Fostering a Better Relationship with Our Meltdowns

What do your meltdowns look like? How often do you let yourself have one? All through my adolescence and young adulthood, I hated the idea of having a meltdown. I fought against them. I suppressed. I tried to extinguish them, but they came all the same. And they were ugly. They were angry, verbally aggressive, and self-abusive. Each one was an explosion I felt left me out of control; I didn’t know myself when they hit.

I imagine what I’m describing sounds familiar if you are autistic or you have an autistic child. Meltdowns can seem tragically transformative. I’ve heard things like, “I don’t know myself,” or, “It’s like they become a different child.” It can be frightening whether we’re the ones having the meltdown or we’re watching it happen to someone we love. But I’ve come to believe that meltdowns can be important to autistic individuals, and that we can approach them in a healthy way.

The Reset Buttons

I’ve sometimes compared meltdowns to a hard reset — those times you hold the power button down on a computer or a device to force it to shut down. Usually, the device is locked up or behaving erratically in some way, and the best solution seems to be a clean slate. Yes, there will be consequences — lost browser tabs, unsaved documents, etc. But the benefit outweighs the consequences.

Meltdowns are similar. Things get to be too much, and we crash. We systematically block everything else in some kind of isolationist or emotional behavior, and we restart. Once the meltdown is done, we’ve “reset our points,” as my wife puts it. (I’ll write about that in greater detail in a future post.) Now we can continue our day, and for many of us, it’s as if the meltdown never happened — unless we harm someone else or ourselves in the process. That’s where approaching our meltdowns differently comes in.

Embracing the Reboot

Every autistic person that I know can feel a meltdown coming. That’s when we try to push it down and away. That’s when we try to suppress, but what if we didn’t? What if we embraced the fact that we needed to reset, immediately found a safe place to do so, and just let it happen? I don’t have a large amount of data to support this, but I can personally attest to the fact that this approach has changed meltdowns for both me and my probably-autistic daughter.

For her, meltdowns used to look like throwing. When she went into her room to melt, anything was fair game for throwing. Our first intervention was to remove a lot of throwable stuff and provided her with some soft balls. If she needs to throw, it might as well be something safe. The next was to help her determine when a meltdown is coming, and be proactive about it. “Do you need to melt?” one of us may ask. If she acknowledges it before she reaches the breaking point, then the meltdown looks far different — some crying, some curling up in blankets, perhaps a nap. The throwing has largely gone away.

In my own life, things look similar. Instead of fighting the meltdown until it becomes an inevitable explosion, I find someplace safe and secluded; then I close my eyes and let my system reset. There might be tears; I will almost certainly doze off. But I won’t verbally assault anyone, and I certainly won’t inflict self-harm. By proactively embracing the meltdown, I’ve seen the severity and duration decrease. Then I can go on about my day.

Rejecting Toxic Normality

We sometimes point to statements like, “Real men don’t cry,” as symptoms of toxic masculinity in our culture. Suppressing emotions can lead to violent and abusive behaviors in the long run. Likewise, we have accepted a form of toxic normality where we have largely come to accept that healthy people don’t have meltdowns where in fact our meltdowns help many of us on the spectrum reach a psychological and sensory equilibrium that indeed helps us through overwhelming circumstances.

Meltdowns are normal for autistic people. It’s not the easiest aspect of autism to talk about. It’s certainly among the most stigmatized characteristic in the public perception of autism. But it’s a fact of life.

  • Autistic folk: Learn what factors push you toward a meltdown and by how much. Not only can this help you regulate your sensory and emotional needs, but it will help you better identify when a meltdown may happen and allow you to prepare for it. Know what safe spaces will be available to you. Know if you should avoid a certain activity or setting to allow for that safety net. Let the meltdown come sooner rather than later, and see if that helps the severity and duration improve over time.
  • Autism parents: Learn your child. They may not be able to self-regulate, so you have to be able to help them. When you see a meltdown coming, verbally affirm that it’s OK, that they are safe, and that you are there to support them. Provide a safe place for the meltdown to happen, and don’t dwell on the meltdown after it’s over. Again, with time, you may see severity and duration reduce.

Meltdowns are part of being autistic. They’re not as glamorous or inspirational as some other aspects of our lives, but they are a fact of existence. Therefore, instead of fighting them so hard that we make our own lives worse, let’s develop better relationships with our meltdowns so they can be the sensory and emotional resets we need them to be.