Friday, December 5, 2008

Meltdowns Happen

It is funny. Funny odd and funny ha ha, in case you wondered. I am a very highly functioning autistic. I am able to hold down a job under the right circumstances. I am able to socialize to a pretty good extent. I am able to do all the basic chores around the house. Nonetheless, I have meltdowns on a very regular basis.

So what are meltdowns?

The brain, whether through too much sensory input, information, cascading thoughts, chemical overload (usually serotonin or dopamine), or some unknown factor x, gets overwhelmed. Being overwhelmed triggers adrenaline. This is the important part.

Adrenaline feeds panic. It is there to do this. If you have to fight or flight, you want adrenaline fueling you so you can move quickly. Your heart rate and breathing increase. You might feel shaky or dizzy. You might have to empty your bladder. You might want to cry or scream, run away or hide, hit things or hurt yourself. It's a natural reaction to adrenaline.

So, you have a brain overloading anyway. You add extra overload in the form of adrenaline. My amazing powers of foresight predict autistic meltdown: stuttering, jitters, flapping, spinning, tears, banging your head into a wall, rocking...

You cannot think straight, you cannot make words to get help, everything around you is too intense and adds to the overload. Your brain is going to find the shortest route possible to feeling okay again. You need to reset the system, calm the onslaught, get grounded. Time to reboot.

As time goes on, one gains (we hope) maturity and experience, two things that will help you reboot faster and more easily. Autism is all about control, and meltdowns are all about losing that control. There are techniques that help.

1. Step back and take several slow, deep breaths. This tricks the body into calming itself. If you have time to breathe, your brain will recognize you aren't in immediate danger.

2. Go ahead and rock or tap or pet the walls if that calms you. Self soothing is good. Calm is good. A bit of detachment is good.

3. Self-stimming is not so good. There is a natural tendency to self stim when the brain gets overloaded. It's a short circuit method to reboot, or at least remove yourself from the situation. It is like lighting a controlled fire to fight a wild fire. It works. It feels soothing. However, it also trains the brain towards adrenaline and overstimulating itself, and it removes you from the rest of the world making it harder to function as an adult. Optimately, this choice is sub optimal.

4. Still breathing? Breath is the key to almost every form of self control.

5. Figure out what set you off. Was it too loud? Too bright? Did a siren go by or a dog bark? Were you simply getting frustrated and started a negative feedback loop? Tell yourself it is only overstimulation, you are not in danger. It is annoying, not life threatening. It is frustrating, not harmful. These things will always be an issue if you have autism. It will always be annoying and frustrating. However, if you can learn to accept it as a mild annoyance and not as a danger, your body will not react as violently.

The goal here is to not only reboot during the meltdown, as efficiently and unembarrassingly as possible, but to train the brain from having as severe a meltdown in the future. You likely won't ever get rid of meltdowns. They're part of autism. Without filters, we're just gonna have them. This is about being an adult and taking charge of yourself, your body, your reactions.

Tantrums are annoying enough in a five year old. In a 25-year old, it's a bit pathetic. In the same way, certain types of self soothing are acceptable and some are best done in private (I can't be the only one who masturbates to soothe the nerves!).

What calms you? For me, texture is nice. I need to make a little square that is raw silk on one side and velvet on the other. I can keep it in my pocket and pet it when I get overwhelmed. If rocking helps you, find a way to do it in public that won't disturb anyone. Find the root of the inappropriate action. Is it the movement that soothes? Is it physical stimulation? Is it blocking out other senses? Find an acceptable method with the same root.

Basically, we are adults now, as frightening a concept as that might be. We cannot help but overstim and have meltdowns, but we can control how we react to it. There are positive ways to adapt to the way our brains work.


Jon A.S. said...

I do agree with Abi on all her suggestions on how to manage meltdowns...I would like to add that meditation, silence, and most of all, a great sense of humour are key here, since most of us auties don't an innate sense of humour, and it is keep up the blog...LOL

Jon A.S.

Abifae said...

Too true! If you can't laugh at yourself, you will never get the joke ;)

I admit, I think my meltdowns are absurd and they usually make me laugh, even while I'm having one and freaking out. Detachment can be a handy tool!

newnoz said...

I'm not sure i understand #3.
Why would it not be good to take ones self out of a distressing situation.? I would think it is better to leave and recoup rather than to hang around i when i am feeling iffy. I feel too close to the edge I have to leave. Perhaps i didn't understand this. Thanks Nora

Abifae said...

Hi Nora :) Sorry I didn't see your post sooner.

I wasn't talking so much about staying or leaving physically. I was referring to self stimming versus methods that calm the overstim.

In my experience, flapping and spinning and other exercises that increase stimulation in some way (to block out the stimulation from other places) increase the chemicals that cause the problem in the first place.

My suggestion is to find things that calm the stimulation instead.

Sometimes leaving is a very good idea. Especially if you can go somewhere to quiet yourself!

Thank you for asking clarification :) I hope my explanation helped.

Andy said...

I'm not autistic, but I get panic attacks. Quite a bit of this advice is Panic Attack 101. Good stuff for anyone, autistic or not, to keep in mind. Even in an actual life or death situation, it's usually better to calm oneself down as soon as possible, because the un-logical brain is likely to make some very stupid, and potentially even more dangerous, decisions.