When you think of an autistic meltdown, you might picture a child screaming in a supermarket. Or a boy lashing out because someone accidentally touched him. You'd probably imagine a child holding their breath until they go purple and then blue.
Let me describe to you a grown up meltdown.
I had a lovely day. A thirteen hour shift on a mental health unit that I love going to. It was so busy, I didn't stop all day. The few minutes I did get to stop, short breaths gripped my chest. Panic ebbed and flowed, tentatively reminding me they were there. But my day was so busy, I didn't have more than five minutes to pay these feelings any heed before I was swept off to measure blood pressures or talk someone out of an anxiety attack.
All day, the colours were bright, as they are in hospital settings. There were so many sounds, people constantly talking to me. Never-ending interactions with humans, something I avoid when I can control what I do with my day. My brain never stopped, it whirred and buzzed and worked hard. When I finished my shift I was looking forward to being alone for my forty minute walk home. Another staff member who I didn't know well, was walking the same way I was and I ended up walking with her all the way home. I couldn't just walk off, that would have been rude. Everyone else in the world seems to thrive off company. Not me.
When I arrived home, I felt manic. I was excited because I'd had such a good day. I felt good. And then I found out that my tatty ancient bookcase, that's falling apart, had been accidentally thrown away with a bunch of stuff that was going to the tip. Genuine mistake, and not the end of the world.
There are many layers to this travesty (I hope you hear the hyperbolic nature of my tone). So firstly, it was something unexpected. It was something out of my control. Secondly, it was old and tatty and falling to pieces because it's the only piece of furniture that I have had in every house I have lived in. I've taken that thing with me everywhere. Autistic people often create much stronger bonds with objects than they do people. I suppose there's not a lot to try and understand with an object, where humans are infinitely complex.
What proceeded to happen was an intense few hours of crying. There was no screaming or shouting, that isn't really part of my adult meltdowns (my parents will tell you it was a major part of my teenaged ones). But there were hours of hyperventilating and crying. There was a lot of punching the wall. I laid on my bed, gripping my furry teddy bear - the one that is supposed to bring comfort due to its softness -, stiff as a board while I try to reason with myself. And nothing exacerbates a meltdown more than reminding oneself how ridiculous one is being. I know when I am having a meltdown that my reaction is not justified. But I really can't help it. It will usually have been caused by an accumulation of factors and one tiny thing will push me over the edge. And whoever happens to be with me when this occurs, will probably feel pretty hurt or bewildered.
I heard today that autistic women fall apart in the form of meltdowns when they arrive home after a busy day of masking. For anyone who is unaware of masking, it is the act of hiding who one is in order to comply with social norms. The pressure to seem normal is something ingrained in me, due to a late diagnosis. Imagine spending 14 hours surrounded by people and having to pretend you're someone you're not.
So for me a meltdown rarely involves shouting and screaming. It involves endless tears. It always entails thoughts of self-harm, and sometimes I follow through. I just feel so out of control. And more often than not it results in me taking 2mg of Diazepam in order to calm down and stop hyperventilating.
There are things I can do to try and avoid them, but sometimes they really do spring themselves on me from nowhere. Thankfully, I've become pretty good at falling apart in the privacy of my own home.