Last week, after attempting to deal with too many new changes and having a couple of upsetting incidents occur, I found myself having a meltdown (a relatively common occurrence for me). Typically I come out of meltdowns quite quickly (less than an hour) once I’ve had time to calm down and collect my thoughts. But this time, probably due to the number of things that had built up to cause this particular meltdown, the meltdown lasted all evening.
Because the meltdown was of such a magnitude I ended up in a state of burnout. I felt extremely out of control in terms of my autistic traits and felt absolutely exhausted and those around me confirmed that my traits were much more prominent. I couldn’t make eye contact with anybody to the point of having to look either at the floor or the lowest point on the person’s face (even with the people closest to me), I was apparently extremely monotone with a very formal vocabulary and I felt completely unable to understand the people I encountered.
The burnout that I went through lasted around six days; to begin with I completely minimised all forms of social interaction, however, this was something I wasn’t able to maintain for very long due to being an adult with set commitments. Therefore, I had to find ways to cope during the burnout and also ways to try and quickly rectify the situation to get back in better control of my traits. I still don’t feel I’m in as good of control as I was prior but I’ve definitely regained some ability to function socially.
I decided from this experience to try and take something positive by forming a blog post to (hopefully) help other people. I have therefore created a list of tips (based on my own lived experience not on expertise), for other autistic people and for those close to them, on dealing with and overcoming meltdown and burnout. Note that I’ve compiled these lists from my personal experience and I understand and respect that the advice may not apply to everybody’s meltdown experiences.
Those of us who are autistic:
- Take some time away and have some alone time if the situation permits it (if not have some when you can e.g. when you get home)
- It’s ok to cut out extra social contact for a while so long as it doesn’t interfere with work, education, appointments or other important commitments
- Explain the situation to those close to you so they understand it’s not a reaction to something they may have done
- Do something to distract yourself post-meltdown (e.g. browse the internet/listen to music/read), for me immersive tasks help the most
- Plan your upcoming schedule, dedicate some alone time each day (even if it’s just ten minutes), whether it’s to do something (e.g. watching tv) or to just sit and reflect
- Don’t push yourself too much afterwards (I decided to go to the shops two days later as a distraction and ended up making things worse because of the social contact that was required)
- Keep things simple afterwards, make realistic plans and don’t take too much on if possible. If the meltdown causing factor is upcoming (e.g. an exam) break it down in to manageable chunks (getting someone close to help you break things down can be very helpful)
- Allow yourself to recover naturally, if you choose to try and ease back in to a social environment (e.g. going shopping) taking small steps will likely be better than taking on a sudden and bigger social event
- If you have to attend work/education/appointments take things to help you cope (e.g. music devices/a book/something sensory) and then take time to relax afterwards
- Plan for future meltdowns/burnout periods by keeping on top of tasks so that you don’t have to worry about them if you suddenly need a break in the future due to a meltdown
- Don’t push the person to engage in unnecessary communication, wait until they are ready
- Try and remain understanding if the person becomes distant, don’t be offended by sudden changes in behaviour, or continual behaviour change following meltdowns
- Let the person know you are there if need be but that you won’t push them to talk to you if they don’t wish to do so
- Give them space if required
- Make sure they are remembering to maintain normal, basic activities like eating food/drinking fluids (during meltdown appetite may diminish and basic day to day activities may seem less important)
- If the person wants to pursue contact offer to discuss the issue(s) that led to a meltdown and offer assistance in counteracting the issue(s)
- Show support towards their recovery decisions (e.g. choosing to avoid unnecessary social events for the foreseeable future – even if the person usually deals well with social situations)
- Help (if possible) in keeping things as simple as possible afterwards
- Understand that regression is possible and (even after long periods of dealing well with certain traits) the person may need to relearn some things (e.g. social etiquette) or take a while to be completely back to their usual selves
- Understand that burnout will last for different time periods in different people and may therefore last a long while for some people