the rage and frustration trying to force themselves out. It’s like an agitated pot ready to boil. I want to hit things, throw things, yell, scream, cry, I literally want to scratch the rage out of my skin and bang my brain back into control. As the meltdown hits I am powerless. I’m like a backseat driver to my brain and body as my hands tear at anything close and my mouth spits ugly nasty words at the closest target. I’m an adult. I shouldn’t be having a temper tantrum I say to myself; the years of others’ words repeating in my head relentlessly. But I’m not an adult, I’m an adult autistic and this is not a temper-tantrum. This is an adult meltdown. The meltdown continues but enters the shame and blame phase. I cannot believe it has happened again. Its everything but me and everybody else’s fault. The meltdown passes. If I am lucky I am home. The giant tsunami of self-deprecation hits. How could I let myself do this? Why didn’t I just hold it in? As I try to piece together the things that I said, I take stock of the damage done. It is too much. The tears flow on their own. An endless waterfall of sadness and guilt. I am exhausted. Physically mentally and emotionally exhausted. My brain is pounding and my entire body hurts. It feels like the stomach flu. I must rest. Sleep will come and so will the vivid dreams, my brain’s way of dumping excess information. The dreams will also wreak havoc on my body. The next day is a guaranteed loss.
I’m sure I have missed something. I’m sure there is more to tell. I’m hoping others will add their words and experiences so that I can better describe my own. We adult spectrumites have tales to tell and knowledge to impart on the next generation of our community. We have clues and cues for spectrumite parents and providers. It is our obligation to our minis to talk about our adult experiences on the autism spectrum. We are survivors and they need our skills. And it starts here. It starts now. With me, with you. It starts with adult meltdowns. We owe it to ourselves and our community to share our knowledge and experiences, all of it, even the painful and the ugly.

Autistically Yours,
Becca ^-^

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