I have been putting off this issue for a while. No Autist (Autistic Spectrum Individual) wants to discuss meltdowns. Discussing it is a reminder that we are different. If you have an Autist in your life, and you have never experienced a meltdown… You are one of the lucky few.
I have covered tantrum avoidance in this series before, but I do not feel that I have really described what a tantrum is. The following are not terms used by mental health care professionals, but are being used to help express ideas and differentiate certain concepts to make certain things clearer.
Type 1 tantrums:
This is your standard tantrum. Every child is capable of these. A type 1 tantrum is a demonstration of emotion in an attempt to manipulate a situation to their advantage. In this kind of tantrum, the attention of someone else is REQUIRED. There will be glances to make sure that they are being observed. Traditionally, this is the type of tantrum that can be made to go away by ignoring it.
Type 2 tantrums:
If you have children – Autistic or otherwise, you have seen this kind of tantrum before. It often leads to long, heart breaking crying jags and doesn’t seem to respond to normal tantrum coping mechanisms.
Ignoring a type 2 tantrum will not solve or diffuse the issue.
Type 2 tantrums are the difficult ones to deal with. These are an outburst of emotion due to excessive stimulation – whether it be sensory stimulation or something far more insidious – emotional stimulation. All Autists, regardless of age, are capable of this kind of tantrum. These tantrums are rarely used to achieve any specific goal. Well, that is not entirely accurate. There will be a goal to this type of tantrum. To remove the offending stimuli.
The term, emotional stimulation, can be confusing. It can be anything from an unfulfilled desire (for an object, food, a different stimulus, being alone, or a change of environment). It can come from unwanted attention, a desire for attention, an argument, disagreement or difference of opinion.
Tantrum vs Meltdown:
I have heard parents say that they don’t think that there is any difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. They say that a meltdown is just a bigger type two tantrum. To a certain extent, this is true… but I do not feel that it is wholly accurate.
A meltdown MAY share the same mechanisms as a tantrum at the start of the event. However, once it shifts from tantrum to meltdown, it changes. The following information is presented as someone who has had meltdowns in his adult life.
Yes, as an adult, I have had tantrums. Sometimes the manic cycles of comorbid bi-polar or sensury issues of autism lead to a build up of pressure, emotionally speaking. The outbursts from this emotional pressure can be intense, sometimes long lasting and horrific. The main thing about these events is that (in spite of the irritation, anger and irrationality) we are rarely tempted to be violent. There may be flailing as a reaction to continued stimulation, but this is not intended to be violent.
The mechanisms of a tantrum are actually a defense mechanism of the Autist brain to remove offending stimulus and attempt to regain an emotional equilibrium.
In a meltdown… this changes… If the mechanisms are the same, then I can only say that they are in overdrive… on steroids… Often a tantrum will be in response to stimuli, either physical, sensory or emotional… Once we pass from tantrum, into meltdown, those mechanisms are magnified to the point that they stop being a defense mechanism and instead, shift from a coping device into actually being the problem. They feedback on themselves and cause a dissonant event.
Symptoms of a meltdown are as follows:
- During a meltdown, the Autist does not care if they are being observed, they are absorbed in their own issues.
- They will not consider there own safety and stand risk of causing themselves or others harm.
- A meltdown is a bit like a hurricane. Once it starts, it will continue under its own power. The only thing to do is ride it out.
- While a tantrum seems out of control, it is not. In a meltdown, no one (not NT helper, parent or Autist) feels like they are in control… and they are not.
- The causes of a meltdown may be caused by an unmet need or an inability to adapt to an environmental change… but once it reaches the meltdown stage, nothing will be able to satisfy them until the event passes.