Hi again folks,
Thank you everyone who read my post from a couple of days ago and especially those of you who commented. As a few of you said on social media it was useful to read about autism from an ‘inside’ perspective, here goes with another one. Beware – this is probably going to be as uncomfortable to read as it is to write. Meltdowns aren’t fun for anyone!
This post talks about an autistic meltdown in detail so I’m going to add a trigger warning here. Please don’t read if you think the description will make you struggle mentally.
If you aren’t familiar with the term, this article from Psychology Today is helpful. However, the general assumption is a meltdown is the ‘thing’ that looks like an out-of-control reaction – screaming, lashing out or a combination of the two. I consider myself both fortunate and unfortunate in that for the first 40 years of my life I had no diagnosis, so I learned to hide or mitigate my reactions. Unfortunate, because I struggle for a long time (sometimes days) afterwards to get back to my mental ‘baseline. But fortunate, because I don’t have the added difficulty of people being afraid that I am ‘out of control’.
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve done the curling-up-and-screaming thing in the last decade. The most memorable ever was caused by British Telecom’s ineptitude when I moved house in 2010 and they failed to connect our broadband for four weeks. Almost every day we were calling to try and persuade them to be less incompetent. One evening it seemed we had made progress. Twenty minutes later, some dribblet with the same IQ as a bag of wilted celery called and asked me to try switching the router off and on again, and…
…I have no idea. Apparently I curled up on the floor screaming and my ex had to wrestle the phone out of my hand. I don’t know what he said to them as I lost about 20 minutes before I could process anything. However, they sent an engineer the following day, so I like to think one good thing came out of it! But I digress.
This particular meltdown happened about 3 weeks ago. I can’t tell you what prompted it. It wasn’t one particular thing, but a buildup over days or weeks. I seem to recall that failing to understand a spreadsheet (unusual, spreadsheets are usually my friends, the more complex the better) and the fact it was highlighted in a particularly virulent shade of orange were involved, though.
I could feel myself slowing down. Shutting down. If I had tried to walk at this point, I would have only been able to move at a ridiculously slow pace. My movements would have been noticeably jerky. But I was sitting, with my work laptop on my lap. At some point M who I work with came and sat next to me. I had already gone non-verbal at this point so couldn’t tell her what was wrong (though I expect she had noticed and tha was why she was sitting next to me). I began typing one-handed. Can’t tell you what I typed, though I imagine it was something like “meltdown non verbal shutting down cant think help me”. Except possibly less coherent than that.
Oh, yes, I remember. I was typing one handed because I’d got my right hand clamped firmly over my mouth so I wouldn’t scream. I really, really wanted to scream at that moment, but I had retained enough self-awareness to know that a staff room was the absolutely wrong place for that. No, I can’t explain why I can scream when I can’t speak. Hey, nobody said autistic brains were logical ALL the time!
What I can explain is that, at least for me, I am still totally aware of everything going on around me. I’m just becoming less and less able to respond to it. I could feel my body ‘stopping’. I could still move my hands and arms at this point, but they were getting slower. And of course, my right hand was holding my mouth shut so I wouldn’t scream. I like to think that only people in the immediate vicinity were even aware of what was going on. Maybe there were only 4 or 5 people in the staff room. That seems right though I don’t remember.
M knew that it was something to do with work that had been the final trigger. So she gently took my laptop off my lap and put it on the table a few feet away. She’s probably reading this, and she logically did the right thing. I would probably have done the same thing in her situation. Take away the thing that triggered the situation. Perfect decision. Unfortunately, she also took away my ability to communicate so now I was trapped inside my head. Still aware – hyper-aware – of what was happening around me, but not able to respond.
M asked me if I wanted a cup of tea. I thought about a cup of tea, and then very specifically about MY work cup – the one C bought me before she retired – and my box of teabags, and my tub of sugar, and the one spoon we rescued from our dept that is currently stored with our box of beverage items next to the kettle. I thought about the act of boiling the kettle and making the tea, and pouring the milk in, and ran through the whole process in my head, which for me to do physically at that point would have been as hard as attempting to cross the Gobi Desert. In a wetsuit. And flippers. Without a map. (Can one have a map of the desert? Wouldn’t that just be a piece of sandpaper?)
I wanted a cup of tea.
Mid-meltdown, if I really concentrate, I can usually manage a thumbs up/down in response to a very specific yes/no question (“would you like me to f*** off?”), but I have to really concentrate and it can take a minute or so to force my hand into the correct position. Unless people know to specifically watch my left hand for movement it will look as if I’m completely non-responsive.
Inside I’m screaming, I just can’t make myself heard. M says she’ll leave me alone for a while which again, is what I would do in her position.
Now comes the worst part. My mind is slowly coming back to something coherent and I know I need to force myself back to the rest of the world’s reality. I want to curl up and sleep, or hide, or cry, but I have to try and function. My hands come back first. My muscles are screaming because they’ve been tensed as hard as I can without even being aware of it. I move my fingers and stare at them, as if this is the first time I’ve ever been aware of this movement. I blink. Even that’s an effort. I dare to focus on something. Speaking is still a while off – on this occasion, I think words were about 20 minutes away and full sentences didn’t happen until the end of the day. I can move again, but with the same jerky, unco-ordinated movements I had earlier.
Finally, the main part of the meltdown is over. I can interact to some degree. Try to explain what’s happened. Apologise.
I am exhausted. And I am ashamed.
Here, have a photo of FreyCat.
P.S. I’ve seen people describe meltdowns and shutdowns as two different things. As they are both physical responses to a person’s crisis point, I’m sticking with the more recognisable term. Besides, it’s my autism and I can call it whatever I want 😀