What is an Asperger’s Meltdown?
From a neurotypical (NT) point of view, an Asperger’s meltdown is when an Aspie experiences a temporary loss of emotional control. It is a state of profound overwhelm in which no new information can be processed. They typically don’t last long and are often due to specific stimuli such as excess external stimulation, compounding stressors, or abrupt and significant change.
If you’re an Aspie, or if you’re married to one, understanding the particular accumulated stressors that contribute to a meltdown scenario is essential.
First, let’s check the neurotypical partner’s (NT) narrative. Your Aspie spouse is not having a temper tantrum, nor are they seeking to control you. You can’t stop the Asperger’s meltdown by agreeing with them or yielding. They are not trying to intimidate you or force you to comply. Quite simply, through no fault of their own, their nervous system has become overwhelmed.
It’s no longer about the presenting issue…it’s now about the state of being overwhelmed. This is why diagnosis and psycho-education are the essential first steps for helping Neurodiverse couples.
The Importance of Protocol and Best Practices
If you are in a Neurodiverse Marriage, You’re going to need a protocol and a set of customized “best practices” for helping your partner deal with their meltdowns.
Criticizing your partner is not appropriate, and can even make the meltdown worse.
Some Aspies are keenly self-aware during a meltdown, while others remember little.
Their anxiety spikes as they worry, “am I going to be seen as crazy or a jerk? Will this hurt my relationship or my career?”
Unfortunately, anxious thoughts like these may only serve to fuel and accelerate a meltdown. It’s hard for NT’s to appreciate that an Asperger’s meltdown is an involuntary nervous system overload.
“The hegemony of normalcy is, like other hegemonic practices, so effective because of its invisibility.”-Lennard Davis
If You Can’t Control a Meltdown What Can you Do About it?
Think of it this way. If your partner had epilepsy and was having a myoclonic seizure, would you think “He’s just trying to get attention?”
Of course not.
You’d understand that it’s an involuntary reaction, and not a deliberate act. But like the spouse of a person with epilepsy, the first thing you can do as a concerned partner is to become an expert on what happens with them before their meltdown.
Aspies can differ widely in their meltdown triggers. Here are 12 best practices for managing meltdowns in your Neurodivergent Marriage. Of course, you will explore and adjust these ideas to suit your particular situation.
12 Strategies for Asperger’s Meltdown Management
- The First Principle…Remember, it’s Involuntary. Please do not rely on NT sensibilities like anger, temper, etc. Sure it looks like a fit of rage, and you usually would try to calm an angry NT down. That doesn’t work with meltdowns, and it might even make it worse. Step back and let them be.
- Do Not Discuss Meltdown Prevention Without Also Discussing Meltdown Management. Have Generative Conversations about the specific triggers that precede a meltdown. Crowded situations? Communication issues? Fluorescent lighting? Loud sounds? Sudden changes in familiar routines? Take care to develop an ecology of triggers. Keep a journal of meltdown experiences. Deconstruct them with granularity. This careful analysis will help you both to avoid or curb situations that might encourage a meltdown.
- Discuss What to Do During a Meltdown. A good couples therapist will help you learn to manage a meltdown in progress. Beware the “Hegemony of Normalcy.” It’s not unusual that what the Aspie most needs during a meltdown may be anxiety-provoking for the NT partner. Talk it through in detail with a good couples therapist with Neurodiverse Couples Therapy training.
- Anger Management or DBT May be Appropriate. Some Aspies tend to rage during a meltdown. Raging and other abusive behavior is not ok in any way, and should not to be tolerated. Your Aspie partner may need to get specific help to change that behavior.
- Do Not Engage…Run Out the Clock. This will be hard for an NT spouse because maybe they’re startled or scared. Don’t insert yourself by trying to make the situation better with too many words.
- It’s OK to be Present but Don’t Be Active. It’s OK that they know that you are there. Just don’t try to verbally contain the situation.
- Don’t Ask Them For Words. Words require clarity and judgment, both of which are in short supply right now.
- Curb Your NT Sensibilities. Don’t assume that touch will soothe them. You love them, but right now they are in sensory overload. Touching them probably won’t help. And remember just because their physical behaviors during a meltdown may be alarming to you, the idea that they are self-destructive is a false NT narrative. Hand flapping, scratching, odd gestures, even head-banging are all attempts to restore balance to their nervous system.
- Keep the Need for Dignity in Mind. Aspies might want to preserve their sense of dignity while in an involuntary state of meltdown. But your dignity is also essential. If their safety during a meltdown is not a concern, perhaps you could keep yourself calmer by leaving their presence. Most Aspies can safely experience meltdowns without being a danger to themselves, but your situation may differ. Perhaps for you and your partner, your close presence is calming. Discuss this thoroughly. Become an expert on the Asperger’s meltdown cycle in your marriage, and share what works for both of you.
Manage the Pre-Meltdown Moments with Skill
If you’re the Neurotypical (NT) partner, listen to your spouse. If they’re having a bad time, help them to exit that environment quickly. Establish a protocol that you can both trust and rely on. Become familiar with situations that promote Asperger’s meltdowns and establish routines that keep your Aspie partner away from stressful situations. On the other hand, some places and circumstances are hard to avoid. Let’s talk about the critical phase before a meltdown begins.
Before the Asperger’s Meltdown…Be Ready to Rumble!
- Watch for the Rumble. It’s common for Aspies to have a period of acute distress prior to a meltdown. This is the “Rumbling Stage” It’s critical that both of you are experts in recognizing the particular constellation of behaviors in your shared Rumble experience.
- These Rumble Clues Can Vary. That’s why keeping a meltdown journal is essential. These signs of a coming meltdown could be silence/non-stop talking, or stillness/physical rocking, difficulty breathing, and a racing heart. During the Rumble, something is coming, and it might be preventable.
- You May Find that “Fidget Toys” are Helpful. Or you may need to change your environment to get away from people. Changing your breathing pattern may also help. This is a personal experience. Discuss what ‘s needed explicitly in advance.
- Understand the Purpose of the Meltdown. Meltdowns are a reset for the Aspie’s nervous system. Think of them as a necessary outcome because they happen. You’re both hopefully managing and minimizing the conditions that promote a meltdown. Once a meltdown was firmly underway, you understand its arc and trajectory. You know what to do because you’ve carefully planned for it in advance.
Removing the Offensive Stimulus
A general rule of thumb is that the Aspie needs to get away from the offending stimulus. With autistic children, this strategy is called Antiseptic Bouncing. Get them out of that environment in a non-confrontational manner as swiftly as you can.
Sometimes moving closer to your spouse can be a calming, non-verbal way to show support. When you see that their behavior suggests that they’re in the Rumbling Stage, you might try to calm them with Proximity Control before Antiseptic Bouncing.
Support from Routine is yet another strategy. Remind your Aspie Spouse of the agreed-upon plan for the day. For example, you see your spouse just starting to exhibit their particular Rumbling behavior.
You might move closer to them (Proximity Control) and “Say, I think we should move on to (Antiseptic Bouncing) Aunt Mary’s house as we planned ( Support from Routine).”
The key idea is that the order and structure for these moves are discussed in detail in advance. It’s simply a protocol.
The Importance of a Home Base
Another key idea is to get to the Home Base environment. Home Base is a unique environment that is quiet low stimulus environment, typically in a home setting.
While your mileage may vary, many Aspies report that they want to be alone in a Home Base environment where they can either sleep, take a bath, or listen to music. What all of these states have in common is a minimum of taxing physical stimulus.
After talking this through with your Aspie partner, you may create a Meltdown Kit for when you leave the house; high-end noise-canceling headphones, fidget toy, puzzles app loaded and ready on their smartphone, etc.
The NT can never fully understand what the Aspie experiences during a meltdown. As an Aspie moves through the end of their Asperger’s meltdown and their nervous system resets, they are sometimes exhausted and may fail to acknowledge the impact of the meltdown on their NT spouse.
Asperger’s Meltdown and the Problem of Sensory Overload
Unlike neurotypicals, Aspies are sensitive to their environments and often have sensory experiences that are profoundly different than their NT spouses.
Smells can induce nausea. A light touch on the skin can burn.
Fluorescent lighting can induce an immediate crippling migraine.
The noise of a crowd can sound deafening.
Strategies and protocols worked out in advance are the best way for a neurotypical couple to manage meltdowns.
Make sure you have a debrief after every Asperger’s meltdown. What were the factors leading up to the Rumble Stage? How was the meltdown managed? What worked? What didn’t? What could have been better? What didn’t we try that we want to explore next time? Aspies can help the situation by acquiring the education and social supports needed to help manage their meltdown experience with their NT partner as carefully as possible.
Accept that a meltdown is a sometimes preventable, but necessary involuntary response to a somewhat predictable set of stimulation. As a couple, you’ll want to become an expert on how your Asperger’s meltdowns occur, and precisely what works for you in curbing their impact.
Are You in a Neurodivergent Marriage?
Myles, B.S., and Southwick, J. (1999) Asperger Syndrome and Difficult Moments: Practical Solutions for Tantrums, Rage, and Meltdowns. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.