What I Wish Neurotypicals Knew About Meltdowns

It happened again. After months of being calm, cool, collected Jude, it finally, inevitably, happened again. I had a meltdown. In public.

It wasn’t an easy-to-hide, maybe-they’ll-let-it-slide meltdown, either. I’m talking a full-on water works, crying in a public bathroom, shoulder-heaving kind of meltdown. The kind where I could see my support system getting exasperated. The kind where “get a grip” doesn’t cut it (not that it ever really does).

After I calmed down and swallowed my immense embarrassment, I wanted to explain myself. To tell my family and friends that I’m not just hysterical. That I can’t just “get a grip.” That what seemed trivial to them was just the proverbial straw to me.

There’s a whole lot more going on under my mascara-dripping surface. I’ll try to explain it as best as I can.

It all went down at a wedding, specifically the fancy restroom at a reception hall. This was in the summer, when the coronavirus cases in my area were both low and declining, giving us all a false hope that the worst was behind us. Everyone reassured me that the wedding would be safe. It was outdoors, after all, and we’d wear masks. So what was the point of worrying?

When I went to the reception, I saw that, yes, it was technically outdoors, but with tables piled up on a patio with so little space between them that it barely made a difference, and while some wore masks, it was also abundantly clear how optional they were.

Cue my restroom meltdown.

To my immediate family, this all seemed like a bit of an overreaction, like me being hysterical. To non-autistics, meltdowns can often come off that way. They mislabel them as “tantrums,” but tantrum implies something childish and unreasonable; autistic meltdowns are anything but. In fact, they are a perfectly logical reaction to being forced to exist in a world not made for you.

So even if non-autistics might see the meltdown as a result of a singular event, it’s always so much more than what immediately triggered it. They don’t see all of the little things, piled on top of each other, that lead to that moment.

Such as:

1.) The sensory stimulation, in general, from both being at a crowded wedding and existing in a world that is louder, itchier, and brighter for me.

2.) For being forced to mask (though in this case, I wish I meant it literally) in public, particularly because a wedding requires even more interaction than normal. There’s that constant worry that my voice is too quiet, or that I look “childish,” when I twirl toothpicks in my hands. And I like weddings! They just take a lot out of me, especially because of the increased pressure to hide my inborn autistic traits.

For autistic people, interacting with others, epsecially in a public setting, can be exhausting. It’s not a matter of being “anti-social” (man I hate that misapplied term), it’s just how we process the world. For example, I love spending the day downtown with friends, but once I come home, I’m dead to the world.

3.) My own plethora of everyday anxieties, the kind most people juggle: financial worries, worries about getting COVID, worries about my more vulnerable family members getting COVID, worries that my makeup look terrible, work stress, and the occassional spot of existential dread.

4.) Pesky pregnancy hormones, made worse because I couldn’t tell anyone yet.

Being autistc, I carry that stuff on my back every day and keep going. Occasionally, my legs wobble, but I keep my mask on. I’m proud of myself, for how well I handle the daily load. Here’s the thing, though: Add one more unexpected weight, and I might collapse. That’s what a meltdown is. To outsiders, it might seem like an overreaction to a “little” thing, but in reality it’s the cumulative weight forcing my legs to buckle.

Picture a tablet running ten apps at once. Is it really so surprising when the tablet burns through its battery, overheats, crashes?

That’s exactly what an autistic meltdown is.

So please, if you see a meltdown, remember that it isn’t just about that one thing. It’s so much more than that.

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4 Responses

  1. Jude,

    Your writing style is wonderful and very well done. Especially when describing a heart-felt personal story as you outlined… I could follow along perfectly, having previously wondered about meltdowns. Meltdowns are not something which affects me –– yet I hear so much about them from time to time on this blog. Thank you for sharing your experience.

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