My Problem with Autistic Meltdowns: Part Two

This summer has been an adventure in more ways than one.

This past spring, I wrote a piece about my long struggle with violent, autistic meltdowns. In it, I talk about the problems I’ve had with controlling my meltdowns and basically not breaking things in my house. As I promised in that piece, I’m back to provide a “part two” update on my work with meltdowns.

Freedom from Shame

Over the past year, I’ve been lucky to reconnect with a good, old friend of mine from my undergraduate years. He has been walking his own mental health journey and we have been able to forge a meaningful connection based on some of our shared experiences, mainly the explosive vents we both experience within our respective diagnoses, but also regarding the shame and depression that follows each of these incidents.

When I have a violent meltdown and throw something against the wall and create a dent, or I punch a door and create a hole, or I throw my inhaler and it errantly hits the TV and completely bricks it, I inevitably feel incredible amounts of shame once I have returned to a more stable sense of self. This shame perpetuates depression, which can then push me towards another meltdown. For me, autistic burnout occurs when this process becomes cyclical: I can’t free myself and it becomes self-perpetuating.

Shortly after writing my original piece, I was speaking with my friend about my most recent violent meltdown, and I was recounting the myriad of things I had done: Thrown my lamp, broken my nightstand, screamed and screamed at anything moving or making noise in my house, and it lasted for hours. He offered this: “Instead of telling yourself about all the stuff you did, try telling yourself all the stuff you didn’t do.”

The Next Meltdown

I didn’t have to wait long for my next meltdown and to try my friend’s advice. What precipitated the meltdown was immaterial; what’s important was the aftermath. I remember running to my bedroom, slamming the door, screaming unintelligibly, and remaining on my bed with my face in a pillow for some time, but not for long. When my screams subsided, and our dogs sensed safety, they came rushing onto the bed to comfort me, as did my wife. The meltdown was over, and swiftly.

Afterwards, I began listing the things I didn’t do: I didn’t throw anything. I didn’t break anything. I didn’t yell at the dogs or my wife. I also didn’t feel the cold shame I’d become used to in the aftermath of my meltdowns.

Data and Debriefing

Another thing my friend recommended I do, and something my wife and I always have done, was debrief each meltdown and collect the data. Both my wife and I are serious data hounds: we’ve both been researchers in our lives and it’s ingrained in us. We hadn’t combined our practice of debriefing with our custom of data collection (we do have a tendency to chart a lot of my behavior for interpretation).

In debriefing, I was able to list the ways the meltdown went right to my wife. Any time I would begin to drift towards a damning statement about my behavior, we would check it and return back to what went right (kind of like following your breath in mindfulness meditation: when you get distracted, make note of it and return your attention to your breath). This is where the anti-shame work really happens.

By collecting data, which we do very informally (but I could totally see my nerdy wife and I turning it into spreadsheet), I am able to see the progress I’ve made in several areas including frequency, intensity, length, precipitating factors and stressors, and levels of shame or depression following. We then use the data to screen for future meltdowns: what situations could lead to one? What environmental triggers cause more intense meltdowns? How are the levels of negative emotions effected by the aforementioned factors?

In reviewing the data, we saw the change we’d been hoping for.

The Shame-Rage Cycle

The shame-rage cycle describes feelings happening when a person is shamed (being humiliated, embarrassed, or feeling judged) and those negative feelings turn into aggressive behaviors. The rage or aggression occurs as the person is trying to avoid feeling the shame. In counseling and psychology, we see normally see this occur in people who have been abused or bullied because these people are made to feel fault and shame by their perceived defects.

When we apply the shame-rage cycle to my meltdowns, we can see direct results. The more shame I feel following a meltdown increases the severity of my depression, which is a stressor that often leads to another meltdown, another incident where rage can emerge.

Shame-rage cycles are hardwired processes, so they are incredibly difficult to change. Mine come directly from an abusive childhood. However, the human brain has something called “neuroplasticity”, meaning it can and will change its schematics under optimal conditions. My friend gave me one of those conditions by telling me to focus on what went right with the meltdowns rather than what went wrong.

Breaking the Cycle

One simple change made an enormous difference in breaking the shame-rage cycle of my meltdowns. After the first debrief, where I was able to name all the things I did not do, my wife and I saw a change. My meltdowns were immediately less intense, less long, and occurred with less frequency. We went from seeing meltdowns occurring multiple times a week to once every three or four weeks. It has been a summer of change in our house.

Perhaps the most exciting change has come in my moods. Autism affected my moods for years, causing intense depression and anxiety. Through debriefing and looking at hard data, I’ve come to understand a lot of my depression comes post-meltdown. Levels of severity and violence in meltdowns appear to have a causal relationship with concurrent levels of depression and stress.

At this point, at the end of the summer, I can say with surety that I have broken the cycle for the time being. Honestly, I’ve had a wonderful summer as a result.

Living Free

I feel like I’m living free from the anxiety of meltdowns for the first time. This summer has seen me travel all over the place: from New Mexico and California to an upcoming trip to Colorado. Not to mention all over my home state of Oregon. My travels are no longer accompanied by a foreboding sense of doom. I used to leave for my road trips in tears and come home exhausted and completely crashed. Now, I am excited when I leave, and recharged when I return.

Part of this is how I’ve learned to mitigate my sensory and social environment (another blog, for sure). A lot of this is because I’m living free of the shame and rage I’ve come to expect in life. I owe a lot to my friend’s words.

But I also owe a lot to myself and my commitment to this work, which is something we often ignore.

Moving Forward

I’m so glad to be moving forward in my autistic life after living in a morass for so long. Right now, the name of the game is maintenance. This is new and exciting for me. I feel like I can breathe clearly, like my head’s above the water of my autism for the first time ever. It’s wonderful.

I plan on continuing my practice of debriefing and data. I plan on adding new stress reduction techniques to my life. I plan on seeing as much of the world as I can, as safely as possible with regards to public and personal health. When I think of how far I’ve come in the past five years, I’m quite happy with who I am.

Meltdowns have made me a better person. It’s strange to frame it like this, but it’s true. I’ve come to a place where I am grateful for them, and I welcome them into my home.

An incredibly happy summer…

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