I shall attempt to explain meltdown that most of the people on the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) experience at some point of our lives.
The Same but Different
See, autism is a very complex condition and the spectrum is broad. When we find another person on the spectrum, we resonate with that person the huge umbrella of traits – not all, but many similarities. This is the tricky part, unless you are made up of the exact same components with the exact same weightage distribution, even with just one varying trait, you and I might be suspended at the different ends of the spectrum.
Regardless, we all experience meltdowns and overloads at some point. For some of us, we experience them more frequently and more severely.
Personally, I don’t think meltdown is solely dedicated to people on the spectrum. Normal people experience meltdown and shutdown too. The marked difference are the frequency of meltdowns, coping methods, and length of time needed before functionality is restored.
The experience is incomprehensible and unbearable for many. For a normal person, it may take a major life crisis to completely cripple them in proper function. For people on the spectrum, it takes very little to trip that switch and paralyse us in an unimaginable state of dysfunction.
I know we sounded defensive and sometimes offensive when we start to make a distinction between us (the Aspies and Auties) and the normal people (Neurotypicals – NTs). For me, I don’t hate or detest the NTs. I don’t feel exceptionally proud or ashamed to be an Aspie, it is just what it is, my being Aspie is not a result of you being NT. However, many of us wall up when we feel a lack of understanding on your part and the continuous growth of misunderstanding even after you have learned about our challenges.
As for me, I feel that it’s necessary to make that distinction, because there is indeed a different in (actual!) brain work between us. Without that distinction, there is no way in building a bridge for us to find a point of understanding, agree?
The majority of the people (at this point) is still made up of mostly NTs and pseudo-NTs (I was one of them before I knew I have always been an Aspie). We subscribe to certain social requirements and theories to achieve some form of ‘sameness’ and ‘acceptance’.
You know how people love to use the half filled glass as metaphor (for many things relating to mind and tolerance). Well, let me tell you this, mine is generally 75% filled everyday, with the need to adapt to the rules that I am unfamiliar with and have no way in teaching myself to know, and my sensory tolerance to sounds, tactile, smell, and temperature. I only have 25% of allowance for external stimulus and triggers to put me in the meltdown mode. That measurement is on any given good day. On days when I have to meet with strangers or possibly stressful situation, my glass is 95% filled, if not full. I have very little tolerance, if at all, for any triggers.
The Pressure to Restart
When our system is overloaded and it automatically shuts down – survivor mode for people on spectrum; akin to your nervous system causing you to blackout to cope with the traumatic pain – it is opposed to what most people think as a ‘relief’.
We face the pressure to restart because we want to be better, but the more we try to get through it sooner, the slower it gets to reboot. It’s like performing multiple commands at the same time, there is no real reset. When the system is overloaded, the only command is to shutdown and wait for the system to recuperate and restarts on its own.
There are three very generalised coping methods. One being completely silent and still; another being very hyperactive and impulsive; lastly, a combination of both stillness and impulsiveness.
Some people went completely underground. Some people became hyperactive (watch for the contributing comorbidity – ADHD). Some went into pendulum swing of being silent and hyperactive.
When we are in our meltdown mode, it usually means our most trusted and loyal guard named Rationality, is defeated by the enemies. Without that guard, we are completely unprotected and emotionally vulnerable.
That is bad news. One of the things that make us the high functioning lot on the spectrum is being rational. Before the meltdown, we are oftentimes described as emotionless, stoic, collected and lack of empathy. Many of us ‘talk knowledge’ as a from of conversation; the knowledge is generated from the department of rationality.
When that is gone, we are thoroughly defenceless. Emotions are unguarded, and all over the places. We become frantically panicky. We can’t keep things together, like we would with the presence rationality. We cannot explain and understand the discomfort that emotional pain brings us.
Anxiety creeps in and takes over.
I was in the exact position as illustrated, when I was in one of my most severe meltdowns. I would rock back and forth, preferably in dim environment or complete darkness. I suspect that in brightly lit room, my sensory gets overloaded too when I rock back and forth, as the light and visualisation of the environment is constantly changing.
Then, I hum. Something that I had been doing as a child. My mother used to ‘complain’ about it because I could make a non-musical hum all day long. The more she asked me to stop, the louder the humming went. My mother would threaten to cane me, but I think what trigger my loud humming was her yelling; it could be an attempt to drown her shoutings with my humming.
The Painful Break
See, before we can reboot successfully, there is a troubleshooting and self-repair process. Uninterrupted, the reboot may be faster. However, there are some meltdowns that require a lot more time and endurances. There will be times when we cannot take the emotional pain, and we will break from the state of stillness and breakdown; then, we have to start all over again to regroup our strength.
When I break the cycle of calming myself, I feel an excruciating pierce in my heart, and sometimes combined with negative emotions such as self-loathe and self-despise. The more we struggle, the tighter the bondage around us becomes.
Aspies in Love
We are said to be emotionless, and seemingly unaffectionate. Are we? I beg to differ.
We are possibly one of the most affectionate people because we have been alone. We secretly crave for a best friend, a soulmate, a life partner, preferably the same person with those roles, who will understand us and accept us as who we truly are.
With the lack of effective ToM, when we fall in love, we FALL IN LOVE, irrevocably. Either we don’t second guess anything; or we doubt everything. It really depends on our life experiences. Still, the earlier kicks in by default, until we go to the smelly thrash bin to dig out the bad habits we picked up while pretending to be NTs (I am not insinuating that NTs are diabolic being, I am saying that when we pick up tools that are unsuitable for us to use, it’s more damaging than it’s helpful), and we apply the NTs rules on our Aspie partners.
In addition, chances are higher that we all dated NTs before we (even) found an Aspie date. We would extract our ‘dating 101’ knowledge from the past experiences and try to refine it to apply on our Aspie date. It won’t work. We have to discard that set of skills and rebuild it. That is the only fair treatment to our Aspie partner who is similar to us.
Old habits die hard. I believe it’s harder for Aspies since changes are difficult. So, there is going to be a process, and it takes work.
It is not a magical relationship, it’s desirable because when we manage to rough out the edges, we will achieve an unprecedented and unsurpassed smoothness.
The Waiting Out
There is no cheat sheet in getting through meltdown. The only way is to wait it out. There is no telling of the duration of each meltdown and the coping behaviours.
It can take as short as hours (I have never experienced minutes of meltdowns), and as long as months, depending on the gravity of the triggers that lead to the meltdown. There are many factors that may also determine the duration. Like a panic attack, it’s important that the person is removed from the environment that sets off the trigger; when it’s impossible to do so, the duration may stretch longer, because of the constant overload.
The NT Partner
If you are in a relationship with an Aspie, be realistically aware that he or she may experience meltdowns at certain point. You may feel dejected because he or she may not respond to you in any way. It is important to discuss this (before any meltdown, preferably soon after the relationship is formed) to equip yourself with the knowledge and awareness when it happens.
Don’t expect your Aspie partner to react the same way as your previous NT partners. Even if you have discussed details of meltdowns in length, every meltdown may be different. Some meltdowns are more interruptive than crippling. He or she may be able to respond to your text messages and inform you of the situation. Other meltdowns can be paralysing that he and she just couldn’t offer any explanation and clarification to the many questions you have.
The Aspie Partner
If you are an Aspie in love with another Aspie, you already know there will be meltdown. That doesn’t mean you won’t be affected by the meltdown of your partner, or your own. Communication is still the key to better management when it happens. Knowledge is always helpful for Aspies, because that helps us feel assured and not frantically flapping our limbs and running around pulling out our hairs.
Oddly, I would say this to the Aspies as I said to the NT partner. My argument stems back to the earlier statement that we would probably have dated the NTs first. Don’t expect your Aspie partner to react the same way as your previous NT partners!
The more tricky part about Aspie + Aspie relationship is that, the other party may actually go into his or her own meltdown when the partner does. It’s not contagious (or could be, heard of shared psychosis?), if that’s what you were thinking. When the first Aspie goes into complete meltdown and off the grid, the second Aspie get sucked into the tornado of unknown, and that could trigger anxiety that can lead to his or her own meltdown.
The Aspie in Meltdown
Although I mentioned that the meltdown is automated, and when it happens, there is pretty much nothing we could do about it. However, I’d like to highlight the power of sub-consciousness.
Take in this information now. When the meltdown happens, you may be surprised how our brain extracts useful information to guard our sanity.
Remember this, don’t do anything impulsive. Chances are, the impulsive actions will spin things out of control as it introduces a wide array of emotions such as guilt, shame, apologetic, anger, frustration. etc. Believe me, my history with anxiety attributes to impulsivity, I know what I am talking about.
Patience and a Strong Heart
I won’t lie. It is equally hard for the person dealing with the meltdown as well as the person on the sideline. It is probably harder for the person on the sideline, because it is very hard to watch the person you love in an encased bubble where you are not allowed entrance into. It is hard to feel absolutely helpless and useless in such situation.
It takes patience and a strong heart to ride through this rough part of the journey. Patience is a prerequisite, there is no bargaining on this part. You also need a very strong heart – the faith in the relationship and in your partner – because you will experience bouts of highs and lows while you wait it out with him or her.
You don’t know what to do; you don’t know if it’s about you; you don’t know how to help; you don’t know if you should stay or walk away.
It is very important that you don’t justify the meltdown when you talk with your friends. There is no ‘should’ or ‘should not’. If you want to share the situation with other good friends, share it because you want moral support to help you sit across him or her while he or she doesn’t look at you or talk to you. By sharing the intensity of the meltdown, your friends will remind you of it when you start to entertain negativity.
The Reality of a Meltdown
I didn’t realise this until recently. When I go into a meltdown, my world moves into a super slow motion. Time slips past my consciousness. Hours passed but my brain only registers as minutes. There is no loss of memory per se, but during this time, my image processing ability is only picking up greyscale, and ignores other colours in the RGB mode.
I suspect it’s the survivor instinct to minimise more overloads. There is a ‘numbing’ effect, a little like ‘out of body’ experience. I could feel some pain, yet it felt a little distant. It is almost like a form of dissociation between mind and emotions. During this time, the mind is incapable of creating new memory, or accessing memory retrieval cues created previously. That could explain why I can be completely incapacitated because there is nothing for me to draw out to become responsive.
The Rewarding Part
I may not be the most qualified person to say this, but it’s more of a logical deductive conclusion.
Tiding through episodes of meltdown of an Aspie is rough, if not painful; but if you wait it out, the outcome can be very rewarding. During the process, hopefully you have found the value of patience, the strength to trust and believe, cultivating a better person out of yourself. Most importantly, appreciate the genuine appreciation from your Aspie partner when he or she has successfully overcame the meltdown, and you are still there.
Try to understand this. Going into the meltdown mode is not our way to torture or test our partner. Don’t be hurt that the meltdown is all about us, because without saving our last bit of sanity, you will not even have a partner after that.
If you have taken a plane before, you will remember the safety demonstration that urged you to put on the safety vest and oxygen mask before you help the minor. Moral: the survivor chances of the minor is drastically reduced if you die first.