January 21, 2021

A meltdowns tipping point

By rosieweldon

Many times in my life I have been accused of ‘overreacting’ or ‘making a mountain out of a molehill’ because of a seemingly too grand reaction to a trigger too small. I think one of the most misunderstood parts of autism is that a meltdown is solely caused by the thing that appeared to trigger it.

Sometimes this is the case. Sometimes it’s a sudden change that triggers a meltdown. However, I would say 9 times out of 10 the final thing that pushes me into meltdown is not the biggest cause of it. Often it is something very small in comparison.

As an example:

Last week at work was my final week before a few days off on holiday. I haven’t taken holiday in forever and was anxious at the prospect of handing over tasks and being away. While work is work it is also a familiar routine. I had planned out my week, both in and out of work, to lead into my days off.

My days off were due to be ones outside of my house as an attempt to start re-integrating with the world again. So, my anxiety levels were high, and I was nervous to see through the working week and get to the next challenge.

Tuesday morning, I logged onto work to an email from my boss. She wanted me to build a spreadsheet for the other side of the company, including someone high up that I don’t usually interact with. People I’m not used to and certainly not comfortable communicating with.

In one email my week had been side swiped. Both practically in that I had to find the time to build the spreadsheet and mentally in that the communication and stress of it would now take over my week. I wasn’t worried about the actual building of the spreadsheet; I love Excel and love a good Excel challenge.

The issue was everything around it. It was the fact that prior to the email I was on a downward path to my holiday. After, I was staring at an email desperately trying to get it to make sense as part of my week. I would have to figure out emails to people I didn’t usually talk to. What if I misunderstood what they wanted from the spreadsheet? What if I was too blunt in a reply to the guy who literally runs the whole company?

I fought hard to shut down the anxiety and figure out a way to cope. My boss wanted the spreadsheet by Friday. I knew it would dominate my week and take away my sleep. So, I decided to stay up Tuesday night and work, I would do the spreadsheet after my set hours and send it over that night. Yes, it would be working outside of hours. But it would remove the extreme anxiety pulsing through me at the thought of a week under its control.

Just after lunch I got a text from Amazon. It included a picture of a ‘successful’ delivery putting through a door. I walked to my door to get it – and it wasn’t there.

I stared at the text and the door and realised it had been posted through the wrong door. What would I do? Would I have to contact the delivery company? Amazon? Would they believe me? What would I say? How did you even contact them?

I walked back to my desk, put my head in my hands and cried. Every part of me wanted to scream at the world to just stop. It was all too much and I couldn’t cope with it.

In that moment I was frustrated with Amazon. As my mind started to wrestle with itself to regain composure it became pretty clear the meltdown wasn’t because of Amazon, it was because of the spreadsheet. I had kept it together but only just. I had found a way to keep going but I was on the absolute edge of tipping point.

In reality it doesn’t really matter which tipped me. I was in meltdown. I had to retreat to my bed, cry it out and calm down. However, if someone had been there with me they likely would have thought I was being ridiculous at the Amazon delivery. Not understanding there was far more too it than a wrong delivery. But that had tipped me.

This isn’t a one-off thing. It is often the case that throughout our days things build and build until we tip. It could be someone standing too close that tips us, a light too bright, a subjective email. That final straw is what causes our brain to break and spiral.

This is why it is important for us to restore balance as the day goes on. In hindsight I should have stepped away from work after the email to process the change and new communication demands put upon me at short notice. Instead I fought against it and ended up in meltdown – needing to take longer out of work to calm down.

For those reading this that want to support us the best way to do this is allow us time to rest throughout the challenges we go up against. Allow us time to pause and restore balance. Allow us this guilt free.

And as always with meltdowns remember that it is so far outside of our control. I am a 29-year-old accountant that had to go and cry under my duvet because it all got too much. My head was screaming at me.

I’m lucky enough to have friends that not only aided in calming me but were quick to move on after. An attitude of ‘it is what it is’ and ‘not your fault’ is invaluable to an autistic person recovering from a meltdown. Post meltdown I feel stupid, weak and vulnerable. I fight the urges of shame and embarrassment.

You can’t always stop the meltdown. You certainly can’t stop it once it starts, that ship has sailed. But you can help us recover and move on as quickly as possible.

Autistic people will have meltdowns. It’s how our brains function. We overload, restore and find balance again. In a world often far too much for us to bare, it is part of the process.

Help us calm throughout the day. Have patience with us while in meltdown. Be kind and understanding after.

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