And how to prevent them
Meltdowns can happen for any number of reasons.
I experienced them often when I was stressed and suffering with burnout. The first step to finding a solution is to discover what's causing them.
I recently read an article, which was so good I felt moved to share it, along with my thoughts.
The article was written by an autistic man, and has to be one of the best and most helpful pieces I’ve ever seen. And I’ve read a lot about autism, since discovering that my husband is on the spectrum.
So how are meltdowns in autism relevant to stress, low energy or burnout?
You maybe wondering how autism is relevant to burnout, so allow me to explain. By the way, my thoughts come from experience in both of these areas but they are also just my thoughts. I welcome your comments below.
What are the effects of low energy on an autistic person?
The writer of the article I referred to, talks about the negative effects of everyday stimuli on the energy levels of an autistic person. And how it often leads to them experiencing meltdowns, which are also known as ‘red rages’.
To quote the author, Myk Bilokonsky, because I couldn’t do his experiences justice:
"A big part of my life depends on how much energy I have in any given moment to cope with inputs that trigger negative emotions from me. There are a lot of these - loud sounds, inaudible speech, the feeling of sweat on my body, deadlines, ambiguous communication, being interrupted, feeling pressured to do something before I'm ready/able to do it, food not being prepared the way I expect, etc etc etc.
I live in a world of rigid expectations in spite of my own dynamic values, and those rigid expectations are routinely compromised just by living in the world. This means that, to a greater or lesser extent, I spent a large amount of my time consciously managing my own emotional and behavioural reactions to stimuli that bother me."
Meltdowns in an Autistic person
The constant stress of all this is what inevitably leads to meltdowns. The frequency and extent of which, vary from person to person, and I can only speak from the experience of my husband’s meltdowns.
Prior to discovering he was on the spectrum, my husband would have meltdowns on average every six weeks or so. His meltdowns very much resemble those of Myk Bilokonsky, and include:
- Being in defence mode
- Memory problems
- Absolute certainty
- Rejection sensitivity
All of which leads to him becoming VERY angry, verbally abusive, and even physically abusive if not left alone to calm down. He will always blame me for his behaviour, call me nasty names and make continuous personal attacks, instead of discussing the issue at hand. This makes for an impossible situation when it comes to having a calm, sensible and productive conversation.
But, and this is the important part, he usually doesn’t remember what he said or did after the event. So, there is absolutely no point in trying to revisit it, to discuss what happened and try to clear the air of any bad feeling. And I’ve given up expecting an apology because when he doesn’t think he did or said anything worthy of an apology, why should he apologise?
So, what are the effects on the energy levels of those involved in an autistic meltdown?
From my husband’s point of view, it's the draining of his energy, due to constant stimuli, and stress that lead to meltdowns. Then afterwards, his energy is depleted for a few hours to a couple of days. Although within minutes of his rage he will, quite infuriatingly, be singing or whistling, or will be sound asleep!
I, on the other hand, will be reeling from the effects of his rage for a few hours. And will usually lie awake all night, on the sofa!
In the days, and sometimes weeks, that follow, depending on what he said or did, I will be going over things in my head. Like the hurtful and abusive comments he threw my way. If I allowed it to, this would deplete my energy more and more as time went on.
Meltdowns in a person feeling stressed or burnt out
Prior to being diagnosed with M.E./Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I was experiencing the worst kind of low energy levels.
My body wasn’t functioning in the way it needed to, to be able to live a normal life. At the time, this involved most people’s normal, everyday tasks, like:
- Raising three children, all of whom had lost a parent through cancer
- Looking after a husband and a home,
- Working and
- Doing volunteer work, etc.
In a similar way to that of an autistic person, the stress of this often became too much, and I had meltdowns. The consultant later referred these as mini breakdowns. This was due to the extreme sensitivity to the stimuli surrounding me, which previously would not have affected me in such a way.
During those meltdowns, I’m ashamed to say, I became very verbal. It was like a release valve going off in my head. I would shout and scream at the top of my voice. However, I never made it personal or called people names.
Now, here’s the difference between my meltdowns then, and my husband’s now. I always remembered everything I did and said afterwards. Even though I found it hard to control my behaviour at the time, I felt so ashamed for it. So, I was able to, and would always, apologise to those that had been affected by my outburst.
So, what are the effects on the energy levels of those involved, when a person feeling burnt out has a meltdown?
Well in my experience, my children and ex-husband would think, “Here she goes again!” “I’ll just go and shut myself in my bedroom/office until she gets over it.”
However, my ex-husband always said how he was able to forgive and forget my actions. This was because I always showed remorse, and apologised to everyone afterwards. He could then more easily move on from the event very quickly.
Immediately after meltdowns, I would feel absolutely spent. I would lie in the foetal position with no energy to cry anymore or even speak or move. But, interestingly, it did give me a feeling of mental relief. A bit like the times I sobbed during the weeks and months after my first husband passed away.
For a few days after these meltdowns, my mood would be lighter. I would tell my husband all the ways in which he could support and help me whilst I was on my journey of recovery.
How can knowing all this help you?
No matter why a person has meltdowns, there is usually a way to prevent them. Or at least reduce their frequency and extent.
The important thing is to keep our energy levels as high as we possibly can. This can be achieved by eliminating, or at least reducing, the stress factors that deplete our energy. In turn, we can then avoid having meltdowns.
How does an autistic person avoid the stress that causes meltdowns?
This is much more of a challenge for an autistic person, because they cannot change the fact that they are on the spectrum. So, the responsibility of this often falls on the shoulders of the autistic person’s partner or parent.
I have gotten to learn my husband’s triggers and can usually detect, by his behaviour and the look in his eyes, when a meltdown is imminent.
On a day-to-day basis, I am always acting in a way to help reduce the incidents of him being triggered, for example:
- Not filling the diary with too many social events in a short period of time.
- Giving him plenty of notice of where we need to be and when.
- Not springing things on him at the last minute.
- Not speaking to him when he’s engrossed in something.
- Having ‘rules’ and making sure he knows what they are.
- Fitting in seamlessly to his preferred routines, i.e. when it’s time to go to bed and whilst he’s getting his breakfast.
- Making sure I sit with the bright light facing me whenever we go out to dinner.
- Buying the ‘right’ duvets and pillows, which I never seem to get right!
- Knowing and picking the best time to have a sensitive conversation (there’s never a good time!)
- Choosing my words VERY carefully when we do have a sensitive conversation.
- Being extra careful not to make him feel put down by contradicting his thoughts, decisions or actions.
- Not playing videos or music on my phone or tablet, because the tinny sound stresses him.
- Understanding that he needs to sometimes watch the same program over and over again, for days at a time, to de-stress.
- Encouraging him to relax and take time out for his hobbies, even when I’m rushed off my feet catching up with household chores.
- Cooking healthy meals for him.
- Understanding that fear of getting it all wrong means that he doesn’t organise surprises or days out for me, on anniversaries or birthdays.
- Accepting that even though he only has me to buy presents for at Christmas, the pressure of this often leads to meltdowns on Christmas Eve, whereby I suffer the consequences.
It's all the little actions that help!
Oh my, the list goes on! But I’m pleased to say that now, my husband only has meltdowns once or twice a year. And they are nowhere near as bad as they used to be. He has even apologised to me on occasion, although I don’t think he knows what he’s apologising for. However, just by doing so, he knows it makes me happy!
As you might imagine, tiptoeing around my husband and being unable to speak freely about my feelings, means that I need to remain strong. So, it's vital that I manage my stress levels and keep my energy levels up.
Thank goodness I learned how to do this, during my recovery from years of Burnout and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome!
“The behaviour isn’t the person”.
This is one of my favourite phrases! I heard this for the first time when I was doing my NLP training. I’ve always believed that this is why I was able to not give up on my amazing husband during the years of his regular meltdowns.
It was the shame of behaving like I did during my meltdowns that made me reach out for help.
Once I knew why I was feeling like I was, I was able to get on with sorting out my physical and mental health, and my life. I did this in a number of different ways. But more importantly, I took responsibility.
I’m pleased to say that, over 12 years ago, I recovered totally from years of stress, and the resulting burnout. Better still, I haven't experienced any meltdowns since.
My experiences, and what I’ve learned since, led me to be healthier, happier and more energetic than I ever was in my 20s. And they continue to help me remain that way. They’ve also helped me to understand my husband’s, and other people’s challenges, and to be able to help them too.
So, how can you avoid these meltdowns?
I believe, when it comes to reducing stress, the principle is the same for both those on the Autistic Spectrum and those who are feeling burnt out. Many of the things I did to prevent having meltdowns, are the same things I now help my husband with to prevent his meltdowns.
So whether the stress you experience is because you’re autistic or for any other reason, it makes no difference. Making changes in certain areas of your life can make the world of difference to how you cope with stress on a daily basis. Getting this right will help to keep you strong for when life’s little challenges come along.
Take away, or reduce, as many stressors on your body as possible, and bring in the good stuff. These include:
- Healthy eating
- Fresh air
- Allowing plenty of time for rest and recuperation
- Only keep positive, fulfilling relationships
- A good work/life balance
- Doing work that makes you happy
- Seeing a counsellor or other professional to help you make sense of everything.
Back to the Article
I urge you to read this article if autism and/or meltdowns affect your life. Or if you just want to learn more about what being on the spectrum means. It’s a very good read and has re-affirmed to me that:
- the things my husband says or does in a meltdown should not be taken personally,
- I need to protect my energy levels more than ever, in order to remain calm and strong during and after his meltdowns
- no expectations leads to no disappointment
- taking the time to learn about the different behaviours of a partner, and accepting them, rather than trying to change them, leads to a stronger relationship.
- I' grateful for all the amazing knowledge, understanding and experiences being married to a High Functioning Autistic person has given me.
Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts and I welcome your comments.