If you are a parent who has ever experienced an autistic meltdown, I. Love. You. I really do. I feel your pain. I want to hug you. I want to tell you it’s going to be okay. I want to clean up the mess your child makes for you, so you don’t have to worry about it. I want to throw rainbows all over your house and make all your wishes come true.
Because I’m on the autism spectrum and the mother of a child and nephew on the autism spectrum, I know this apocalyptic event too well. If you ever wondered what truly is going on during an autism meltdown, I’d love to explain it to you.
Autistic Meltdown from an Outsider’s perspective (for those who don’t know).
Your child asks you to blow a balloon for her. You stop what you are doing. You blow it up. You tie it. You hand it to her all excited for her that she has a balloon, and that she is actually excited about the simple things in life like a balloon. She flips out on you. She throws the balloon. Starts crying. Stomping. Screaming.
You ask, “What! What do you want? What’s wrong? What can I do?”
She is not responding with anything coherent. You sort of make out the word “Purple.” You assume she wanted a purple balloon. You think, “Do we have a purple balloon? Maybe I should go buy one. I need a purple balloon…” She never said purple. That’s what you heard.
Meanwhile, she’s tipped the bookshelf over with books all over the floor, you know, the ones you just alphabetized. She has dumped a trash can and thrown chicken bones across the room after kicking the trash she poured on the floor. She also has dumped a toy chest. Flipped a chair. Threw the toddler table. Tried to smash in a window with her toddler chair…
You still have no idea what just happened and are in a state of shock.
Then she calms down after a half hour to an hour. She feels really guilty. She wants hugs. She wants to know you still love her. You figure out what happened was you didn’t blow the balloon big enough. You hug her. Tell her you love her. She forgets the whole thing ever happened while you ponder over it for days.
Autistic Meltdown from an Autism Perspective
You are a child. You are tired. You didn’t sleep well last night. All day long, nothing has worked out for you. You didn’t get to watch your favorite show. You didn’t get pancakes like you wanted. Your bowl of cereal wasn’t as big as you wanted. Your siblings keep taking your toys, pushing you, hitting you. On top of it, the sun coming through the window is kind of giving you a headache, plus you stepped on something wet and it feels like slimer from Ghostbusters slimed your foot and it won’t come off.
You find a balloon, and you want to make a pretend hot air balloon. So you go ask mom to blow it up for you, all excited, and mom ties it before you can tell her you need to have it bigger for your hot air balloon. Now she’s ruined it. You can’t blow more air in it once it’s tied. Then you didn’t get pancakes. Your foot feels weird. Your head hurts. Everything is so wrong with your day. You just give up. You can’t take it anymore. You are angry, sad, overwhelmed, frustrated, like every emotion at once intensified and you don’t know what to do with it. You scream and throw stuff. You know you don’t want to hurt a person. You know you don’t want to really break something even though you really want to. And that stresses you out on top of it. Trying to control it is making it worse….
Basically, everything you are feeling as a parent experiencing your child’s autistic meltdown, your child is feeling that too. Lost. Out of control. Angry. Scared. Everything at once.
That’s what it is. Overload. They say senses are heightened with autism, like sight, smell, taste, touch. That’s not the only thing that is heightened. Fatigue for someone on the spectrum is more fatigued. Hunger is more hungry. Sad is more sad. Overwhelmed is more overwhelmed.
It doesn’t help that the mind of autism often gets stuck, like it stutters, and it’s really easy for autism to dwell on something, especially negative things. So something that happened to someone on the spectrum early this morning can still be a big deal late in the evening. Most of the time, sleep will clear up most of the little things, like, “I didn’t get my way.” It’s like it reboots the brain. Bigger things usually takes a lot more time, like a great injustice.
On top of it all, the brain doesn’t stop. It keeps going, 24/7, observing every sound, movement, shadow, thing out of place… Imagine Jason Bourne. The autistic mind walking into a restaurant without being tired will tell you inside the restaurant that there are 5 cars in the parking lot, one’s a truck, 3 black, a white, and a grayish tan vehicle, 2 had license plates from the state of Colorado, and one is probably a Marine due to the Devil Dog sticker on the back, and it was parked ironically next to dog poop.
All these factor into a meltdown. It’s like the straw that broke the camel’s back. Meltdowns are NEVER about one thing. They are always about multiple things, sometimes spanning for months.
Most people on the spectrum generally have two reactions to sensory overload. One is shut down. They go into a zombified state, like severe autism. A non-communicative poker face that won’t move. The other response is meltdown. It’s basically fight or flight, on red bull.
The important thing to note is that during an overload, you have to first remove the overwhelming nature of the overload before attempting any other strategy. How? That’s a matter of trial and error for what works with your kid.
Knowing what an autism meltdown really is will help you figure it out. Everyone has their own tolerance to what life throws at them, and autistic people are just much more sensitive to the sentiment, and overwhelm or overload leaves them in a state of psychotic that makes them want to pull their own hair out. They don’t know what to do with all those feelings and showing them is a primary step to solutions.