A Childhood Autism Meltdown, Struggling to be understood

Uncategorized Nov 04, 2018

I was at the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz with my wife this past weekend. We were sitting down eating my all-time favorite junk amusement park food, funnel cake. To the side and a little behind me I started hearing a disturbance. I turned and looked, it was a boy in the 7 - 9 year old range and what I assume to be his mom.

I missed the start which my wife saw from her side of the table. Another boy had come up and the kid I saw was all set to punch him in the face. My wife said the first boy had that distinctive scary 100% focused level of emotion on his face that she knows all too well from my meltdowns over the year. It is a look of every bit of energy being released in total rage.

The other boy left, the first boy began verbal outbursts to his mom that packed all of his intensity into the words. I recognized this as it is a meltdown pattern I have struggled with. I listened in, it was obvious to me he was having with I call the "straw that broke the camel's back" type meltdown. This is one of two types of meltdowns and frequently the more troublesome as it appears to be completely out of line with the event that seemed to trigger it.

For me and adults on the spectrum I have talked with, there are 2 types of meltdowns. They look the same on the outside when they trigger, but the causes are very different.

The type most understand is what I call "the sudden radically change" style. This happens when the expected course of events suddenly gets a monkey wrench thrown in. Everyone around is aware the world just shifted course. A personal example is navigating through an unfamiliar city towing our 20 ft travel trailer and missing a turn from a confusing GPS instruction. The sudden diversion from the plan is obvious and the new challenge to navigate traffic with the rig is a huge and completely unplanned challenge. I react with a meltdown and the reason for my inability to process is obvious and easily understood.

The "straw that broke the camel's back" style is much harder for others to connect the events and relate to. Listening to the boy I could hear him yelling about numerous events during the day that went wrong according to his expectations. As is normal in this meltdown type, he was able to get past each event without any obvious outward reaction. But on the inside the anxiety and challenges of the day continue building up with each frustrating occurrence. Finally, something that appears minor happens. But, while it seems trivial it is enough with the accumulated unprocessed frustrations of the day the point is reached where the camel is overloaded. A meltdown occurs which by all appearances came out of nowhere.

I heard the boy loudly telling his mom about this happened, and then there was this other thing, and another thing, and finally there was the Dipping Dots that were somehow the trigger. It was obvious to me the boy tried to "be good" all day and like me , stuffed the poorly understood and processed emotions. With the addition of the new stress the bottled-up frustrations overflowed. As in any meltdown, his brain went off line and pure unprocessed anger and rage spewed out. Mom was doing her best but was handling the situation as if it was related only to the incident that was the tipping point. She didn’t seem to understand the full weight of the stress and anxiety accumulated all day were the primary drivers of this meltdown. 

Instead of acknowledging the boy’s perspective on the various items being cited throughout the day, mom was handling it as an overreaction to the last minor issue. It was not going well, just as it goes poorly for me when I am in the same situations. When my brain is in meltdown mode and I am not processing well, all I really want is for someone to acknowledge my perspective as valid in my mind. Being autistic means we live in an alternate world and perceive and process daily interactions very differently than the neurotypical. Even if others see things in an entirely different perspective, I want to be validated by acknowledging the things that happen stunk and are truly frustrating to me. If you want to throw fuel on my meltdown just try to tell me my perception is wrong and I should look at it differently.

Autism hardwires us to perceive and process as we do. It occurs at a low level under our cognitive thought. While we can learn higher level, cognitive ways to view things different, it requires a minimal stress and anxiety level for our brain to consciously override the low-level perceptions we continuously experience. The need for us to act “normally” can pile stress and anxiety on us faster than the slow rate we can process it. Denying or reframing what we experience and telling us to see it differently not only devalues us as humans but is a sure-fire way to turn up the heat of the meltdown.

I could 100% identify with this boy and his need to have the challenges of the day acknowledged. Regardless how alien sounding they seem, they are his experience and facts in his mind. My recommendation for dealing with a person in one of these slow build, break the camel's back situation is to allow the person to get the issues out and acknowledge the frustration, stress, and anxiety they caused. Don't try reasoning, rationalizing, or down playing as those approached only increase the intensity and further separate me from getting my cognitive brain back on line and return me to the here and now I live in.

Having been the person melting down many times, I could empathize with what he was going through. It is an experience of complete disconnection with the frustration of not being understood as who I am. My heart broke sensing his frustration and inability to get his challenges and himself validated as his mom instead told him what was going to happen if he didn't calm down. I don't blame her, very few teach what we on the spectrum are thinking, so she had no foundation for handling it in a better way.

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