I’ve often heard the term meltdown used when referring to temper tantrums autistic children have in public. Sure it can be irritating for everyone in the store to have to listen to it, but maybe instead of getting frustrated, it might be a good thing to figure out what causes them in the first place.
I was an autistic child in the 80s and 90s when autism wasn’t very well known yet. My mother knew there was something different about me, but no one quite knew what it was until I was much older.
So what are shutdowns and what are meltdowns? I can tell you that for me, they both have specific triggers. Autism affects us all differently because we are all individuals, but, at least for me, it’s caused by one of two things: noise and crowding. I don’t handle too much noise well; I have noise sensitivity issues. Some of the things that affect me the most include shrill sounds like alarms, children screaming or crying, and screeching ‘nails on a chalkboard’ type noises. Also, anything that’s just too loud, like music that’s too loud or a noisy, crowded room.
I recall my noise sensitivity was a problem early on in life. I was terrified of school fire or earthquake drills. On one occasion, I remember the fire drill startled me so much that I refused to move, and my teacher had to carry me out. And sometimes, my mother had to be informed when there was going to be a fire drill so that I could be prepared.
I don’t have meltdowns anymore; I have shutdowns. I cope with the noise and the crowds by withdrawing into my mind, disengaging from the world around me. It’s like my mind becomes a shield, and I stop talking and interacting with everyone around me. With meltdowns, I went into panic mode and cried, screamed, and sometimes tried to run away from the situation. I can’t think clearly when I get like that.
The most important thing that my family did for me was knowing that noises and crowds cause this problem, but also, not treating me different than my non-autistic siblings. If I acted out in public, I’d be removed from the situation immediately, just like my siblings would. And really, that’s the best way to handle it; if I’m having a meltdown or a shutdown, I need to be removed from whatever is causing it for my own sanity, as well as everyone else’s.
Now, as an adult, I take responsibility for my own sensitivities. I don’t go to places where I know there will be noise or crowds. I don’t go to noisy clubs, I’ve never even been to a rock concert, and I tend to stay away from situations where there will be a lot of children. It’s part of my need to be independent that I learn how to deal with these situations on my own. I can’t expect other people to accommodate me all the time, so I have to be my own advocate.
Sometimes being in these situations are unavoidable, so I have my own strategies. When I have to be in a crowd, it helps if I sit down and stay in one spot. If I have to get up and move around and have people moving all around me, the anxiety gets to me, and I wouldn’t be able to cope. So when I’m at social gatherings, I find a place to sit and I avoid having to get up, and I tend to guard my seat, so if I have to get up, I can make sure I have somewhere to come back to. This strategy helps a lot.
I also always bring headphones with music to drown out children crying or screechy noises. The isolation helps me withdraw from crowds as well. I take my headphones and my phone with music with me everywhere I go, and they are handy at canceling out the noise around me.
My friends and family also help by understanding. They know I don’t handle noise or crowds, so I tend to be exempt from having to attend things like kids birthday parties and stuff like that. It helps a lot to know that they understand me and know when I need to back out of a situation.
I still have shutdowns, but they don’t often happen because I know what causes them, and I know how to avoid situations where I know they might happen. And I haven’t had a meltdown since I was a young child because shutdowns tend to be my first line of defense and I am usually able to remove myself from the situation before it gets to that point.
I think that this is the best strategy for coping for those of us with autism. If your child or anyone else is having a meltdown or shutdown, get them out of the situation! A meltdown is often a reaction to intense anxiety caused by certain outside stimulants, and if the stimulant doesn’t stop, the meltdown won’t stop.
It’s important to remember that autistic children become autistic adults and just because we grow up, doesn’t mean now have the ability to deal with these sort of anxiety-inducing stimulants. I think that learning to be courteous of people around you can go a long way towards being more understanding of those with autism.
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve always been able to remove myself from a shutdown causing stimulant. I have a strong flight instinct that has served me well. The idea of being stuck in a situation where I couldn’t escape noise or crowds when I need to is one of the worst situations I could imagine being in.
So don’t force autistic adults to endure these situations just because we happen to be adults. Autism doesn’t go away; it’s with us forever, and its something we deal with every day of our lives. A little understanding goes a long way. Don’t force your autistic friend to go to a club with you and if you see someone walking around Target with their headphones on, don’t judge them. And don’t engage them. That screaming kid in the store might have driven them to the edge of meltdown mode, and the headphones are working to calm them.
No one expects unreasonable accommodations for their condition. I don’t. But merely extending a level of understanding, and some common human courtesy goes a long way. Don’t let your kids crowd strangers, and remove autistic children from whatever is affecting them, and don’t bother autistic adults. That’s all we ask, just some understanding. We aren’t asking you to bend over backward for us; we just need to be able to cope with our environment in our own way.