Category Archives: Emotions

Seasonal excitement

I really like christmas. I also have also had a pretty complicated relationship with it. That relationship changed a lot over time and there are some weird nostalgia-like feelings when I think about the way it’s changed, which then adds yet another layer to the complication of emotions.

(sidenote: I think “complication” should definitely be the correct collective noun for emotions)

When I look back, I can describe my experience of christmas in some fairly distinct stages.

Childhood magic

This was the first ‘stage’ of my christmas experience. My earliest christmas memories are of indescribable excitement, eating chocolate all day, getting new toys, waking up before dawn with a rustling stocking at the end of my bed… all the typical childhood joys.

Dying magic

This was the part where childhood naivety started to run out. It corresponds with the time I learned Father Christmas wasn’t real, but also when I stopped being so desperately interested in toys or sweets. I have some fairly negative memories from this period. Times when I was still instinctively excited about christmas: often for months in advance! But then when the day came, I realised that nothing could live up to the mythical standards I was imagining. And it was over so quickly, after pinning all my expectations on that one day. Then I’d be left disappointed with the anticlimax, and miserable that I wasted so much time and energy being so ‘childishly’ excited for something so appaently unremarkable.

Giving

I created my own solution for the lost magic: giving presents. I’d spend forever planning and organising gift bags with sweets and small toys, deciding exactly what to give everyone and how to present it. This allowed me to be in control of my own sense of excitement. I was no longer waiting for an unknown to fulfil my hopes, because I was the one who knew what I was giving.

Acceptance

This phase started the most suddenly out of all of them. One year I was so depressed that I was barely able to comprehend the idea of a future, let alone the idea of looking forward to or planning for an event like christmas. When it eventually happened, it turned out to be one of my most content and enjoyable christmases of all time. This is when I realised what christmas is really about for me.

Even if you ignore all of the planning, presents, giving, receiving… (although all of that can add to it!). For me, the point of christmas is to find a way to make it through the darkest nights of winter. It’s so instinctive: when it’s dark and cold and times are hard, we get together to keep warm and eat and play and make our own lights in the dark. Nothing else really matters.

I’m looking forward to christmas this year. But I don’t feel bad about looking forward to it, like I used to. I’m not looking forward to one short day and a bedroom full of new toys. I’m looking forward to the uniquely human way of dealing with a cold and dark season. I’m looking forward to just existing in the company of all the most important people in my world. I’m looking forward to enjoying the frost and rain from a warm, bright place. I’m looking forward to creating our own reasons to be happy, for ourselves and each other.

“I don’t have a preference”

“I don’t know”, “I’m indifferent”, “I don’t mind”. I say these things a lot. Sometimes it irritates people, because they think I’m holding back my opinion for some reason. But when I say things like this (well, when I say anything!) I really mean it.

I have quite strong opinions about some things. Even some things which people think are weird or silly, or things people think are too big and complicated to have a simple opinion about. Put it down to ‘black-and-white thinking’.

Because of this, I’m also really good at knowing when I have an opinion and when I don’t. I don’t really have to pause and think about something carefully before working out whether I have an opinion. I might have to think for a while to work out what my opinion is – especially if I have to make a decision. But otherwise, I can answer very quickly when my answer is “I don’t know” or “I don’t care”.

It’s as if my ability to have an opinion or preference about something is digital – whereas for most people it’s analogue.

I don't have a preference 1

 

The red line is me, and the blue line is most other people. I go from “not caring at all”, to “caring completely” in one big jump. Whereas most people have a gradual progression from “not caring at all”, to “caring a little bit”, “caring a fair amount”, and so on.

This graph explains why there are some things I don’t care about at all, which most people do care about a reasonable amount. And also why there are some things that people think I care too much about. And it explains why it’s very easy for me to work out whether or not I have an opinion on something. Which side of the line does it fall on? Whereas other people have to decide what level of opinion is worth expressing or worth doing something about – halfway up? A quarter? Three quarters? It must be a nightmare!

Of course it’s sometimes annoying to have a digital experience of opinions and preferences, too. Sometimes people ask what I’d prefer and I say that I don’t mind and they just refuse to believe me. “You must have some preference!”, “Even just a little bit?”, “It’s OK for you to choose what you want!”.

Sometimes not having a preference makes decisions a lot harder – maybe this is why it takes me a long time to make decisions in the first place? It would be a lot easier to decide how to do things if I had some kind of emotional response to the options. That’s probably part of the reason that I rely on habit and routine, too. It’s a lot easier than contorting my digital thinking to try and formulate an opinion about something minor.

And then there’s all the things on the other side of the line – the “caring too much” side. Because I often don’t express an opinion, it sometimes surprises people when I do. And they think I’m exaggerating or joking or being silly for caring so much about something.

It seems like the ‘conclusion’ for this is going to be much the same as usual: communication and acceptance will improve anything! If people understand and believe me when I say that I do or don’t care, then… everything would be fine, I guess.

Anger

When I was little, I was told that I had an ‘anger problem’. It was quite an understandable thing for people to think. I frequently got into aggressive screaming meltdowns for seemingly minor reasons.

Of course, the causes didn’t seem minor to me at the time. Even when I look back now, I feel myself getting angry about the situation as it happened. Mostly,I got angry when things weren’t fair. That covered a lot of possibilities:

  • My ‘friends’ (and they are a story for another day) decided they didn’t want to play with me for no apparent reason.
  • I had to do chores that my brother didn’t have to do.
  • I didn’t get a say in a decision about something.
  • I was punished  for breaking a rule which served no purpose.
  • I was told to do something without explanation.

As you can probably imagine, those are all things that happen quite a lot in the life of a small child. So, I got angry a lot. In the worst periods of junior  school, teachers put me on a system where I got a reward if I managed to go a whole week without hitting anyone.

But being punished just made things worse – because I believed my behaviour was justified and so I was being treated unfairly. If my friends picked on me and I hit them in retaliation, I would get in trouble and they wouldn’t. So what was I supposed to do the next time it happened? I already knew that teachers wouldn’t punish them for picking on me, so I had to take justice into ‘my own hands’ (literally).

The problem with the way teachers treated me is that they didn’t look for an underlying cause. They didn’t even consider that there might be one. To them, I was just a mindless little kid who was acting out for no reason at all, and the only way to solve the problem was basic classical conditioning and punishment. But that wasn’t the case at all. In my small but extremely rational mind, my behaviour made absolute sense. Punishing me for it wasn’t going to change the fact that I had perfectly logical explanations for what I did – in fact, punishing me just contributed to my own reasoning.

I don’t remember if teachers ever really asked me why I’d hit someone. Probably even if they did, I wouldn’t have been able to express my logic in a way they could understand. But that’s not the point. Just because it’s difficult to understand a person’s communication, doesn’t meant you should assume they aren’t communicating anything. Can you see where I’m going with this, yet?

Yeah, it’s about autism. Autistic people – especially children – are assumed to be unable to communicate. Or worse, assumed that they don’t have anything to communicate in the first place.

I wasn’t a very ‘obvious’ autistic kid (otherwise I probably would have been diagnosed earlier!). But when I look back, it’s clear that a big chunk of the problem surrounding my behaviour and treatment at school was autism-related. My thought processes were different: that’s why I was bothered by things that seemed inexplicable or minor to other people. My emotions were different: that’s why I didn’t really have ‘degrees’ of anger which I could use to cool down. And most significantly, my communication was different: which is why teachers thought I was lying when I was telling the truth, and thought I wasn’t communicating anything even though I was trying my hardest.

When I look back, it would have been pretty simple for people to help me if they knew what to do. This isn’t necessarily advice for helping angry autistic kids (although if it helps, then all the better) – but it’s my thoughts about what would have helped this particular angry autistic kid.

  • Ask me why I’m angry. Give me time to answer. Encourage me to think about it carefully and write it down in my own time. Believe the answers I give, even if you don’t think they make sense. Take them seriously, even if you think they’re silly or minor.
  • Work with me to figure out why these things bother me. Can I find ways to understand them which will make me less angry? Can the situations be changed overall? Can they be prevented entirely?
  • Explain the situation clearly. Explain if and why I’m being punished, and exactly how I can avoid being punished in future similar situations. Explain other people’s reasoning behind the things which are making me angry, even if you think it’s obvious.
  • Tell me specifically what I should do when something bothers me. Tell me exactly why it’s a better option than my previous response of getting angry – for example, the problem will be solved more quickly and easily if I tell a teacher than if I try to deal with it myself. Then follow through on those promises, every time, no matter how seemingly small the things that’s bothering me.
  • Give me a break. Being angry really takes it out of you. Don’t push me to join in with activities again quickly. Accept that I’m going to be tired and upset for a long while.

The funny thing is, I don’t get angry much these days. But it’s not because I learnt amazing anger management techniques from my teachers (hint: that didn’t happen). It’s because unfair things don’t happen to me much anymore. Because most of the time, people explain things to me, and assume that I can understand them, and believe me when I tell them things, and trust my reasoning. Those abilities haven’t changed much in the last ten years for me. Kids are clever and thoughtful and self-aware long before most people think. And I reckon that acknowledging that would solve a whole lot of problems in one go.

Noticing mood

Mood vs emotion

I don’t know if there’s an ‘official’ psychological definition for the distinction between these two. But for the purposes of this post, I’m making my own. Emotions are short-term things, which are typically more intense and often caused by something external. For example, I might be angry because I can’t find something I want. Moods are long-term things, which are typically less intense and more internal. For example, I’m depressed over several weeks of being vaguely sad and hopeless.

I actually have a lot of trouble with the distinction, though. I can logically define it like this, but that doesn’t really help me see it at the time. When I’m temporarily sad (a short-term emotion), I often mistakenly assume that my mood is bad and will be bad for a long time. In fact, I think I’ve figured out that my main problem is simply being unable to notice moods at all.

Mood blindspot

There are a lot of reasons why it’s hard for me.

  • Moods only exist in the long-term. So I can’t just go “I am in a negative mood at this moment”, I have to be aware of my state over several hours, days, or weeks.
  • Emotions are more obvious than moods. If I’m having a specific emotion, it overwrites the mood and makes it harder to detect.
  • Emotions and moods are similar but not quite the same. It’s very hard to tell what is one or the other.

Those aren’t the only reasons I can’t ‘see’ my moods, but they’re some of the main ones. It’s pretty hard for me to even figure out why I have trouble with it – it feels like I don’t have enough words in my vocabulary to explain.

Workarounds

I know that I have moods, but I can’t actually identify them internally. I have to just try and pick up on them via the things that I can notice:

  • Emotions. E.g., if I’m having sad, angry, or negative emotions a lot, it means my mood is more likely to be negative.
  • Actions. E.g., if I’m tired a lot and don’t want to do things, it probably means my mood is negative.
  • Thoughts. E.g., if my default thoughts are things which sound negative (like “Life is hopeless”, or “I’m a terrible person”) – even when I’m not feeling particularly sad – I can assume they’re down to my mood.
  • Other people. Often, my parents are the first to notice that my mood is getting low. They’ll ask why I seem down, even though I don’t think I’m in a sad emotion – that’s a sign that my underlying mood is low anyway.

I’ve tried tracking my mood in the long-term, because I thought that my main problem was memory (it’s hard for me to remember both emotion and mood states that I’m not in). But I realised that’s not actually the problem, because I can’t give a momentary measure of mood. My moods don’t exist ‘in the moment’, only the long-term. I can’t say, “my mood score has been below zero all week so I’m getting depressed”, because I can’t measure my ‘mood score’. I end up tracking my emotional state, which is not a particularly good indicator of overall mood, and just ends up confusing me.

I don’t have a solution for this. I don’t know what other people do to identify their moods. Maybe other people have an innate sense for it. What difference does it make, anyway? Do other people change their behaviour when they identify a certain mood? Maybe they do. It certainly feels like I’m missing some ability that other people seem to have, but I can’t be sure what would be different if I did have it.

Empathy

Empathy is a controversial topic among autistic people. Most professional opinions say that we lack empathy. But a lot of autistic people argue that they actually have an excess, while others say they just express it differently, and still others agree that they have less empathy than neurotypical people.

What the hell is empathy anyway?

Honestly, I don’t think I can answer this question (I seem to start a lot of my posts like that) According to Google dictionary, empathy is:

the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

But the definition is really much broader than that. The meaning of the word ’empathy’ varies so much depending on the context that it’s become almost useless. These are just some uses of the word empathy that I’ve seen:

  • Involuntarily taking on the emotions of another person.
  • Identifying the emotions of another person.
  • Caring for another person.
  • Feeling desire to help another person.
  • Understanding the reasons for another person’s emotions.
  • Choosing to share someone else’s emotions.

…and lots more. So how are we supposed to figure out whether autistic people have more, less, or different empathy – when no-one seems to be able to agree on what empathy is?! I’m going to break down some separate elements and talk about them, to try and avoid having to use a word with such a fuzzy definition.

Absorbing other’s emotions

This is something I definitely experience, and I know a lot of autistic people have described it too. When I am around other people, I involuntarily pick up on their strong emotions. This isn’t in the ‘neurotypical empathy’ sense of thinking “That person seems sad and I care about them so I am sad for them”. It’s more like “Why am I suddenly sad? Did something bad happen to me? Oh, right, I guess someone nearby must be sad. *confused face*”

I guess some people might find it hard to imagine being able to absorb another person’s emotion independently of recognising or understanding that emotion. But that frequently happens to me. And I don’t have any kind of ‘volume meter’, either. If someone has a slightly Bad feeling, I get just as stressed as if they have a very Bad feeling. It can be very jarring when I realised I’ve picked up on someone’s negative emotion, and then find that they have suddenly cheered up (because they weren’t feeling that negative in the first place) – but I’m still left feeling negative for no actual reason.

For this reason, I can get very defensive when other people are emotional around me. Not defensive in the sense of trying to avoid criticism, but in the sense of trying to protect myself from an actual threat. When someone is upset, my automatic response isn’t “try to cheer them up”, it’s “get away from the bad feeling”.

Recognising other’s emotions

This often happens at the same time as, or after, the section above. I can fairly instinctively recognise whether someone is feeling broadly negative or positive. It’s identifying the subtleties that takes more conscious effort. I don’t really know how to tell the difference between ‘angry’ and ‘sad’ if there aren’t contextual cues (e.g., a family member just died = more likely to be sad). I can score well on those ‘eye reading’ tests because they involve extremely exaggerated (and generally unrealistic) facial expressions. I know that a frowny face looks different to a sad face. But most of the time when someone’s angry or upset, they aren’t doing much with their face (at least not much that I can see!).

So I guess I sometimes have trouble with recognising other people’s emotions. I use context and reason to work them out, so without that I can get pretty stuck. This means I usually ask a lot of questions like “Are you angry?” or “Why are you stressed?”. My default response to not understanding something is to try and obtain enough information to understand it. Apparently some people find this irritating, though.

Understanding other’s emotions

This usually comes together with recognising. I use context to work out what someone is feeling, because the context tells me why they are feeling something. So if I can’t tell what their emotion is, I probably don’t understand why they’re feeling it either.

This is another area where I ask a lot of questions to compensate. “Why would you be annoyed about that?” “Why is this a problem?” “Is that a bad thing?”. Again, it irritates people sometimes.

Responding to other’s emotions

Because of my aforementioned ’emotional defensiveness’, I’m likely  to want to avoid someone if they are being emotional. I know that when I’m upset or angry about something I generally don’t want anyone to do anything. Being upset is an internal thing that just needs to be over with so things can carry on as normal. Once the emotion is finished, then the underlying problem (if there is one) can be fixed logically.

If I manage to overcome my urge to escape the emotional person, then my next response is to go straight to the logical fixing step. Find out exactly what is wrong so that I can find a way to fix it. Fixing it will make the other person happy (which is good if I care about them because I want them to be happy), and also remove the threatening negative emotion that’s attacking me. What is there to lose?

But I think a lot of people disagree with that, too. I guess some people find the emotion itself an important experience, rather than just an inconvenience. I find that pretty hard to understand. I find it especially hard to understand when they find the emotion an important social experience. What are you supposed to do when someone is upset and they don’t want you to fix the problem? What else is there to do? It just seems awkward, like sitting next to someone while they’re on the toilet – It’s not like you can help out.

Theory of mind

I guess in conclusion, I’d say that my experience of empathy is just different to NT people. I wouldn’t say that I have more or less, because it doesn’t seem like a measurable quantity to me.

I think that pretty much everyone starts off assuming that everyone thinks the same way as them. We all start off life not even understanding the concept of other people as separate beings, so it makes sense that we have to gradually learn it. And the logical place to start learning is from our own experiences.

Most neurotypical people find that most people around them think in the same way. So they grow up learning that “assume they think like me” is a fairly good bet to understand another person.

In contrast, I am wired differently to most people I meet. So I’ve spent my life learning that “assume they think like me” is not particularly reliable. I’ve learned ways of compensating (like my incessant asking of questions), but they aren’t perfect (turns out that people wired differently to me often aren’t keen on incessant questions!).

I don’t think that autistic people lack empathy. I think we have a different kind of empathy – an autistic kind. But because we’re generally in the minority, our kind of empathy gets ignored or misunderstood or pathologised. Maybe it’s time that neurotypical people start trying to learn our type of empathy, instead of insisting we learn theirs.

Alexithymia

Alexithymia:
n. “The sub-clinical inability to identify and describe emotions in the self.”

Quite a common trait of alexithymia seems to be that people misinterpret emotions as bodily sensations. I doubted that I experienced alexithymia because I didn’t do that. More recently, I’ve realised I actually do the opposite. I am far more likely to  interpret a fairly harmless bodily sensation as a threatening and unpleasant emotion. I’m going to write about two of my most common errors, to hopefully help myself to distinguish between them.

Headache – Anxiety

I don’t get headaches all that often, maybe a couple of times a month on average. I get anxious very often. When I have a headache, I get that urgent ‘something is wrong’ sensation that I get from anxiety, so I often assume that I’m anxious. Which then causes more of a problem because my anxiety coping solutions don’t really help when I have a headache. So the headache carries on, and then I keep on thinking I’m anxious which makes me more anxious, and it usually ends up in a hideous spiral that only ends when the headache goes away (usually when I go to sleep – which is harder to do when I’m anxious!).

Here are some things that I am working on trying to remember in order to prevent this from happening. When I have a headache:

  • I usually feel better if I take a painkiller.
  • I usually feel worse if I get up and move around.
  • I am probably drinking a lot of water even though I don’t feel particularly thirsty (years of conditioning that headache must equal dehydration, even though I am probably the most well-hydrated person in my entire family).

When I’m anxious:

  • Painkillers probably won’t make a difference. Might also make me feel worse if the act of taking painkiller is anxiety-provoking.
  • I usually feel the need to be moving around and that will help me stay calm.
  • I probably have a dry mouth but don’t feel like drinking more than sips of water.

Tiredness – Sadness

I’m not often very sleepy during the day. I don’t need that much sleep and I’m not particularly active, so it’s rare for me to be very tired in the daytime. I’m much more likely to be inexplicably miserable, so that’s what I tend to assume. Both cause me to be unmotivated, floppy, and unable to concentrate.

When I’m tired:

  • I might really want to do things, but not be able to concentrate enough to enjoy them.
  • If I lay down on the sofa for a while I’ll probably fall asleep.
  • Physical tasks will be more difficult and daunting than mental tasks. For example, I’ll dread getting up to go to the toilet more than I’ll dread writing a long email.

When I’m sad:

  • I probably don’t feel like I want to do anything. I might be able to concentrate on thinking about something if I make the effort, but I still probably won’t enjoy it.
  • I’ll probably feel physically restless if I lay down for a long time, even though I might not actually want to be doing something else.
  • Physical and mental tasks will be equally unappealing. Or sometimes, mental tasks will be even more unappealing.

Troubles

I’m writing this stuff down in the hope that I will refer back to it next time I’m tired or have a headache – so that I can remind myself that I’m having a fairly harmless physical experience. I’ve known this all for a while, but when I’m actually experiencing it, it all goes out the window. That seems to be a pretty common thing, too. I can understand things in theory, but putting them into practise is a very different matter. Hopefully having this written down to refer to will help me bridge that gap.

Stimming

I’m not going to do an elaborate description of stimming in this post. I’m going to assume that anyone reading already has a rough idea. The short version is, ‘stimming’ is the name for certain repetitive and/or not-otherwise-functional actions. It’s common among autistic people as a way to handle sensory input and process emotions. This post is all about me and my own stims, I’m really just writing it as a way to organise my own thoughts.

I have three main categories of stim.

Grounding

I’m not quite sure ‘grounding’ is the best word for this, but I couldn’t think of anything better. These are stims which help me control and understand where my body is. They don’t actively feel good to do, but I feel uncomfortable when I’m not doing them. There are a few different categories:

  • Pressure. I always want to have my legs and/or lower body under some sort of pressure. Most often I have my legs crossed, curled up, or folded under me. I am uncomfortable in bed without a duvet over me, or at least over my lower half (which is horrible in summer because I’m also extremely sensitive to being too hot). When I’m sitting at/under a table, I normally try to press my hips or legs against the underside of the table by pushing my chair in as close as possible.
  • Movement. I rock back-forth or side-side a lot of the time when I’m sitting down. I frequently rearrange the position of my legs, or bounce one leg on the floor. I pick my fingers almost constantly, and fiddle with my hands in other ways a lot, too. I click and chatter my teeth together all the time (I get pretty bad TMJD symptoms as a result).
  • Touching. I spend a lot of time touching things around me. Any small objects get picked up and fiddled with – anything disposable will probably be destroyed (I leave a trail of ripped-up shreds of paper everywhere I go). I tap on surfaces a lot, and generally grab and touch my surroundings all the time.

Enjoyment

These are stims which are simply pleasant. Unlike the above stims, I don’t feel uncomfortable if I’m not doing them. It’s just that I can get sucked into doing them for a long time and don’t want to stop.

  • Sounds. Probably the most common. Certain sounds make me feel incredibly calm and relaxed. Mostly they’re things like, tapping, scratching, crinkling, rustling. One of my favourites is the sound of someone shuffling through a box of jigsaw puzzle pieces. When I’m doing a jigsaw along with someone else and they are shuffling through the pieces, I end up distracted to the point of not being able to concentrate, because it makes me so sleepy and relaxed. I also like making these sounds myself. But because of the relaxing nature, I prefer when I’m not the one making them – so that I can flop and enjoy the sound without physical effort.
  • Tactile/movement. I’m not quite sure how to describe these but they are definitely a category of their own. Certain specific movements of objects are really enjoyable. A simple example would be clicking a pen (although that’s not really one of my favourites). But also other things which have a clicky mechanism, like doing and undoing a clip or latch of some kind, or pushing something in and out of a clicking holder.

Anxiety

These are stims which help me handle and process anxiety. When I’m anxious, my usual ‘grounding’ stims aren’t enough. So I do different, more intense things in order to process.

  • Impact. Hitting things. Generally myself, but it’s not self-harm in the sense of wanting to hurt myself. It’s more that: I need to punch something, and a pillow doesn’t provide enough resistance to be satisfying, and so my leg is the best target.
  • Movement. I usually need to be pacing when I’m anxious, because if I’m sitting still I lose track of my body. I’m also likely to start waving or flapping my arms. It’s like I become even more distanced from my body than I usually am, so the input has to be more intense to have the same effect.
  • Tension. I find ways to make certain muscles or parts of my body tense. I often pull my hair – by grabbing a fistful and squeezing so that it makes even pressure over my scalp. I twist and wring my hands and fingers together, often squeezing and crushing as hard as I can. I will also grip and crush objects around me if they’re available.

Meltdowns and panic attacks

I realised after my latest post that I didn’t really explain how I learnt that my ‘panic attacks’ were meltdowns all along.

I spent so long researching meltdowns and trying to figure out if I experienced them or not. But it was only when I did more research into panic attacks that I realised my assumption had been wrong from the start. My first ‘panic attacks’ were when I was pretty young, so I just trusted the people around me when they told me that’s what they were. There was no reason to question it, because anxiety was the predominant emotion.

But one thing I came across when I was learning about panic attacks recently was “sudden onset”. Mine almost never started suddenly. Instead, they came after a gradual increase in stress and anxiety, as a result of various (mostly external) factors. That’s when I realised the description of meltdowns was a better fit: because it took into account the way that seemingly unrelated input could contribute to the overload.

The most confusing part is that emotion itself can add to overload. Which means that anxiety can push me towards a meltdown, but when I meltdown it’s expressed through anxiety! So it’s a strange sort of feedback loop, a bit like the kind that happens in a panic attack, but a bit different.

Defining meltdowns

What is a meltdown?

Eek. This is probably the most difficult part. Everyone answers differently, and descriptions are always subjective and individual. Here is my ‘objective’ definition of my experience of a meltdown.

An intense, involuntary emotional release due to complete overload.

“Intense”. Yeah. A meltdown is the most intense emotional experience a person can have. It is what happens when other emotional responses have failed to solve the problem/s.
“Involuntary”. Once it’s going to happen, then it’s going to happen. It can be avoided by preventing overload, but once overload has happened then a meltdown is inevitable.
“Emotional release”. This is the part that describes what other people see when I’m melting down. The emotion in question can vary (more on that later), but it’s always powerful and negative. So it probably involves at least some of the following: crying, shouting, hitting myself, hitting nearby objects (sometimes people), intense stimming, attempts to escape.
“Complete overload”. This is the ultimate cause of a meltdown. ‘Overload’ is a vague term on purpose, because the type of overload can vary widely. (more on that later) It can be a combination of similar or different things, it can be long- or short-term (or both), it can be internal or external. No matter what it is, it results in an emotional inability to cope with the situation.

Types of Overload

The ultimate overload can come from a combination of different factors. In fact, it’s most likely to be a result of several different things.

  • Social. Being in any social situation for a long time, being in a situation with lots of people, interacting with new people, unplanned social interaction, confusing or difficult interactions, unavoidable but unwanted interactions… etc.
  • Sensory. Being somewhere loud, being somewhere crowded, being in bright sun, being too hot or too cold, being hungry, eating something I don’t like, being tired, wearing uncomfortable clothes, standing/sitting/lying in an uncomfortable place or position, bad or strong smells, people talking over one another… etc.
  • Internal emotion. Being anxious about something, being angry about something, being excited or nervous in anticipation of something… etc.
  • External emotion. Being around people who are arguing, people who are stressed, tired, grumpy, upset, being criticised or told off by people, being around people of incompatible emotions (e.g. someone trying to cheer up a grumpy person)… etc.
  • Cognitive. Being pressured to make a big or difficult decision, being rushed to complete a task, obsessively trying to solve a problem, plans changing… etc.

These types of overload are artificially-imposed categories. Really, any factor could be put into more than one category and there are lots of things that don’t fit into any. But these categories are a good summary of the most common factors with examples.

Types of Meltdown

Although all meltdowns are ultimately the same thing, the emotion through which they are released can vary a lot. And it’s the way they are released that has the biggest effect on how they look from the outside. In my experience, I’ve noticed three main types of emotion.

  • Panic. This is by far the most common one for me. In fact, this is a big part of the reason I didn’t know that I had meltdowns. It turns out that a lot of the experiences which I (and others around me) had classed as panic attacks, were actually a type of meltdown.
    These are expressed through fear, anxiety, and panic. Most of the behaviours and symptoms look the same as panic and anxiety in other situations. So, lots of hyperventilating, pacing, attempting to escape the situation.
  • Anger. This type was more common when I was younger. Expressions of anger through things like: throwing objects, hitting people, shouting, attempting to destroy things.
  • Depression. Expressed through sadness and despair – mostly inconsolable crying, hopelessness, that kind of thing.

It’s also quite common for meltdowns to combine more than one of those types. The most common example is that something that starts out as a panic-meltdown then turns into a depression-meltdown before it subsides.

Suppressed Meltdowns

The descriptions above are what those meltdowns generally look like when I’m alone, by default. I’m lucky enough that most of the time I’ve been able to escape an unbearable situation and meltdown in private. When I was younger, meltdowns would look the same regardless of situation (for example, having huge anger-meltdowns in school at people who were making fun of me) Nowadays, if I’m trapped in the unbearable situation, the meltdown will be expressed differently.

All the emotional expression gets directed inwards instead, in order to avoid drawing attention to myself. If someone’s watching closely, they’d be able to tell – but otherwise it’s pretty well hidden. I withdraw from social interaction, make myself as small and invisible as possible, and stim in small but intense ways (like picking my fingers). All the internal symptoms are the same – the obsessive negative thoughts and strong emotion.

But this isn’t a ‘full’ meltdown. After a full meltdown, the emotion is mostly diffused and the overload meter gets reset. When I suppress a meltdown, all I’m doing is putting off the inevitable. Doing that gets harder and harder the longer I try to hold it in, until I’m able to escape the unsafe situation and meltdown for real. I imagine that if I was totally trapped in an inescapable situation, then the meltdown would eventually happen fully – regardless of the consequences.