Meltdowns can affect any age of individual on the autistic spectrum, they are not the preserve of the child! They aren’t tantrums, the reasons for them are totally different and they are not about demanding attention or histrionics.
Stress over something builds up, it can be anything, autistic people are all different and have different triggers. For me, people refusing to listen or understand me is a difficult one, as well as noise, or feeling trapped or controlled.
You feel something bubbling up inside you that you don’t have any control over, you feel panic and you want to flee the situation/trigger. If someone or something prevents that, the meltdown rises higher. You can’t think of anything else, all you can think of is you want it to stop.
Someone said something insightful the other day, that for an autistic child at school, they are like a bottle of cola that is getting shaken a bit, periodically throughout the day, and if you don’t lift the lid to let a few bubbles out every so often, by the time the child gets home (where they feel safe) their attempts at bottling it in can be stopped and it all explodes out.
When you feel a meltdown rising inside you, part of you knows you must hold it in and you try so hard, you can even think (at an early enough stage) that you might feel embarrassed afterwards and know that you will wish you hadn’t had the meltdown, but if the trigger remains there is nothing you can do. It’s like something else has got control of your body. As autistics often have trouble speaking up, it can be hard for the individual (especially if it’s a child) to express the rising panic feeling inside them and warn whoever they are with.
When it’s imminent, you might start shouting at people who are the trigger/part of the trigger, or that you are desperate for to resolve the trigger, trying to get help with what’s taking you over. The whole time your anxiety can be shooting through the roof because you are wanting it desperately to stop or go away. Even people who are nothing to do with the trigger, if they spoke to you during this moment, you would probably scream/shout at them too – you don’t possess logic at this moment.
If you are trapped in the situation, despite your best efforts, and especially if it involves sensory overload, that meltdown will come.
It’s not an anger management problem (though it can feel like a hot rage taking you over), but before I knew I had Asperger’s, I presumed it must be temper in my case as I knew no different. It might look like anger/rage to others, and they may think an older child or adult was very immature for behaving that way, or even that they had mental health problems, but it is none of those things.
When in a really difficult situation that I have no control over, I can also have a meltdown in my head (which is basically envisaging and partially experiencing the actual meltdown in an internal way) which could be a precursor to an actual meltdown.
I don’t tend to have massive meltdowns and they are very infrequent, I am a more passive autistic sub-type, although they can happen on occasion, mine are generally what I call “mini meltdowns”, they are a sort of “storm in a teacup” and once they’re done, they’re done. Conversely though, if someone had a meltdown at me, I would be affected by it for many days.
I have a tendency to stamp my feet when a meltdown is building, and I have also broken things in meltdowns, which I wished I hadn’t afterwards. Glue and sellotape are part of the survival kit in our house. Luckily I am good at fixing things too.
A meltdown is a state of overwhelmedness, and nothing else. The word “meltdown” of course, is a colloquialism. The research and clinical fields would use the terminology “emotional dysregulation” and the following article discusses emotional regulation in autism: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/august/autism-emotion-research-081312.html. There is a specific part of the brain that is responsible for emotional regulation and people with autism are more likely to use suppression to try to deal with their anxiety, therefore leading to meltdowns.
So, the more you endeavour to meet the needs of an autistic, the less suppressing of anxiety will be going on and the less meltdowns will ensue!