The way in which a meltdown occurs in Asperger’s/autistic people looks much the same as what happens during a disaster/accident at a nuclear power plant. I don’t mean that to be offensive or over-dramatic. Envisioning the scenarios side-by-side, there’s actually a lot of truth to that.
Imagine a nuclear power plant. Please forgive the lack of technicality, but suffice it to say that its turbines are always spinning, generating energy.
These turbines and the energy produced are much like the “minor” stimuli and the “little” stressors all around us in the outside world.
The turbine movement is constant, and it quickly builds heat (we’re talking thousands of degrees Celsius), which resembles the stress and other effects of stimulation that manifest in people.
The only reasons that the power plant doesn’t melt a crater into the ground is that 1) there are control rods that control the reaction of the radioactive elements, and 2) coolant liquid flows constantly, whisking the heat away. They’re constantly coming to the rescue. These control rods and coolant liquid are similar to our need to rest, recharge, relax, reset–all those soothing “re-” words. Sometimes, it’s almost like those of us on the spectrum don’t quite have enough–or large enough–control rods or coolant liquid, particularly if we’ve been stressed, either by our own doing or by that of others.
In a nuclear power plant, if the control rods fail or the coolant liquid slows, stops, or can’t reach the area, the area becomes overloaded with heat and hydrogen. Explosions break out, and the alloy fuel rods, the fuel itself, and whatever machinery is within reach will melt into a nasty lava-like liquid. Between the explosions and the melting, this can create a deep hole. This is not too much different from what happens symbolically in an Aspie/autistic person when we’ve been overloaded for too long.
Like a nuclear meltdown, once the explosions have started and the toxic elements begin to combine and burn the hole through the facility and the earth, there’s usually no stopping a meltdown in an Asperger’s/autistic person, either. The control mechanisms are gone. It just has to run its course, and that takes however long it takes.
The only thing one can actually do about a meltdown is prevent one.
But it’s not quite as simple as it sounds. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’ve realized that there are seven factors involved.
Here are the 7 Factors of Meltdown Prevention:
- Knowledge and awareness of one’s triggers – what sets you off? What adds more “heat”, what adds the “heat” more quickly? (Sometimes, we’re not aware of something that triggers us.)
- Awareness of being in the presence of a trigger, or a potentially triggering surrounding or situation – is the trigger actually happening? (Sometimes it is, and we don’t realize it.)
- Knowledge of your early signs of reacting to those triggers and potential upcoming meltdown – in the presence of a trigger, what signs are you likely to have? (They’re often different from person to person.)
- Recognition of the presence of early signs of a meltdown/overstress – are you beginning to become more reactive at that moment? Are you starting to exhibit those early signs at that particular time? Is the threat of a meltdown becoming more likely?
- Admission to oneself that the tension is starting to build – don’t ignore it; don’t stuff it down. Don’t put off those soothing “re-” words I mentioned above, if you can at all help it. Definitely stay honest with yourself.
- Respect for the process – if we don’t admit to ourselves that 1) something is a trigger for us; 2) that we’re in a situation in which the trigger could activate; 3) that [insert early sign here] is indeed an early sign; 4) that it’s starting to happen, then it won’t take much to push us over the edge. The stressor/trigger vs relax/rest/recharge balance must be maintained. We have to respect the fact that the stimuli and stressors affect us the way they do, and we have to respect ourselves enough to add some “coolant” and more “control rods” on a regular basis. “Respecting the process” means understanding that if the stressor/trigger vs relax/rest/recharge balance is tipped the wrong way, it’s probably going to eventually trigger a meltdown, despite our best efforts.
- Action taken to prevent the meltdown itself – what kind of relax/rest/recharge strategies work best for you? Do you practice them often enough, and for long enough, to balance out the stressors/triggers? Taking action is key.
I’ll talk about my own triggers in a near-future post,
probably the next one. And I’ll probably discuss my own personal methods of prevention.
For now, I’ll keep the strategic advice very general…
Obviously, the first step is to minimize your exposure to triggers. It’s important to realize that triggers come in all forms.
A trigger could be:
- a certain place (usually the mall, a theater, a concert, or a restaurant or some other public place in which there are lots of people and/or noise)
- a particular situation (traveling, being hungry, being thirsty, being too hot, being too cold, having to meet with people, being under pressure, driving, experiencing physical or emotional pain)
- a certain person (perhaps you can’t stand someone who’s loud, obnoxious, bigoted, holier-than-thou, drama king/queen, egotistical, too-technical, depressing, angry, “toxic”, or even an innocent-but-unpredictable child or animal, etc)
These triggers vary a lot among those of us on the spectrum. We’re not all the same; something that presents a major trigger for me may not affect you at all, and vice versa. (And that’s OK!)
Coping strategies will vary, too, but again, in (very) general terms:
- If you haven’t practiced those self-caring relaxing/recharging/resting activities (or lack of activity) recently, I recommend doing so ASAP. We’ll need to do that more often if we’re under additional or heightened stress.
- Plan for plenty of time alone, as needed.
- The basics apply – stay fed, hydrated, well-rested, temperature-controlled, pain-free, etc.
- Minimize your exposure to chaotic places or difficult people that tend to over-stimulate you or stress you out. Instead, if you’re inclined, surround yourself with just a few of your closest, earthiest, most supportive, most trustworthy people on whom you can lean on for help and/or support if you need to.
- “Pressure release valves” such as stimming, an electronic device, a book, a blanket or stuffed animal, etc, can work very well and stave off a meltdown. At most, these activities will successfully prevent one. At the least, they might buy you some time.
Always recognize your limitations. Having a meltdown isn’t always all bad; meltdowns are simply a sign that we’ve gone too far or too long without enough self-care. The “silver lining” in the situation is that we can learn from these and move on. The “disaster” part is always temporary; the meltdown will burn itself out and you’ll be able to cool down and become calm once again, eventually. Hopefully, the aftermath doesn’t cause permanent damage. As much as we’d like everyone around us who witnesses a meltdown to forget about it and move forward, they’ll usually remember it; they probably won’t forget about it, per se. But if they’re indeed the right people and they’re as committed and supportive as they say they are, they’ll certainly forgive you and continue to support you. 🙂