Health Magazine

Adult Meltdowns and the Problems of Restraint

By Gbollard @gbollard

I was asked by a reader if I could write something about Adult Meltdowns.  This is my attempt.  It's not terribly good because I find this topic very difficult to write about.  
In children, meltdowns are sometimes incorrectly referred to as "tantrums".  I've talked about the differences between a meltdown and a tantrum before so I won't bore you with the details again.
Adult Meltdowns and the Problems of RestraintThe key things to remember about meltdowns are as follows;
  • They are not controlled events
  • Once "tripped" they can't be stopped easily.
  • The reasons for them are often long term and/or sensory (even though the triggers are usually immediate).

A young child can often be restrained or moved to a place of safety during a meltdown but what about older kids and adults? As a parent, you can often tell your kids to "go to your room" and sometimes they even comply but what happens when it's your spouse that's having the meltdown?
Adult Meltdowns Do Happen (they're just usually less visible)
It's true, adults do have meltdowns too. I'm not talking about temper flare ups and the urge to hit people who don't agree. You don't need to be on the spectrum to have those - though having a little alcohol and/or stress sometimes helps.
I'm talking about fully-fledged out-of-control meltdowns.
Most adults today with a history of meltdowns are able to exercise at least a degree of contol over their triggers.  We often know when someone is "pushing our buttons" and can switch topics or leave the room.  Similarly, if we walk into a store where the music is too loud, we can ask the storekeeper to turn it down - or we can choose to walk out again. We're at least that much better off than our children.
The Problems of Restraint
Unfortunately, there are situations in which we can't exercise our adult rights. Sometimes abusive people corner us, sometimes we get into situations from which we can't extract ourselves and sometimes we find that we are overwhelmed too quickly to react.
Police Action
One of the most common occasions in which an adult meltdown is triggered is during police action. Unfortunately, this is probably the worst time for one to occur because violent or noisy outbursts are often met with both violence and legal action.
When the police are called in to deal with stressful situations such as domestic issues, car accidents or minor infractions, the adult aspie is already stressed.  As tension builds and they feel a meltdown looming, they will attempt to remove themselves from the situation.  Unfortunately, during police action, this ability and this "right" is significantly reduced. It's quite common for innocent aspies to run from the police and it's equally common for aspies to resort to violent outbursts in these situations.
It's probably important to let the police know that you have aspergers syndrome as early as possible and to ask to be able to talk in a less confrontational situation.  In some cases, "taking a ride downtown" might be a safer option than trying to discuss it at the scene of the issue.
The Restraint of Responsibility 
The restricted ability to remove oneself from a situation isn't just about the law however. Adults with aspergers can be restricted at home by spouses who invade their personal space leaving them with nowhere to retreat to.
Responsibility is also a very restrictive force. Consider the parent who takes their children to a play center only to discover that the noise levels and social anxiety are pushing them to the verge of a meltdown. It isn't simply a case of leaving because the kids can't be left alone in such a place.
Many parents with sensory difficulties normally avoid such places but when they're chosen by other parents as venues for children's parties, they often attend rather than deny their own children a chance to make friends.
Sometimes you have little choice but to put yourself in meltdown territory and hope that nothing tips you over the edge.

Next time: I want to look at how the rules of relationships need to change to accommodate the needs of meltdown-prone adults.

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