Why Do People with Autism Melt Down? One Young Man’s Experience

Some might think it funny, really. An autistic twenty-seven-year-old having a meltdown.

A meltdown resembles the tantrum of a two-year-old. The behaviour of a child who isn’t getting his own way. Can you picture a man behaving like that?

Of course, it only resembles a temper tantrum. It’s not the same. People need to understand that.

I didn’t feel it was funny when this particular meltdown happened and I still don’t, really.  It’s as distressing for the person having the meltdown (for a multitude of reasons) as it is for the witnesses, whether or not they happen to love him.

It sounds funny though. 

Doesn’t everyone take a rolling pin to their favourite possession (he’d indicated it was Sam’s Mobile Shop) and, yelling at the top of their voice, wallop the shit out of it? 

It was our ‘normal’ of course. Even though he was an adult.

I’m reminded of that other normal day when our offspring were kids. I was carrying a load of washing to the laundry. I put the basket down to answer the door and our boy hopped in for a sit.

There he was. My freshly bathed child perched in the dirty clothes basket, and the other little poppet was counting fleas jumping about in the transparent cylinder of the vacuum cleaner. I wondered at the time what the woman thought. 

Back to the moment of the meltdown. I was trying to concentrate on what the visiting computer technician was saying. Heaven knows I’d have trouble remembering his advice simply because it was technology related – and right then, our lad had to take his temper out on a beloved toy. I wasn’t game enough to see if he really hit it. I hoped it was something less significant than Sam’s van.  

I was angry with him, so it was better to keep my distance. These beautiful toys cost money and he LOVED the blessed thing. What was he thinking? But there was no point in trying to determine why he was belting his toy when his anxiety was clearly through the roof.

Later, I asked him if he was two or twenty-seven because what he was doing gave people the impression he was ‘two’. Then I told him not to talk to me right then. I told him I was just too cross.

I can’t recall what script he was using when he was walloping. 

There are dozens of scripts in his woolly head. They go round and around and pop out just at the exact time they’re required.

  • ‘Don’t you run away from me again, young lady,’
  • ‘Get down from there, d’you hear?’
  • ‘That’s it, don’t sit in the bus, go to your room, now,’
  • ‘Silly old Gordon fell in a ditch, fell in a ditch.’

You’ve probably forgotten all those sentences, probably haven’t seen Monster’s Inc, Recess, Bridge to Terabithia or that specific episode of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends for years;

  • You probably couldn’t have told me whether you’d heard the words or not,
  • or if you did remember hearing them, you probably don’t recall where you heard them,
  • and if you recalled hearing them, you probably found those words no more significant than every other sentence in the film or programme they came from.

But they resonated with our lad for some inexplicable reason.

I can’t get away from the words. Ever.

Neurotypical people can reason through a stressful situation, but autistics have difficulty doing that because the anxiety experienced in everyday life clouds their thoughts. They stim over language because it’s comforting, like talking an issue over with a friend is beneficial to us. So, whoever the autistic person lives with gets to hear the stim as well.

What is stimming? It is the constant repetition of language (or any physical movement in fact. Hand flapping is a popular stim, pressing light switches on and off, flicking one’s collar, and so on.) It is comforting – self stimulatory. Hence ‘stimming’.

I can usually cope well with stimming. 

But not that day. I think I was a bit stressed. It had been a shit day, really. 

The next morning…

“It was the red one,” he said.

The red one? Postman Pat’s Royal Mail Van. Oh, my goodness, it wasn’t Sam’s van after all. I thought at the time it was extraordinary that he would damage the toy he loved the most.

Then he said, “Don’t hit the red one anymore. Don’t hit, like Muriel did.”

Alarm bells in my head. 

Muriel, I remember her. She was an American cartoon character who was always horrible to her husband, Eustace. And she hit Courage, Eustace’s dog, with a rolling pin because he wouldn’t sleep in the attic. (Good grief, cartoons can be traumatising.) 

That’s what I mean about scripts playing endlessly in his head. He was clearly cross about something yesterday, so he took Muriel’s script and acted it out because it was, to him, an appropriate way to express his anger and frustration.

He sleeps poorly, does our Lin. He slept several hours after his meltdown. For the first time ever in his twenty-seven years, I didn’t wake him for dinner. He awoke by himself, much later, got up and apologised.

“You’re sorry you got angry”, he said and immediately followed it with “Thank you for your apology.”
For the uninitiated, this dialogue exemplifies the Semantic Pragmatic Disorder. When he’s stressed, the SPD comes to the fore and the wrong pronoun comes out.

This language also shows he is genuinely sorry. He wouldn’t tell me he was sorry if he wasn’t. And anticipating my response by saying ‘thank you for your apology’ means he’s hoping I will have calmed down and will respond with those words. That would make him feel better. If I have calmed down, I’m likely to accept his apology and things will be on an even keel again.

Rhonda Valentine Dixon

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