Recently, it’s become clear to me that I can’t tell when things are stressing me out or bothering me. I thought I could, now, but I have been proved wrong. This may seem very strange or ridiculous to you… “Of course you know when you’re stressed or something is upsetting you!” I hear you cry.

The thing is, that for a neurotypical person it’s apparently pretty easy to understand and process such thoughts and feelings and to tell when you’re feeling stressed out. For someone on the spectrum, however, this can be a very difficult thing to do. Those of us with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are also known to have problems in the processing of emotional information. This is contrary to the popular myth that those of us on the autism spectrum have no emotions. We do – very intense ones, which can be incredibly hard to cope with.

A massive meltdown hit me completely out of the blue the other day. I should have noticed the warning signs myself, like the fact that I was only getting a few hours sleep, I was getting quite irritable at times, my eating was erratic, etc. Mrs Bob noticed and flagged it up to me, saying that this was being caused by a stressful work environment. This was true – I was going through some major stress in the workplace, but I dismissed her concerns because I was under the impression that I had it handled.

Boy, was I wrong…

If you’re unsure what I mean by a meltdown it’s “An intense response to any overwhelming situation. It happens when someone becomes completely overwhelmed by their current situation and temporarily loses behavioural control.  This loss of control can be expressed verbally (eg shouting, screaming, crying), physically (eg kicking, lashing out, biting) or in a combination of ways.

I haven’t had a meltdown in a couple of years, and they are most often caused by stress at work. This one I had recently was a more stereotypical autistic meltdown than any I’ve had and it was worrying for Mrs Bob to watch. I realise that you may find it hard to understand a grown man losing control like this. Some may even say it’s just a temper-tantrum of sorts, but I would like to assert so strongly that a meltdown is NOT the same as a temper-tantrum. It is not bad behaviour and should never be considered as such. When an autistic person is completely overwhelmed, and their condition means it is difficult to express that in appropriate way, it is understandable that the end result is a meltdown. For me, it was a wake-up call.

Meltdowns are not the only way a person on the autism spectrum may express feeling overwhelmed.  Other behaviours that may appear are less explosive but are equally common, such as refusing to interact, withdrawing from situations they find challenging, or avoiding them altogether.

Fortunately for me, I could trace the cause of my meltdown to being anxious about work and the situation there, and I have a wife who could spot the signs and was there for me when I needed her. Not all people with ASD have that support, which makes it even harder. With its unwritten rules and unpredictable nature, the world can be an extremely challenging environment for autistic people and many experience anxiety on a daily basis. If a person does not have the tools or help to calm down when they become anxious or the perceived anxiety becomes too great, they may have a meltdown. 

What to do if someone has a meltdown. (Taken from the National Autistic Society U.K.)

If someone is having a meltdown, or not responding to you, don’t judge them. It can make a world of difference to someone on the autism spectrum and their carers. 

  • – Give them some time – it can take a while to recover from an information or sensory overload. 
  • – Calmly ask them (or their parent or friend) if they’re OK, but bear in mind they’ll need more time to respond than you might expect. 
  • – Make space – try to create a quiet, safe space as best you can. Ask people to move along and not to stare. Turn off loud music and turn down bright lights – whatever you can think of to reduce the information overload.
  • Thank you for reading and hopefully this will be of some help to you. If I have widened one person’s understanding of autistic meltdowns today, I’ll be happy. Please don’t judge.

    Stay Safe X

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