Autistic Meltdowns vs Tantrums vs Shutdowns

red background with gold writing that reads "When Your Loved One is Experiencing a Meltdown or Shutdown, They Can Hear You! Don't yell Don't reason Just keep them SAFE"

To begin this article, I’d like to establish the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum. A tantrum is a fit which stems from bad behavior, while a meltdown is an emotional response to being overwhelmed. A tantrum is usually a method for a person to get their way, while a meltdown is a way of showing that the person is overwhelmed with their situation or surroundings.

A meltdown occurs when an autistic person loses behavioral control and it is an expression of such. Causes of this loss can range from a sensory overload to something as “small” as a change in routine. I put “small” in quotes because it seems small to an outsider, but is a big deal to the autistic individual.

Meltdowns are terrifying and exhausting for the individual going through them. They seem horrifying and strange to an outsider watching, but it’s even scarier being the one experiencing them. Just like many other parts of ASD, they can manifest in many different ways such as crying/screaming, hitting, throwing things, stimming, kicking, or biting. These are just examples and not every person will show all of these. For example, when I have a meltdown I cry and scream, hit myself, and rock back and forth. Another autistic person may space out and stim and bite themself. It all depends on the individual. Learn what your loved one does and needs during a meltdown personally.

There are many approaches to resolving a meltdown. The golden rule is to approach the person calmly and only use simple phrases and commands. Telling them something generic like “Calm down” can only induce further anxiety, and if you get upset as well, it will make the situation escalate. The best thing is to ask them what they need first. If they can’t tell you, offer them cold water, their stim items, and help them calm themself through breathing exercises. Having a meltdown is often not something an individual can pull themself out of.

Be aware that they are likely terrified and feel terrible and they need assistance to get away from that. Respecting that and their boundaries is the best and most helpful thing you can do for them.

Moving on, tantrums are often caused by the person not getting their way or not receiving the attention they wish for. The best way to deal with these is to address it, step away, and then fix it. Giving in immediately only teaches them that they can throw a tantrum to get their way and will only harm them and you.

So say your child wants a toy at the store and you say no. She may lie on the floor and scream and kick to get her way. The best way to handle this is to tell her, “I see you’re upset, and I’m sorry you’re upset. When you calm down, we can talk about it.” and then step away. Of course, if you’re in public this would mean just stepping back, but at home you could even go into another room. Fixing it only happens when the child talks about their feelings and why they feel that way. This can end in them getting their way, but it has to happen after the process of resolution has occurred.

The third type of emotional response common in autistic people is called a shutdown. Think of it like your computer shutting down from too many programs running. When an autistic person gets overstimulated, their brain has a harder time processing it than an allistic (non-autistic) person. They are similar to meltdowns in the sense that they are caused by over-stimulation. They differ from a meltdown in the sense that they are more quiet. Shutdowns are much less noticeable than meltdowns, and are often taken as just being antisocial.

Shutdowns are commonly presented by the person completely shutting themselves away (either mentally or physically) from the outside world. They most likely could become unresponsive (nonverbal) and withdraw themselves from any physical contact. They may experience dissociation, but not all autistics will. It’s very difficult to pinpoint exactly what a shutdown looks like because it’s so personal.

The best way you can help someone experiencing a shutdown is to help them find a quiet, calm, safe space and avoid overwhelming them with too many questions or comments. Oftentimes these questions/comments can worsen the shutdown because of the sensory processing it takes to listen and respond to them. You should ask them what kind of things they need during a shutdown, as well, before they have one. This can go for meltdowns as well. Being mindful and helping your autistic loved one stay safe is the most important thing.

Here is a wonderful video on shutdowns: https://youtu.be/3WIiL8vBjq0

And one on meltdowns: https://youtu.be/FhUDyarzqXE

 

Nonverbal Communication

  • Nonverbal: not using spoken language
  • Stimming: repetition of physical movements, sounds, or words, or movement of objects

Nonverbal communication is extremely important to anyone with autism, anxiety, or a panic disorder. It can range from texting and writing, to sign language or actual handheld signs. For some nonverbal people, it’s a constant need, and for some, it’s only during anxiety, anger or depression. Though for all, it’s a must.

From personal experience, I know going nonverbal and being forced to verbalize my emotions and what I’m thinking is one of the most anxiety inducing things in the world. With accommodations, I’m able to avoid that anxiety and often calm myself through stimming and calming exercises.

For example, if my fiance and I text, even if we are on call, that’s how he accommodates me. The accommodation allows my brain to not be further over stimulated by me talking and him talking. Sometimes we also just sit there comfortably, or he’ll even read to me if I ask him to.

A big part of nonverbal communication is having preset ideas, boundaries, or organization when the person is verbal or by writing them down.

For children, this is an even bigger issue because as adults and teens we learn to handle our emotions better from years of studying others and practicing, but as a child things are so much more surreal. They can be devastating, even if it’s something that seems as small as a routine change. Having open communication and various ways of communicating can change a whole child’s perspective of themselves and their going nonverbal. It can make it much easier to cope with and easier to help them get through.

For teenagers and adults, it can be extremely frustrating still because many non-autistic or allistic people have the idea that autism only affects children, so often we are called immature or told that we’re old enough to use our words, which can make the anxiety or anger worse that we’re already experiencing. The same goes for us as does children: accommodations = less stress = quicker coordinating and resolving.

Here are some ways you can help your nonverbal friend!

  • Ask them what they need!
    • Asking them and offering them a notepad and pen can be the most helpful thing you can do!
  • Offer them things
    • Offer them water, a blanket, their stim things, any comfort objects, etc. Anything that you know makes them feel better!
  • Only ask yes and no questions
    • This is so they can nod and shake their head. The first thing you should ask is “Are you nonverbal?” and then “Is it okay for me to talk?” Often times, being forced to listen to others speak can be overwhelming as well!
  • Realize that we are likely frustrated with ourselves and getting angry only hurts us.
    • I often get angry with myself about being unable to talk, and when someone gets angry at me, it makes me feel stupid and like a bother.
  • Do not treat us like we aren’t there/can’t hear. We can.
    • Often we get treated like we’re not actually present, when most of us can hear everything you’re saying and see everything you’re doing. It can be very hurtful to have a loved one and/or caregiver talk disrespectfully about us when we’re struggling the most.

So to recap, going nonverbal is a big part of many anxiety disorders and autism. It can be very stressful for the nonverbal person, regardless of age or reason. Having pre-organized forms of communication that don’t require talking is the best way you can help your nonverbal loved one!

 

What Is Autism To Me?

 

Google definition of autism that reads “a mental condition, present from early childhood, characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts.”

The Google definition of autism is as follows (paraphrased): “A mental condition characterized by difficulty in communicating, and forming relationships, and in using abstract language and concepts.” This is true, but it’s very basic. For me, autism goes much deeper because it’s a large part of my identity that affects me daily.

Autism has many characteristics that are left out in this definition such as: repetition of behaviors and echolalia (repetition of another person’s words) and sensitivity to stimuli. Autism manifests differently for different people and means different things to different people.

The ways it affects me* vary day-to-day, depending on if I’ve had my medicine* or how my mood is. Things that don’t change, though, include the following: stimming, sensitivity to lights and sounds, having an adverse response to physical affection, social awkwardness, and difficulty with abstract concepts.Some of them are worsened on bad days, but they are always present for me, personally.  The main thing that affects me is my poor diet.

If I’ve had my medicine and have had a good day, I stim and am usually nonverbal. I’ll also definitely be talking about my special interests and spouting random facts about them. I find that I have a hard time remaining seated, and I can be very clumsy due to my excited nature when I’m happy. One major thing for me that can affect the type of mood I’m in is if my routine is disrupted. Having both ASD and OCD, routine is an important part of my life, regardless of if it’s personal or for school.

For bad days, I tend to have meltdown(s) or shutdown(s), which I’ll write an article about next to explain the difference. My sensitivity is often magnified, so most of the time I end up wearing a hoodie and sunglasses indoors, along with headphones, to calm it down. The headphones help cancel out noises. During these days, I’m semi-verbal. This means that I don’t speak much and often prefer avoiding it altogether. Being touched without being asked on these days can push me into a sensory overload and can cause a tantrum. These tantrums can include self-injurious behavior such as hitting, pinching, and/or hair pulling. I find myself having an odd attachment to my stim objects, needing specific ones for different situations. Outside stimuli affects which one I need, though, I usually go for a puff-ball I have. 

Those are examples of how I experience autism, but what it means to me is that I just think differently. I simply function in a different way than other people and have different needs. I don’t always understand or perceive things the way non-autistics (allistics) do.

Someone once asked me,  “If you could change anything about your autism, would you, and what would it be?” My answer to that is nothing. If I absolutely had to choose something, I would like to be better at making friends, but even so, I can work on that. I understand that I am far from what is considered neurotypical and that I struggle because of that, but it will only help me grow as a human being, and it will also help me be more compassionate towards other human beings. I accept my autism, and I accept myself how I am.

*This is only how it affects me. Like I mentioned, autism affects and manifests differently for different persons.

*There are no medicines specifically for autism as of now, but I take adderall which helps with my focus and helps me be calmer. Autism is not something that can or should be “cured,” and wanting it to be is an ableist concept that is harmful to autistic people.

 

Dissociative Disorders – What Are They?

Link to my tumblr post on dissociation: https://gay-osdd-kid.tumblr.com/post/169372760108/what-is-dissociation-and-what-are-dissociative

In this, I’ll be writing about the four main types of dissociative disorders and the required criteria to have a diagnosis. If you feel you have one of these, please talk to someone. Holding this in could be harmful to yourself, and getting needed help, if available, is always a good choice.

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID): DID is a psychobiological response to traumas suffered in the time window of about 5 to 11 years of age; it’s a complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and a dissociative disorder, but not a personality disorder. DID was previously classified as Multiple Personality Disorder until 1994 when the DSM-4 was released. It isn’t as rare as it once was believed to be, as it affects 1-3% of the population. Most with DID, have a mixture of dissociative, post-traumatic stress, and non-trauma related symptoms. DID amnesia can occur at any time whether it be for an everyday event like taking medicine, or something big like trauma.

The criteria for a valid DID diagnosis is: a disruption of identity, classified by specifically two or more distinct personalities; a break in responsiveness to outside stimuli, behavior, memory, perception, and cognition; recurring gaps in memory (regardless of the importance of the events); and the previous symptoms causing major distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of daily function. The diagnosis can only be sound if the symptoms aren’t caused by substance abuse, another medical condition, or cultural practice.

Dissociative Amnesia: This is the most common of dissociative disorders. It is classified by amnesia not caused by physical brain trauma, but rather psychological trauma, and is usually comorbid with other mental disorders.

There are three types of dissociative amnesia. Localized is a failure to recall events during a specific period of time. Selective is remembering some, but not all events during a space of time. (i.e. only parts of a traumatic may be recalled.) Generalized is complete amnesia of one’s life and history.

The criteria for dissociative amnesia is: an inability to recall important personal information, usually of a traumatic/stressful nature inconsistent with normal forgetting; These symptoms have to cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, and other important areas of function; not be attributable to drug abuse or another medical condition or neurological syndrome. It must also not be better explained by DID, PTSD, acute stress disorder, or major or mild neurocognitive disorder.

Depersonalization/Derealization: these two are caused usually by emotional abuse/neglect, but also could be attributed to witnessing domestic violence, being raised by a mentally unstable parent, or the sudden loss of a relative/loved one. They can also be temporarily caused by recreational drug use, but the diagnosis is only viable if it persists after the drug has worn off.

The criteria for a depersonalization diagnosis is: unreality, detachment, and feeling like an “outsider” to one’s own thoughts, feelings, sensations, body, and/or actions. Derealization is the same, but with regards to surroundings and outside stimuli. During an occurence of depersonalization/derealization, reality testing remains unimpaired. These symptoms have to cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, and other important areas of function. They also must not be caused by physiological effects of a drug or another medical condition or mental illness.

Other Specified Dissociative Disorder (OSDD): condition in which there are dissociative symptoms, not meeting any other dissociative disorder’s criteria. This disorder’s symptoms apply ONLY to symptom characteristics that do not meet the full criteria. It replaced DDNOS in 2013, and is caused typically by psychological trauma.

The symptoms include: chronic and recurrent syndromes of mixed symptoms- including identity disturbance with lesser noticeable gaps in sense of self, alterations of identity, or episodes of “possession” with no amnesia; acute dissociative reactions to stress, and going into a dissociative trance. A dissociative trance is an acute narrowing or complete loss of awareness of immediate surroundings that manifests as intensive unresponsiveness or insensitivity to stimuli.

OSDD can be caused by environmental factors such as brainwashing, thought reform, indoctrination while in captivity, torture, recruitments by sects and/or cults, etc.

SOURCES:

Dissociative Identity Disorder. Retrieved Jan 4, 2018 from http://traumadissociation.com/dissociativeidentitydisorder.html

Dissociative Amnesia & Fugue. Retrieved Jan 4, 2018 from http://traumadissociation.com/dissociativeamnesia.html

Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder. Retrieved Jan 4, 2018 from http://traumadissociation.com/depersonalization.html

Other Specified Dissociative Disorder. Retrieved Jan 4, 2018 from http://traumadissociation.com/osdd.html

http://freeminds.org/psych/thought_reform.htm

(Google dictionary/thesaurus was also used)

 

What Is Dissociation?

Here are a few definitions you’ll need while reading this:

  1. maladaptive – not providing appropriate adjustment to the environment or situation
  2. adaptive – conforming, conversion
  3. trauma – a deeply distressing or disturbing experience
  4. dysregulation – abnormality or impairment in the regulation of a metabolic, physiological, or psychological process
  5. amnesia – recurrent memory problems, often described as “losing time”, these gaps in memory can vary from several minutes to years

The medical and official definition of dissociation is “a word that is used to describe the disconnection or lack of connection between things usually associated with each other.” In this sense, it could mean a disconnect from reality, identity, emotions, or even actions. This is also my personal definition/view on dissociation.

Dissociative disorders are caused only by some form of trauma, usually repetitive sexual or physical abuse, but emotional abuse is definitely a cause (depending on the disorder) . With that frame of reference in mind, childhood dissociation can be considered adaptive to help the child deal with the stressful situation, but when it continues into adulthood or if there is no longer any abuse, it becomes maladaptive. People with maladaptive dissociation tend to space out randomly, even when there isn’t any danger, or in a situation without immediate danger. This can cause the sufferer to end up in places they don’t remember going to, doing things they don’t remember, and saying things they wouldn’t usually because of how the conscious brain “shuts down” temporarily.

People with these symptoms are often misdiagnosed as schizophrenic due to similarities in the criteria. This can cause incorrect medicines to be prescribed and the wrong therapy techniques to be used.

There are four main types of dissociative disorders: DID, OSDD, Depersonalization/Derealization, and Dissociative Amnesia. I have a post written on this as well. Here’s the tumblr link: https://gay-osdd-kid.tumblr.com/post/169372801868/dissociative-disorders

So, what is it like to dissociate? It differs for everyone, but for me personally, it’s like being out of my own body. I’ll look at my hands or my feet and I don’t even realize they’re mine. I disconnect from my environment and disconnect from both my physical and mental self. It’s almost as if my brain has turned off. Sometimes, this trance-like state lasts for minutes, hours, or even days. I have lots of days where I don’t remember what I ate for breakfast or I’ll find myself in a room I don’t remember walking into.

Dissociation is a scary thing, and it’s something to take seriously. If you experience this, please talk to someone you trust, and a therapist that you have access to.