Have you heard about autistic meltdowns? Most people are familiar with overload breakdowns and tantrums from small children. One stems from simply being unable to handle a situation, causing a falling apart and lack of self control. The other is a willful and defiant manipulative technique where the person having the tantrum attempts to gain control of a given situation, or other people, usually trying to change the outcome of some situation which is not to the tantrum-giver’s liking.
It might take a bit of close examination to discern the difference.
Because people with autism can have our senses and emotions overloaded more easily due to struggles in processing, autistic meltdowns are not uncommon. When a person can not quickly process events, deal with unwanted noises, lights, touches, or emotional feelings , we will generally deal with this by wanting to escape. People under other peoples’ care or control (children for example) may not be listened to when they exhibit signs of distress, ask to leave a situation, or try to protect themselves from too much input by covering eyes, hiding, covering ears, etc.. Stimming( self comforting behaviors) much more heavily than normal, rocking, pacing, etc, showing restlessness, anxiety, all can be signs of impending meltdown , but could be helped by removing the individual from whatever is causing the discomfort and distress.
The second stage, if the distressing overload of senses or emotions is not escaped, is to shut down. I should say that this could be momentary or of very long duration. I call this ‘deer in the headlights’. The individual is not able to take in the input overload and freezes, unable to respond. I will react like this when suddenly called upon to answer unexpected questions, when suddenly facing danger (like an oncoming car, impending or looming interactions I feel helpless to deal with) If input continues and the individual is unable to deal with things (unable to understand what is expected, unable to defend oneself verbally or physically, is overwhelmed by senses or emotions of any kind due to inability to process quickly and to think of ways to react, etc), Meltdown happens. It is loss of all self control, shown by falling down, throwing oneself around, hitting oneself or others, pushing, struggling, screaming, crying, or otherwise having complete inability to act in any way to help oneself or to interact with others.
Some people simply shut down and remain locked into themselves , withdrawn from everything and everybody around them.
Eventually the person loses energy as the frustration, fear, anxiety, distress, emotions are released. I think of meltdowns as similar to an overloaded electric circuit.. if one tries to send too much electricity ( information, emotional or sensory input) and the board (ones brain in this metaphor) can’t handle it, it blows a fuse or otherwise discharges the surplus energy. Meltdowns are never purposely performed, as tantrums are… they are spontaneous and very different from individual to individual. There is almost always embarrassment and shame, it never having been the intent to cause trouble or make oneself a spectacle. Recovery from a meltdown can take hours or even days, or only a short while, depending on the individual and on the quality of support they are able to access.
Autistic adults report that differing things help in different stages of meltdown. If they are listened to and allowed to leave when they express discomfort in any situation, many meltdowns can be avoided completely. Some will want to have dark and quiet, some will want to walk or run. Recovery often involves hiding in a dark and quiet safe place, some people will sleep for a long time and feel better when they wake.
There is not a lot known about the physiology of autistic meltdowns, but it is very definite that it is never intentional and never to gain control of another person or situation.
If you see an older adult and you think they are having unseemly tantrums, and behaving badly, look at it from the lens of autism. It could be meltdown.