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Autistic Meltdowns Help Me Live a Better Life

Contrary to popular belief, autistic meltdowns can be a good thing.

Key points

  • Meltdowns can help autistic people release emotions, enabling us to carry on with our lives.
  • Meltdowns are rarely socially acceptable, so we often hide them if we can, to avoid criticism.
  • Meltdowns help me adjust and acclimate, eventually able to be a part of my new surroundings.

I’m squatting on the floor, squeezed between the antique toilet and the textured wallpaper in the tiny water closet of the Congressional Country Club in Washington, D.C. My evening gown is scattered on the floor around me, and my face is pressed to my knees, which stifle my sobs.

My arms wrap around my legs, and I’m grateful I’m wearing sneakers under the dress, as they can grip the old tiles and hold me steady while I shake. My husband leans back against the tiny vanity, ready to help me when I ask for it.

Enrique Meseguer / Pixabay
Source: Enrique Meseguer / Pixabay

What Can Cause a Meltdown?

I told him I just needed to melt down for a moment. Then I ran up the stairs, through a door into what was clearly a staff-only area, and dove into the tiny bathroom, tucking myself into the space to shake and sob.

Below my feet, I could feel the loud music from a wedding reception banging on the ceiling. The loud noise is part of what sent me away. The party is not the one we’re attending—no, tonight the country club is booked full. Our quieter party is in the room next door, our simpler music clanging against theirs. Too much.

Too many thoughts swirl in my head.

We left our children, 12 and 14, behind at the hotel. I was already afraid. But when we left, I did not realize we were going so far away from them to go to this party. Too far away. Too far.

Now I’m terrified something might go wrong at the hotel, and the boys wouldn't know what to do. I was afraid before we left them, when I told them about hotel fire alarms and how to prepare. Put your shoes by the door. Now lie your coats next to them. Now tuck your phones in your shoes.

Then, I said, "Go over to the house phone."

"What’s the house phone?" 14 asks.

I explain that it is the actual telephone. By the bed. Plugged into the wall.

Zoomers. Oh my god.

After my next instructions for how to make an outside call, 14 asked, "Um. What’s a dial tone?"

Despite my racing heart, I burst out laughing.

Then, I taught them how to use the house phone to call 9-1-1.

But then I had to say goodbye because there was nothing else I could do, and besides that, they were annoyed. They’re not babies. They’re teens. In the end, they will make good decisions. 14 will take care of 12 because that’s what he does. He’s a carer.

What Does a Meltdown Feel Like?

But right now, I don’t feel okay. We’re too far away from them. Even though we called them to make sure they were okay (why wouldn’t they be), the music is clanging in my head. I feel stripped bare, like a layer of skin has been ripped off.

So I dashed up the stairs, not knowing where I was going, and wedged my body between the toilet and the wall and cried, not with sadness, but with intense emotion I don’t have space for inside of me.

And unlike the 40 years I spent trying to keep these emotions buried, before I was diagnosed with autism and started therapy, I don’t try to stop them this time.

Not now that I know what it means to have these feelings, and how important it is to feel them and to let them out. I didn’t want to melt down in the hallway of the Congressional Country Club, but I do, indeed, want to melt down.

I want to melt down because I want to be able to think clearly. I want my emotions re-regulated. And there is no way my emotions can do that while they are swirling around inside me, crashing around over me and tossing me about: a vortex, a whirlpool, a tornado, a hurricane, a tsunami.

After a few minutes, I stop crying and my heart rate slows. Looking up at my husband, I reach up with my hands. He pulls me to my feet, and I feel almost fine.

Then he hugs me tightly—squeezing the lemon, I call it—and with that, I’m back together again. Because that’s what a meltdown does. It takes everything inside you that is too much, too heavy, too powerful, too hot or cold, and it releases the pressure of it all.

In the tiny bathroom, I wash my hands, dab under my eyes, and take a deep breath. I text the kids one last time, then go downstairs to our party, and I’m fine.

Truly, incredibly, fine.

Late Diagnosis Set Meltdowns Free

Over the years, I’ve had meltdowns at a roller rink, in our new home while movers moved us in, and in my sister’s closet after my nieces popped a balloon behind me.

While I was a teenager and my parents were berating me, and I banged my head against the kitchen cabinet over and over to drown them out. (How, on earth, did they not realize I was autistic?)

I have smaller ones almost every week, moments when the feelings are too much and I cry to let them out instead of stifling them because you’re being a baby, don’t be weak, what is wrong with you, honestly Katie, get it together. The awful voices ring in my head from decades of being forced to mask.

Contrary to what you might think, autistic meltdowns are not terrible, like panic or anxiety attacks (I’ve had those, too). They’re like diving into a cool lake in spring—startling at first, and then you adjust and acclimate, eventually able to be a part of your new surroundings.

Meltdowns, for me now, are a kind of freedom.

More from Katie Rose Guest Pryal J.D., Ph.D.
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