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.

 

Sick of This Story

The picture I use for the blog and the FB group The Outcast Army for minority activists representing feelings of minorities after Trump with anger rising out of despair (merch here). However, the first time I had this image in mind was after an autistic child was killed by his mother, one in a far too long list

The picture I use for the blog and the FB group The Outcast Army for minority activists representing feelings of minorities after Trump with anger rising out of despair. However, the first time I had this image in mind was after an autistic child was killed by his mother, one in a far too long list

“And how many lives have been wasted?
How many bodies laid to rest?
Sick of the lies, the same old story
All over and over and over and over
Over and over and over and over again”

How Many Walls, Rise Against

A couple days ago, the worst month of the year for autistics began. Autism Awareness Month, the global hatefest where people support the eugenicist hate group known as Autism $peaks. I’ve already written an autism acceptance #RedInstead article, (well, technically two but the older one was too nice), made a masterpost of articles from different sources and perspectives, written an essay for class and a poem about the puzzle piece, and created this toolkit to help people debunk talking points they might encounter (that includes all those 5 things) and a guide on how to take action to get people to not support them (that has the toolkit linked).

After writing seven things on them of different forms and purposes, I want to make clear that in reality…they aren’t the real problem.

They’re a symptom of something that is larger and more pervasive and has existed since autism was first diagnosed in the US when it was said autism was caused by “refrigerator parents”. (though the effects of hating us for how we appear differently could arguably be considered to have had signs in faerie tales.

The reality is, people have always hated us, and will long after A$ is gone. They’re a juggernaut that perpetuates and profits off of it, but I could name ten other people/organizations that do the same thing (though not as successfully), and there will always be more (a rather horrifying [because it revealed just how much people hated us] example of hatred becoming far too popular was the New York Times bestselling book To Siri With Love, ableist screed where she talks about sterilizing her son, misgenders and insults an autistic activist and other horrible things, here’s a chapter-by-chapter analysis, review, and screenshots of an engagement between the author and the nonbinary activist who she called a “manic pixie dream girl” in the book).

That’s because this fight isn’t against a corporation but against a narrative that is ingrained in society, the narrative of autism being a tragedy.

The effects of this narrative go beyond just the ads and propaganda (though A$ ads like Autism Every Day and I Am Autism [don’t read these if you’re autistic the first one made me cry and ask why they hate us so much] definitely have a huge effect); they hurt and kill us.

The main therapy in the US is ABA, (here’s a masterpost of links), a “therapy” that has the goal to train us out of looking like autistics. Therapy is in quotes because it’s abuse, as these accounts from someone who went through it and someone who used to do it should make clear. This idea of autism being a disease needing a cure like A$ says leads to horrible “cures” like MMS which is bleach that parents are forcing kids to swallow. It’s the real reason for anti-vaxxers because it’s much less about being anti-science than trying to find a cause for the damage to their kids (one of them wrote a book called “I Wish My Kids Had Cancer: A Family Surviving the Autism Epidemic”). It’s the justification for shocking people at the Judge Rotenberg Center which is still happening even after it killed someone. It’s also the fuel for the endless cycle of parents killing their autistic kids, with the sympathy and justification for the murderer leading to yet another death.

This hatred is everywhere, all the time, but most of the time I’m allowed to ignore it. This month is like a magnifying glass taking the hatred and focusing it into a single blue beam that pierces like a spear in my skull.

I’m sick of this story that leads to so much death and suffering. How many bodies of innocent children need to be laid to rest for people to stop believing this lie. We’re human just like you, but nobody would justify shocking/poisoning/murdering allistic kids as often as it’s done to us.

If A$ disappeared, all of this would still be here year-round. Don’t let your fight alongside us be any less when May 1st comes around just because it’s returned to where you aren’t forced to think about it.

I don’t have that luxury.

-Laoch Onórach