I was thirty-eight years old when I stared down a late-in-life diagnosis at my neurologist’s office in 2018. Autistic Meltdowns had brought me to this place. I considered them a problem in my life; and I still do, but not for the same reasons.
After several years of contemplation and research, I’ve concluded that meltdowns are a necessary feature of autism.
Making Sense of Autistic Meltdowns
I often use this analogy to explain it: we humans can be seen as an empty glass when we wake up at the beginning of each day. Each social interaction, each sensory interaction, each event we go through adds water to our glass. Autistics tend to fill up much quicker than their neurotypical counterparts. A neurotypical person won’t even fill half their glass by bedtime, but an autistic could be overflowing by noon.
When the cup overflows, it has to be dumped out in order to make space for more water. Because the water will keep coming whether we want it to or not. So, I don’t think meltdowns are inherently a bad thing. They just are for us autistics, and we have meltdowns in common with a lot of other neurodivergent populations. They provide an essential function, a venting of steam, so that we can reset and get back to our day.
Reading my neurological report revealed a new lens through which to view my past. Prior to my diagnosis, I’d felt the meltdowns were a recently-manifested behavior. With the help of my wife and my therapist, I was able to identify a pattern of clear and intense meltdowns in my past.
Looking at these meltdowns as a pattern normalized the behavior and allowed me space to explore what these meltdowns really were, leading me to my conclusion that meltdowns are necessary for autistics to keep moving through a neurotypical world.
Recognizing the Fear and Discomfort of Meltdowns
Necessary does not mean comfortable. Quite the opposite. If someone is reading this and enjoys their meltdowns, I would genuinely like to hear about your experience. Most of us dread them. For me, they can be particularly scary, and this is my problem with my own meltdowns.
My meltdowns tend to be violent. Things get broken, walls get punched, words are screamed out loud that aren’t true, one time I even broke the passenger window of our car with my head. Thousands of dollars’ worth of damage has resulted from my meltdowns, and the guilt and shame I feel as a result causes deep depression.
It’s a cycle. Literally, it’s the shame/rage cycle. My meltdowns are complicated by my severe PTSD. I realized this when I synthesized my two diagnoses. The abuse I suffered throughout childhood and adolescence causes me to feel shame, which turns into negative emotions causing aggressive behaviors.
I engage in these aggressive behaviors to avoid the negative emotions related to shame. I then feel more shame for engaging in the aggressive behaviors and the wheel keeps turning, over and over.
Exiting the Shame-Rage Cycle
I’m stuck here. For now. But I’m climbing and clawing my way out. Even writing this blog is an action I am taking to end the shame-rage cycle that has infiltrated my natural meltdown system. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do to address my violent meltdowns, but I have some ideas to start with.
Number one is to increase my practice of mindfulness meditation. By increasing my level of mindfulness, I will be able to recognize meltdown triggers earlier and possibly head them off, or in the very least, funnel them into a more manageable and less traumatic experience.
My second action is to get a new therapist. I’ve been working with my therapist for eight years! As a former therapist myself, I could explain to you the benefits of a long-term therapeutic relationship based on humanistic psychology and person-centered theory, but I won’t. What I will say is there is a time to move on in therapy, and my time is now. I’m searching for a trauma-based therapist with certification in EMDR, a common, tactile/sensory technique for addressing trauma.
A new therapist is a fresh set of eyes on the situation, which is something I really need right now. After leaving the field of psychotherapy five years ago, I can finally say my ego is ready to accept new ideas without the preconceived bias of how I think my therapy sessions should go.
My third action is to keep writing about it. I will be journaling, and I hope to blog more about my progress on this great project of mine. There are lots of micro-actions I am going to try. I’d like to see how a strict regimen of eco-therapy would affect the cycle.
Establishing New Patterns
As I understand myself more through the therapeutic process, I hope to uncover deeply-seeded triggers that I am unaware of. I think they are there, lurking and locked away within my subconscious where all the serious work gets done. If I can find that door and establish new patterns of behavior, I think I can mold my meltdowns into an actual positive experience.
The meltdowns don’t have to be comfortable to be positive, but the violence does have to end.