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Why Adults with Asperger’s Are Prone to "Meltdowns"

“I’m in a relationship with a man who has Asperger syndrome. I’m familiar with the disorder and have worked hard at changing my expectations for the relationship. The one thing however that I still struggle with is his anger issues. I guess people refer to it as a meltdown. So, my question is how can I tell whether he is simply coping with his symptoms versus just plain ol’ being pissed off?”

First of all, a meltdown is not the same thing as “acting-out in anger” (having an adult version of a temper tantrum). Meltdowns are more complicated than that. An adult with Asperger’s (high-functioning autism) is prone to meltdowns when he finds himself trapped in circumstances that are difficult to deal with, especially those which involve frustration, sensory overload, and confusion.



Meltdowns tend to happen more frequently for those who experience sensory integration dysfunctions, rigid or inflexible thinking, resistance to change, low-frustration tolerance, hypersensitivity to sensory input, executive functioning disruption, difficulty with social comprehension, difficulty understanding cause-and-effect, difficulty identifying and controlling emotions, and communication challenges.

Think of a meltdown as an “escape mechanism.” If adults on the autism spectrum have the means to get themselves out of stressful situations before they become overwhelming, cognitive and emotional pressures recede. Without these means of escape, anxiety will escalate, and these individuals may begin to panic, setting them on a course towards neurological meltdown.

Escape routes that are difficult for the “Aspie” to utilize include the ability to prevent or remove himself from uncomfortable situations, understanding others and making himself understood, the ability to act on decisions, and being able to soothe himself under stress.

The typical individual without Asperger’s has a functional set of escape routes. For example, he understands that most people don't deliberately try to hurt him, knows what it feels like when he is getting upset, has the freedom to leave when a stressful situation becomes too much to handle, can regulate the extra sensory input, can communicate his needs and emotions, and can calm himself down relatively quickly in most cases. In other words, he has coping strategies that allow emotional and cognitive stress to decrease - or disappear entirely. But, this is not the case for the individual on the spectrum. When he finds himself in a stressful situation from which he can’t easily escape, his brain becomes flooded with emotional, sensory or cognitive input, which jams the circuits and initiates a “fight-or-flight” response.

During a meltdown, executive functions (e.g., memory, planning, reasoning, decision-making) start to short-circuit, which makes it even more difficult for the Aspie to find a way out of the distressing circumstance. Eventually, neurological pressure builds to the point where it is released externally as a surge of physical energy (e.g., yelling profanities). Although the volatile reaction resembles a tantrum and seems to come from nowhere, it's part of the “meltdown cycle.”

Meltdowns and anger-control problems often look the same on the outside, but that’s where the resemblance ends. “Going off” on someone is a voluntary “battle of wills” to try and gain control over a situation. Anger is designed to draw attention for the sole purpose of satisfying a want, or avoiding something that is unwanted, So, once that goal has been met, the eruption quickly resolves itself.

On the other hand, meltdowns are the complete opposite. They are involuntary physical and emotional reactions to being placed in an overwhelming situation from which there is no quick escape. The Aspie isn’t in control or trying to get attention, in fact he may be unaware of things happening around him.

==> Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples

 ==> Skype Counseling for Struggling Couples Affected by Asperger's and HFA
 
COMMENTS:

•    Anonymous said… As an Asperger's person myself, i really understand anger and I have melted down more than I would wish to. But no matter where upu are, in spectrum or off, you dont jave a "get out of jail free" card that entitles you to be nasty to people around you and then blame Asperger's for it and then do it again... or just let yourself be an asshat... so sit him down and talk about this amd about techniques for dealing with it. Meditation works very well but takes practice. A good book on how to do this esoecially for anger is "don't bite the hook" by pema chodron. Meditation is a good practice for both of you, especially gratitude and acceptance, i would recommend reading various writers, although Thich Nhat Hahn has a kot if very simple effective practices for daily life. Ps, this has nothing to do with religious belief, its retraining one's neurological responses to be better under one's control and management.
•    Anonymous said… As someone on the spectrum, I would suggest that a melt-down arises from being overwhelmed by too much information and sensory input to effectively process, but anger arises from either disappointed expectations or an awareness of injustice.
•    Anonymous said… As to your question how to tell an temper tantrum from a meltdown if someone angry it can last for days and usually won't feel guilty for their behaviour as they feel it was provoked where as with a meltdown it's a spontanious release of stress built up due to triggers which during it we can't control and often feel guilty and ashamed after likely not even remebering what we did. This of course can be avoided if you learn to calm this stress or more ideally release it before it builds up to the level of a meltdown. Unfortunately we are not always aware we are building up to a meltdown and we need to learn to spot it building in ourselves and fine a safe way to release this stress or remove ourselves from what ever is causing it. With me I either find a game or something to take my aggression out on or runaway for the day if it's seriously stressing me to get away from it to calm down. Your partner needs help in spotting when his triggers are causing a meltdown to build up inside him and help finding another way to deal with besides an explosive outburst!
•    Anonymous said… Best advice I can give is do not have any expectations in the relationship. You have to go with the flow. Yes at first it is hard but in the end its worth it.
•    Anonymous said… Either way the best advice I can give is when you notice he's upset give him space, don't try to talk to him about it just give him time to cool off.
•    Anonymous said… I don't understand why you don't just ask your husband. He would be able to explain it best.
•    Anonymous said… I'm NT my partner is an Aspie too. Same issues here love, we are going on 4yrs together and he learns very slow but he has learned. Meltdowns used to bee twice a week. Big humdingers! On occasion I rang police to come talk to him & on one occasion they put him in hospital 2 nights. Long story short, he's not had a major meltdown since early December. I don't react much anymore as this can spike his reactions. I've learned he's learned & he's a genius who has gotten better and who does try hard daily. His struggles with his gut, sounds, smells and loudness is hard on him. I make an environment that suits him to the best I can as well as having an environment I accept too.
•    Anonymous said… In my 20 year marriage to my aspie husband, this is the single toughest issue. The anger is embarrassing and devastating in the moment, and it ruins relationships with family members.
•    Anonymous said… My wife saying "you're having a meltdown" is all it takes to get me to take a break. But it took two years to get to this point. Wish my ex had understood though.
•    Anonymous said… No, as an aspie, sometimes it's hard for us to explain our selfs the way we want to or need to and as a outcome, we become very angered
•    Anonymous said… Sounds like my partner!
•    Anonymous said… They also never do anything wrong in their mind and never apologise for anything that they do that is wrong. In the end I didn't know who or what I was to him but all I felt was that I was only there when needed  🙁. I kind of feel like I was an experiment to him to find out whether being in a relationship was for him. They have trouble doing anything that most people can.
•    Anonymous said… With me it is one big smash it is like I'm watching myself do these things but have no control to stop them. I have learned control over the last 4 or 5 years and have only had a few.
•    Anonymous said… yep my ex partner was exactly like that and when she had her meltdown im still to blame, why cant i understand how she was feeling, those memories have sure scared deep in me
•   Anonymous said...  Interesting. My aspergers ex wasn't bothered with bright light, in fact he went through a phase of lighting my house up like a Christmas tree with party lights. Crowds didn't bother him and he always wanted to be the centre of attention. He got angry if there was background noise while he was talking though. He also went into melt down if I expressed emotions. He basically had a melt down every time something didn't go his way or as he planned.
*   Anonymous said... I am a 54 year old woman with Aspergers. I don't remember any time that I had a "meltdown" but once, since being diagnosed. There is a woman at my office who seems very hyper and I was tasked to help her with a project and she came to me with complaints about something. She was very annoying to me and I just "went off" on her...mildly though, not so that I would get fired or anything but I know what it feels like to let go of my composure. I try really hard to avoid these emotional moments. It's hard, but we can do it.

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Anger-Control Problems in Adults on the Autism Spectrum

“My Asperger’s boyfriend has a lot of anger issues. I don’t know too much about how he was brought up or how his parents treated him. I’m guessing this is something that came from childhood. Or maybe anger is prevalent among people with Asperger’s in general. I don’t know. But he is very sensitive about certain things and I never know for sure what is going to set him off. He’s never violent with me or anything close to that, just his bad mood, gets frustrated easily, etc. Ideas?”

Many adults with Asperger’s (high-functioning autism) will admit that they have an anger-control problem. It’s not uncommon for them to experience an array of negative emotions (e.g., anger, anxiety, depression). There are many possible causes for this. It may be due to genetics, environmental issues, childhood-related issues, personal choice, low-frustration tolerance – and of course, due to the disorder itself. Most likely, negative emotions are the result of a combination of these factors.

Here are some examples of things that may contribute to anger-control problems in the adult on the autism spectrum:

1. “Aspies” can be extremely sensitive to loud noise, strong smells, bright lights, and other troubling environmental stimuli. This can be a challenge in relationships, because they may be limited in where they can go, how well they can tolerate the environment, and how receptive they are to interpersonal interactions.

2. Frustration and anger is prevalent in Aspies when rituals can't get accomplished or when their need for order and symmetry can't be met. Aggravation (usually over little things that don't bother others) may lead to a “meltdown” – and even physical violence on rare occasion.

3. Many adults on the spectrum were physically and socially awkward during adolescence, which made them the frequent target of school bullies. Low self-esteem caused by being rejected and teased by their friends and classmates often made them susceptible to anger, depression, and anxiety –  and they may carry the scars of that past abuse into adulthood.



4. Most adults on the spectrum develop a special interest that may be unusual in focus or intensity. They may become so obsessed with their particular area of interest that they may get upset and angry when something or someone interrupts their activity.

5. Poor “adaptability-skills” is yet another issue. When structure and consistency are disrupted in the Aspie’s life, the world becomes confusing and overwhelming – thus launching him into a less than optimal response. The disruption of structure can be obvious (e.g., having to get up at an unusual hour, not being able to engage in a favorite activity, being made to go a different way to work due to a traffic jam, etc.) …or it may be hidden (e.g., sensory sensitivities, subtle changes in the environment which the person is used to, etc.). Many of these “triggers” may be out of the control of the Aspie. Thus, it’s important to remember that low-frustration tolerance and similar behaviors are not cases of “rude behavior” necessarily, rather they may simply be natural reactions to various unwanted stimuli.

6. Most of these adults suffer from “mindblindness,” which means they have difficulty understanding the emotions others are trying to convey through facial expressions and body language. The problem isn’t that they can’t feel emotions, but that they have trouble expressing their emotions, as well as understanding the emotions of others. “Mindblindness” often gives their partner or spouse the impression that they are insensitive, selfish or uncaring.

7. Part of the problem stems from a conflict between longings for social contact and an inability to be social in ways that attract friendships and romantic relationships. Many Aspie men, for example, have a desire to date and procure a steady girlfriend, but their “odd” attitudes and behaviors prevent them from doing so. This, of course, is both frustrating and disheartening for the Aspie such that he often stops trying to establish romantic relationships in order to avoid disappointment.

8. Social conventions are a confusing maze for adults on the spectrum. They may take jokes and exaggerations literally, struggle to interpret figures of speech and tones of voice that “typical” people naturally pick up on, or have difficulty engaging in a two-way conversation. As a result, they may end up fixating on their own interests and ignoring the interests and opinions of others.

9. Some adults on the spectrum have what is referred to as “low-frustration tolerance.” In other words, they have a short fuse, are easily irritated, and do not tolerate even the most minor frustrations well. When the frustrating event occurs, they may have a thought or some belief that increases their frustration level (e.g., "This is too much" …  "Things must go my way, and I can’t stand it when they don't" … "My partner/spouse should stop doing things that annoy me" … "It shouldn't be this way" … "It shouldn't be this difficult" … "I can't wait that long" … "I can't take this" … "I can't stand being frustrated, so I must avoid it at all costs").

10. The typical Aspie tends to rely on routine to provide a sense of control and predictability in his life. When there is an unwanted change to his routine, he may become anxious and upset.

Some adults with Asperger’s have been misunderstood and/or mistreated to one degree or another throughout their life. The mistreatment started as bullying in school, and continued in the workplace. So, their anger is understandable (but doesn’t give them license to be abusive to others in return).

Anger is triggered by people, events, or circumstances that make the Aspie feel vulnerable in some way. He may lash out in anger to prevent others from becoming aware of his vulnerabilities. But, once his anger has run its course and he returns to his rational state of mind, he is left to deal with the repercussions of whatever situation triggered his anger. In the world of Asperger’s, sometimes these repercussions are grim and life-changing (e.g., job loss, separation, divorce, jail, etc.).

==> Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples

==> Skype Counseling for Struggling Couples Affected by Asperger's and HFA

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