Cover Image - Struggling To Be Understood - A Childhood Autism Meltdown

Struggling to be Understood: A Childhood Autism Meltdown

By Tim Goldstein

 

THE MELTDOWN BEGINS

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 to hear a disturbance. I turned and looked. It was a boy in the 7-9-year-old range with who I assumed to be his mom.

I missed the start of the meltdown which my wife saw from her side of the table. Another boy had come up to the boy making a disturbance and prepared to punch him in the face. My wife said the boy throwing the tantrum 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, and the young boy began verbal outbursts directed at 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 that 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.

THE TWO TYPES OF MELTDOWNS FOR THOSE WITH AUTISM

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

The type most understand is what I call “the sudden radical change” style. This happens when the expected course of events suddenly gets a monkey wrench thrown in. Everyone around is aware that 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 obstacle. 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 continuing to build up with each frustrating occurrence. Finally, something that appears minor happens. But, while it may seem 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.

WHAT IS WANTED DURING A MELTDOWN?

I heard the boy loudly telling his mom about one thing that happened, and then there was this other thing, and another thing, and finally the Dippin Dots 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 offline 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 kind of situation. 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. 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 from 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.

HOW AUTISM AFFECTS THE WAY WE PROCESS THINGS

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 differently, 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 of how alien-sounding they seem, they are his experience and facts in his mind.

HOW TO HANDLE A MELTDOWN

My recommendation for dealing with a person in one of these slow building, 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 downplaying as these approaches only increase the intensity and further separate me from getting my cognitive brain back online 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.

 

This article was originally published on Tim’s website, and is republished with his kind permission.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Diagnosed with Asperger’s at 54, Denver-based consultant Tim Goldstein is a Neurodiverse Communications Specialist –the only one doing what he does. He trains all types of employees including those who are neurodiverse and maybe autism how each other functions.

With deep experience in business and consulting, Tim, helps companies recognize and overcome the challenges integrating the neurodiverse. Using his Neuro Cloud™ concept, he explains the Spock-like logical approach common among the neurodiverse. Tim has lectured on his concepts at Cornell and presented them at Vanderbilt. His book, Geeks Guide to Interviews: 15 Critical Items for the Technical Type, is available better understand challenges to the autistic in the workforce.