Autistic meltdowns…adult style

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Probably any parent of a child with autism will tell you that meltdowns suck. I agree, even though I am coming from a different viewpoint, that of the person having the meltdown. If you met me and got to know me as a casual acquaintance or even a relatively close friend, you would probably think I am a fairly calm, low key, easy-going kind of person. And most of the time I am (although those who know me best can attest that there are a lot of emotions under the surface that most people just don’t see). However, even though I am not proud or eager to admit it, I do still have occasional autistic meltdowns.

The funny thing about autistic meltdowns is that they can occur over seemingly ridiculous things or over obvious stressors. For instance, I had a meltdown today. I know that it had actually been building for a couple days because of some major stressors going on this week. Yesterday I was a sobbing, depressed mess. I walked around like the living dead, wishing that I could just hole up somewhere and hibernate for a while. Today, things kind of came to a head when I was doing a puzzle to try to relax and couldn’t get the pieces to fit quite right. In my head I heard myself say, “you should get up and leave right now before you lose it”, but of course I didn’t listen to my wiser self. I kept trying to make the pieces fit, getting more frustrated by the moment. Eventually, I slammed my hand down on the table (which hurt like heck), tore the puzzle apart and then threw the pieces all over the room. Not exactly mature I know. Then I burst into tears when my husband heard the ruckus and came to see if I was ok. Of course, none of this really had anything to do with the puzzle.

When I was a kid, meltdowns were worse in many ways. I would sob so uncontrollably I would start to hyperventilate. No matter how hard I tried to calm myself down, I couldn’t until it was over. I would also often scream at people who made me mad and if they didn’t live with me, I would throw them off my property. Not the nicest I know and I’m sure glad at least I did outgrow that! By my teen years I had calmed down some and didn’t have as many meltdowns. The ones I remember most during those years were related to Algebra. I was not good at Algebra – in fact, I hated it. Partly because I saw absolutely no point in learning it (and still don’t honestly). When I would get really frustrated with my algebra homework I would often throw the textbook on the floor and stomp on it over and over or just throw it around the room. That kind of makes me laugh now, but back then it wasn’t funny, it was incredibly frustrating.

Luckily, as an adult, the meltdowns have become relatively rare. However, it does still happen if all of the stars align just right, bringing the wrong circumstances together at the wrong time. Luckily I never have been (and hope I never will be) physically violent. When I do have these occasional meltdowns, I can see why Asperger’s is often misdiagnosed as bipolar or some other kind of mood disorder. Having an older sister and a mother who are bipolar, I have seen that there can be many similarities between bipolar meltdowns and high-functioning autistic meltdowns. I consider myself lucky that I don’t have meltdowns as frequently as my bipolar relatives though.

Unfortunately, I think meltdowns will likely always be a part of the autistic life, but I do want to give both parents and high-functioning autistic kids some hope by saying they do sometimes get better and less frequent with age. Of course, it is important to remember that all autistic people are different and meltdowns can manifest in many different forms and can range from mild to severe. Often I don’t even know at first what is triggering a meltdown, but it is usually a lot more than what is happening on the surface. I know that my husband will probably never understand why I seem to have meltdowns over things like not being able to do a pilates exercise the right way or because I can’t figure out how to change the color of something on my laptop…but that is just me. It is a part of who I am rather I like it or not, so I guess I might as well accept it and learn to deal with it. Luckily, I receive a lot of love and understanding when dealing with these issues. I wish the same was true for every autistic person, because that support can make a world of difference.

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21 thoughts on “Autistic meltdowns…adult style

  1. Hi Maranda, I found your page while searching for autistic meltdowns in adults. About 8 years ago I was diagnosed with Aspergers. Long before that I was diagnosed with major depression (MDD) and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). Recently I was diagnosed with bipolar 2, which makes more sense than MDD and GAD – plus the mood stabilisers actually work! For mood anyway.

    Now I’ll get to the point – this is an autistic ramble: I am now off work after a meltdown. These meltdowns have been happening intermittently for years, although I simply thought they “weren’t me”. But now I have finally realised what is going on. They’re autistic meltdowns. Mostly often they are due to being emotionally trapped. I am trying to follow rules in a workplace that doesn’t obey rules. When I get bullied I complain and the bullying gets worse or my compliants are ignored – eventually I can’t cope. When my doctors ask for consideration of my medical condition by my employer and my employer does not oblige, at first I go along, I try to fit. I do what they say. But the medical request was real; the pressure mounts and eventually I can’t cope. I meltdown.

    Oh, and I love algebra. It is like finding the hidden order in a pattern. The simplest way to express a complexity. Solving a mystery; a puzzle. Using it you can solve so many real world problems. But I understand it’s not for you.

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    • Hi Bruce! Thanks so much for reading and commenting on my blog post! I still struggle with meltdowns fairly regularly (sometimes worse than others) but I am glad that they have lessened at least somewhat as time goes by. I just recently started a new job and that transition has caused several meltdowns, but luckily they didn’t actually happen at work. I hate that worse than anything, when I start crying at work or get really upset in public. As for Algebra, yeah it will never be for me, but I do know that others sometimes find it fun.

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  2. I just found your blog after searching autistic meltdowns. My daughter is 10 1/2 and has Aspergers. Your behavior you describe sounds EXACTLY like her. Thank you for what you do! It is very important for parents to understand that it will get better. I know the meltdowns will never go away, but I see she is learning to cope with them and is making great progress. I’m so happy you are surrounded by love and understanding!

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    • Hi! First off, thanks so much for reading and commenting! I am glad that you found my post so helpful and encouraging! That is one message I hope to provide to people growing up with Aspergers and their parents, that it can and often does get better, at least in some respects. There will always be challenges, but I think a little hope for the future can be very reassuring to those going through hard times.

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  3. As an adult Aspie, I STILL have occasional meltdowns, which are scary to myself and my poor husband. And like yours, they are caused by extreme frustration and inability to cope with my own emotions. An antidepressant has worked wonders for my particular issues (I have also struggled as a new mom with PPD).
    Thanks for posting this, I know it’s not easy. I just wrote a similar post myself, and though I don’t like to see other people struggling too, I’m glad that I’m not alone in it.
    https://thepuzzledmom.wordpress.com/

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  4. Thank you Maranda for your blob!
    I and the mother of a 29yr old son diagnosed initially as high functioning Autism at the age of 3 1/2, later re-diagnosed with Aspergers when he was 15yrs old. He never experienced meltdowns until he was in his early 20’s. With the help of a great therapist and a psychologist who prescribed meds for him about 4 yrs’ ago for some depression & anger issues, we now see an improvement with both. He still experiences meltdowns over what we neurotypicals would say is an “normal” situation. Example, the power goes out, my son will take the power outage as a personal attack by the electric company only effecting him so he can’t be on the computer or view a TV program. Even though we try to get him to realize that the power outage may be due to an auto accident or some other cause he still can only focus on the outage only effecting him and not the neighbors or that there could potentially be someone fighting for their life if the outage is due to an accident.

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    • Hello! I’m always glad when my blog posts are able to help others dealing with similar problems. I can really relate to what you say about your son. I myself often know logically that the level of frustration I feel is ridiculous and that certain things just can’t be helped, but it doesn’t stop the anxiety from welling up. Being able to release the emotions in a meltdown helps, but then you often feel embarrassed or ashamed for losing control of your emotions.

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  5. Hi Maranda,
    Well, I’ve just pored over these comments from your original blog and feel like I’ve come ‘home’. My grandson is 10 and experiencing the onset of the ‘meltdown’ and is currently going through clinical assessments to obtain a diagnosis of Autism. So it’s great to know our family is not alone with this difficult time for the child and/or adult. But please, does anyone out there have any suggestions about strategies to give our 10 year old who is so loving and kind most of the time and it’s a shame when he ‘explodes’ at school or at home. It’s so out of character that in the middle of it all, we really don’t know how to help him. It would be even better if we could be proactive and help him before he gets to that stage. Hope you can help. Desperate Nanna.

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  6. Came across this post while researching bipolar and autism. Fighting with the medical system where doctors are afraid to provide a meaningful diagnose. Diagnosed with depression and social anxiety. Trying to convince them that I have MELTDOWNS, nobody seems to listen. Really lost hope in achieving anything. Reading so many posts of people who had successfully got their diagnosis I cannot understand why it does not happen with me. Would be nice if you could address what people are going through before they managed to get a proper diagnosis.

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    • Hello! Thanks for reading my post and for sharing your thoughts. Yeah, getting a diagnosis as an adult can be really difficult. It took me a while to find a psychologist who diagnoses adults on the spectrum. I found that doctor by contacting a local college that does work with autism and they referred me to someone.

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    • Somehow I must have missed this comment when first posted, I am terribly sorry about that! It took me a long while to even find a doctor who would diagnose autism in adults. I finally found someone by contacting a professor who specializes in autism at a local university and he was kind enough to help me find someone. Do you believe you have bipolar and autism? I have been diagnosed with hf autism of course, but now my therapist is wondering if I might have a mood disorder as well, which wouldn’t surprise me given that my mother and sister both had bipolar. I don’t have the manic phases as bad as they did though. I never actually lose touch entirely with reality during those times at least.

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  7. Maranda,
    I would like permission to use your image above in a manual I am writing for my capstone for my doctorate in occupational therapy. My manual is to increase the awareness of the characteristics and behaviors of individuals with autism, their families for commercial air travel personnel and provide strategies to assist as needed.

    Your image above would be a beautiful compliment to my manual. Please let me know how you would like to be referenced and credited.

    Thank you,
    Stacia C Hastings, OTR/L, BCP

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Stacia! I assume you are referring to the clip art image of the girl crying? It is not an image I own the rights to, but it was listed as a public domain image, so I would assume you could use it if you wish.

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