Dancing through Life with Asperger's Syndrome

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Meltdowns & Adult #Asperger’s: part 3

Say you have an #Aspie friend or loved one and you want to learn how to better support them through a meltdown.  There are some do’s and don’ts (mostly dos), all very common-sensical, really.

First, recapping what a meltdown is:

  • a neurological response to stress
  • overwhelmed, not over-reacting
  • sensory overload
  • too much input from too many sources, too fast to process
  • amygdala overstimulated, not providing enough feedback to the frontal cortex
  • flight-or-fight in high gear
  • More embarrassing to the person having one than it is to any onlooker :3
  • capable of being averted IF a) recognised early and b) dealt with properly

What a meltdown is not:

  • Controllable.  Once a meltdown has started, trying to control it is like trying to tell the weather where to rain
  • a temper tantrum. A meltdown is not motivated by anger
  • an anxiety attack or panic attack
  • a threat to others unless provoked
  • personal

A person having a meltdown may appear aggressive to others who don’t know what’s going on:  They may raise their voice or yell, but quite often, it’s not intentional and may not be fully controllable - this is often the case for AS males, who often have difficulty modulating their voices and often sound loud.  AS people often talk with their hands, and during a meltdown, this may escalate to wild gestures.  It’s important to understand two things: 1) Despite appearances, the behaviour is not usually violent towards others and 2) the AS person’s flight-or-fight response is over-stimulated during a meltdown, and the AS person’s hindbrain may interpret provocation as a threat to themselves, in which case, they may try to defend themselves by instinct.  Hands up who can see the problem here?  Exactly — despite that the meltdown behaviour is not usually aggressive by itself, add the wrong trigger and it can become violent VERY quickly. 

When helping your AS friend with a meltdown, you need to minimise behaviours that could be interpreted as threatening by the AS person’s subconscious.  The problem is, many behaviours that NT people use to calm each other down, ARE very threatening to an AS person in meltdown.  So here’s a list of suggestions.

What to do during a meltdown:

  • Project a calm energy.  If you can stay calm and breathe naturally, your calm energy will start to penetrate your AS friend’s hyper-sensitive field and sync up. By remaining calm, you send an unspoken message to your AS friend’s subconscious that the threat has passed and it’s OK to come down now.
  • Be quiet.  It’s the natural urge for NTs to want to talk it out, but when an AS person is in a meltdown state, talking is very difficult.  Remember, the AS person is overloaded, there is too much to process.  They can’t process speech well on top of it all.  If they are even able to find their words, they may come out too fast and bypassing the internal censor, so they come out wrong and lead to gross misunderstandings, adding fuel to the fire.  Just be quiet, quiet is comforting to us.  Be quiet and give your AS friend time to process.
  • Sit next to your AS friend (but don’t crowd them.)  Again, it’s the natural NT impulse to sit across from a friend, the better to make eye contact and give full face attention.  But the hyper-sensitive subconscious interprets these actions as threatening:  Eye contact is challenging and facing a person square-on blocks their exit.  Instead, sit beside your friend, but don’t crowd them and leave them a way to retreat if they need to.
  • Just ‘be’ with your friend. You don’t have to do anything, not talk, nothing.  Just sit and be with your friend, just share the moment.  Your AS friend has a lot of gifts but they come with a price tag of $meltdo.wn, it’s not a big deal.  Remember, nobody is more embarrassed by a meltdown than the person having one — if you can act like it’s no biggie and shrug it off, your AS friend will love you and think you the best friend ever.
  • If you know your AS friend’s calming stims, provide them.  Let them stim, let them get their processing under control.  Same with a quiet area; if you can provide it, do it.
  • If your AS friend needs to withdraw, let them.  If they need you to withdraw and leave them alone, don’t take it personally - they know you’re trying to help, and this is the best way to help them. 
  • If your AS friend is at a pressure point and knows it, they may warn you off:  Respect their boundary and don’t take it personally, even if they’ve yelled it — they’re warning you off because they *know* they’re at a trigger point, they love you, and they don’t want you to be the one in the way of the explosion.
  • Do stay calm and tell any outsiders that everything’s under control and there’s no need to worry, your friend is just having a bad day.  This is particularly important if any authority figures have approached, as that is an ingredient that can quickly turn the situation volatile if not handled quickly and correctly.

What not to do during a meltdown:

  • Don’t tell your AS friend that they’re over-reacting or blowing things out of proportion.  They aren’t; they’re overwhelmed, they’ve got too much to process.
  • Don’t try to touch your AS friend while they’re having a meltdown.  Touch may be difficult for us at the best of times, and during a meltdown, the AS person may be so hyper-sensitive that trying to touch them may be interpreted as a threat or impending violence, and may be triggering.  Let your friend come down first.
  • Don’t try to force your friend to talk about it.  As noted above, it may not even be possible for the AS person to process language at this point, and if it is, it may come out all wrong and lead to worse problems.  They’ll talk about it when they’re able to, believe it!
  • Don’t violate the AS person’s boundaries if they’ve warned you off.  As noted above, they’ve warned you off as a courtesy to you, because they value you and don’t want you to get covered in meltdown.  Respect that.
  • Don’t pursue your AS loved one if they’ve chosen to withdraw!  This is giving chase and it is threatening, it *will* trigger a defensive response which may become violent.  At that point, the best way to help them is to respect their need and leave them alone.  They’ll come out again when they’re able to.
  • Don’t take offense - it’s not personal!  No, it really isn’t. They’re not doing it to piss you off or embarrass you.  Accomodating their needs really isn’t a big deal and if you need a perspective check, consider this:  It’s entirely possible that the reason they’re in meltdown now is because they were attempting to accomodate your NT needs.

My friend Sam Landon, B.A.A, a Behaviour Therapist, wrote a marvellous article for my presentation to the university (you’ll notice I’ve scooped up a few of her phrasings ^_~ ). By permission, I’m reproducing it here:

Leading Up To A Meltdown…
You may notice your friend with AS has some nervous habits and that’s cool.  But when you begin seeing these signs, it’s time to steer to the side and have a quieter moment. 

Ramped-up speech
This is an informal, non-clinical phrase that people often use to describe a form of pressured speech.  On the surface, this seems similar to the speedy babble when talking about interests but rather than speaking about interest topics, it is relating commentary on the environment and often includes complaints.  It’s the person subconsciously beginning to know there is something wrong before they’re consciously aware of it.  Their tone is reflecting their bodily reaction to the stressors.  It’s like “everything is moving too fast and now my speech is following the pace” – but that fast pace is not sustainable.  When pressured speech is about an interest, it often is a precursor to a hyper-focus “I don’t see anything but this moment” state of mind.  For stressors? - It can lead to almost the same thing but in the ‘oh dear they’ve shut down’ or ‘now they can’t stop crying/rocking/yelling’ way.

Physical cues
There are also physical things to note.  Hands may be shaking and held above their ordinary level.  Clenching fists tends to be a good indicator for many people, whether AS or not, and doesn’t always indicate violence.   For example, some people will clench to the point of self-harm, such as nails digging into their hands.  This is more of a stress-stim activity than an indicator of violence; it’s a reflection of tension the person is experiencing.  There are also facial cues:  Eyes unfocusing, clenching their jaw and body tenseness.  It’s like a person is becoming more wooden, more automatic as their fight-or-flight is beginning to kick in.  Once it’s kicked in and full-blown, stepping in is like trying to tell the weather where to rain.  But catching on quickly and helping the person to get somewhere to calm down is like wearing a good windbreaker - it’ll probably still rain but you are better equipped to last it out.

Not all meltdowns are created equal.  Some people can appear to fly into a rage or tantrum, some may appear to be “over-reacting”, and some may shut down completely, they stop talking, stop interacting, stop responding to their environment and may lose awareness.  It’’s important to understand that your amazing AS-person is not over-reacting, they are overwhelmed.  Their flight-or-fight has been over-stimulated and they can’t calm down as long as the overwhelming stressors are still present.

If you are familiar enough with the person to recognize the signs, try to suggest going to somewhere that promotes calm.  If at home, suggest moving to a preferred room.  In public, this can become even more important as you can control your reaction to your AS friend’s meltdown moment, but controlling others is harder.  When you’ve moved off to the side and out of a general flow of people, it can be easier to explain to gawkers that the situation is under control. 

When you are in the middle of a mall on a crowded day, you are only going to wind up with rubberneckers and possibly a mall cop who believes themselves to be entitled to ‘fix’ things – a disaster in the making!  If you are in a crowded public area, know ahead of time some good suggestions for places you can go if a meltdown begins to occur.  Such as “Can we step over here?” perhaps leading to a bench or something out of the way.  Or “Could we go to the washroom?”  Most places have a washroom and washroom etiquette often makes people more willing to accept a simple “No thank you” to over-enthusiastic attempts to be helpful.
“"What’s All This, Then?”
If you are stuck in a high-traffic area, be sure to keep a keen eye on those around you, that they are not crowding you and your AS buddy.  Be aware this will pass with patience.  Be prepared for the possibility that you may need to intercept authority figures before they enter into the situation with an incorrect interpretation of what is happening.  Remember, your AS friend is already in a heightened state of fight-or-flight and authority figures attempting to assert control can easily be interpreted as threatening, leading to conditions that can turn volatile very quickly.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it (and you should, it’s not that hard) is to explain to the authority figure that you have things under control, your friend is not a danger, just upset.  Just having one of those days, right?

No one is more embarrassed by a meltdown than the person having one.  It isn’t nice to lose it and make a scene and to know there’s not a darned thing you can do about it.  Once your AS buddy has gotten to a quiet space, maybe had some time with their calming stims, and gotten their system to settle down again, they’re probably going to be really shy about it.  What they need is reassurance, so the best thing you can do is brush it off.  Maybe later if your friend comes to talk about it, you can talk about if there were any specific stressors that contributed to the meltdown, but the meltdown itself, sweep that under the carpet.  It happens, no biggie, everybody comes unglued once in a while, AS or not.  Instead, give your AS friend a celebrated hot beverage and focus on what makes them your great friend.

Filed under asperger's aspie Meltdowns support strategies

  1. haunt-my-miles reblogged this from snakedance
  2. twistmalchik reblogged this from snakedance and added:
    Say you have an #Aspie friend or loved one and you want to learn how to better support them through a meltdown. There...
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  11. kirideth reblogged this from snakedance and added:
    over-reacting. I cannot repeat...enough. Not over-reacting. And
  12. readingrambos reblogged this from snakedance
  13. felixrocketship reblogged this from sinshine and added:
    So I keep learning more about Asperger’s, and these meltdowns sound pretty fucking similar to the meltdowns I’ve had...
  14. sinshine reblogged this from snakedance
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  16. j--anderson reblogged this from snakedance and added:
    Excellent article! Found
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  18. beautyofourbeings reblogged this from thatfeministqueer and added:
    i’m really glad this came up on my dash. i don’t know any AS people personally, but i hope that if in the future, i do,...
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