Meltdowns are common for most people who have autism. Outbursts due to meltdowns can be characterised by anger and aggression towards other people, objects, or toward the person themselves. They can be emotionally draining and have a profound effect on people with autism, and their families. Often they appear to come out of nowhere, but due to the fact that people with autism struggle to recognise and deal with their emotions, the triggers for these meltdowns can often take place days or even weeks before these events.
It is always said that holding emotions in, and refusing to express them can be damaging. Having a build-up of emotion inside is never a good thing for anybody. A healthy emotional state is one where emotions are released as and when is appropriate. This means that when somebody is angry, they will have the anger of the moment. When somebody does not understand their emotions and therefore cannot act appropriately, they will still feel anger, stress and sadness, but not necessarily be able to show them outwardly. Emotions that are kept inside don`t dissipate over time, they simply remain beneath the surface. This means the slightest trigger can bring them all flooding back. A person with autism might seem to cope well on a particularly busy and social day, but all their negative emotions might simply be contained in a bubble inside their brain. Somebody at home could say one thing to them that normally they would take in their stride, but this one thing might be just too much for the bubble to hold, and it bursts, and all the negative feelings that may have been building up for days or weeks come flooding out. The autistic person themselves will probably not know why they have reacted so strongly, and the neuro-typical people around them will have absolutely no idea.
Being able to express emotions healthily is an important part of life; keeping feelings trapped inside can lead to all kinds of things such as depressions or break-downs. Autistic people can often carry around anger, sadness and stress internally for months at a time simply because they don’t have the accurate means to express those emotions, to get them out of their system. This is why after a bereavement an autistic person might seem to be coping very well, and yet months later they may have a series of extremely difficult meltdowns. One of the real problems with this is that often the families have forgotten the original incident. It is only sensible to try to connect each outburst with the most recent irritating or stressful event, for example, if somebody doesn’t get the right cereal for breakfast and they have a forty five minute meltdown – screaming kicking and biting – the natural thing would be to connect the cereal to the meltdown, but that probably just stirred up emotion from something that happened days ago or weeks ago – or perhaps several something’s. This is why outbursts, and meltdowns can be so difficult to predict, and why they appear to come on so suddenly.
It is worth trying to remember that emotions can lay dormant for a long time before finally being expressed. Be aware for days, or even weeks after a particularly stressful event that a person with autism may be liable to meltdown – and try the best you can to accommodate this.