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The problem

While I am a very high functioning autistic and can act "normal" most of the time. Most people don't know I have autism, esp at work or other controlled situations so it's not a problem there.

However, I still have meltdowns from time to time in social situations, where my condition becomes very apparent. These include behaviors like:

  • stimming behaviors/partial loss of motor control
  • inability to change subjects
  • Panic attack (triggered by the meltdown)
  • very poor communication to the point of being perceived as abrasive
  • Literalism (I will mistake sarcasm or use the wrong words)
  • Loss of ability to filter. (if it's in my head it comes out without any tact)
  • Selective mutism (If it's bad enough, I lose the ability to speak)

Now, while I can withdraw (and do), this still brings problems. When I withdraw, people who know me as a normal everyday person are often shocked and make assumptions about me, like thinking I'm acting like a jerk.

I'm unable to address these assumptions right when the meltdown happens, and later it is much harder explaining myself because it looks like I'm making excuses for bad behavior.

The fallout of such incidents takes a big emotional toll on me. Sometimes I unintentionally offend people, sometimes they think I'm putting on a show, sometimes people accuse me of playing the victim on purpose. All of this is very grating and emotionally draining and saddening to deal with.

Sometimes when asking about how to deal with this, I'm told I should just stay away from certain places. However, I'd like to still interact with the world and partake in society. Cloistering myself off from everyone is not a viable option for me.

This is only a problem with acquaintances, strangers and friends, my job by nature of the workplace does not often generate such interactions

The issue is principally when I am in social settings in groups among friends and acquaintances. More so if there is strong stimuli such as loud music and/or flashing lights.

I'm looking for a method or set of methods that I can develop to better address fallout from my meltdowns and to avoid ruining social relationships with them.

  • Are you able to predict some of your meltdowns before they happen? Or sometimes other people help you realize that you had one? – Santiago Aug 9 '18 at 18:59
  • @Santiago not usually, they can come on very suddenly. I usually don't know until I become symptomatic. – The Wraith Aug 9 '18 at 19:02
  • 3
    would you have any problem mentioning to others that you're a high functioning autistic either before or after an incident? – BKlassen Aug 9 '18 at 20:44
  • To the downvote: Is there something I can do to improve this question? – The Wraith Aug 10 '18 at 10:49
20

As suggested in this answer on the sister site workplace.stackexchange.com for dealing with panic attacks during interviews, prepare a card with carefully-chosen words, describing the situation and why you need to withdraw. Prewritten communication cards are recommended for a number of communication difficulties, such as Aphasia, Stroke, and Autism. By addressing it in the moment, you can avoid the awkwardness of re-opening the event, as well as feeling like you are excusing yourself.

You might use words like this. I am only guessing as what you might want to reveal to your friends in this situation, so make them your own:

Friends, you may not be aware that I am a high-functioning autistic, which usually does not interfere with my social activities. Occasionally, like now, it does, and my only option is to withdraw, as I am not currently able to communicate effectively. It is no one's fault, and if I have inadvertently offended, I apologize. Don't worry, and I look forward to our next meeting.

Keep this card handy, hand to your friend/acquaintance, and make your exit.

If you'd rather not be so up-front about autism, another option is to focus entirely on the symptoms.

Friends, you may have noticed that I sometimes get into a state where where I cannot communicate effectively. This is something I have little control over, and when it happens, my best option is to withdraw. I apologize for anything offensive I might have said. Be assured no one did anything to cause this. Don't worry, and see you next time.

If a situation is more likely than normal to cause a meltdown, mention it up-front: "Hey friend, just wanted to let you know I sometimes have difficulty with loud environments/flashing lights/whatever. I'm looking forward to this event, but if it goes badly for me, I might act a bit oddly and may have to leave suddenly. If so, don't worry, carry on, and I'll catch up with you tomorrow."

18
+250

Disclaimer: I'm not on the spectrum. I'm about as average as one can be, and I don't know if any of the advice below is even feasible for you, if you're capable of doing what I'm going to say.

I've worked with several people on the autism spectrum over the years. These people did have meltdowns, although they were different from what you describe. Jane had the habit of locking herself in the toilet and pulling out her hair (trying to talk to her made it worse), Alice was prone to fits of shouting, swearing and throwing stuff (mainly buckets of dirty water) when things weren't going her way/she got overstimulated. Neither of them was very able to distinguish sarcasm, irony, or to recognize a joke, even when they were having a good day. A third co-worker at the same workplace sometimes just disappeared when there were too many people in the shop. I'm assuming they had some kind of meltdown too, just not in sight of others.

Joe is high-functioning and not as prone to meltdowns, but when he has them, it usually results in shouting a lot, being incapable of being reasoned with and being very, very literal. If you told him a sentence, he'd only pick up what met their way of thinking at that moment, he'd just not hear words/nuances and completely misinterpret what was said, in a way that it fit a stance of: 'I'm angry about this now, and you've just confirmed I should be'.

What I'm going to suggest here, is coming from how these co-workers explained their meltdowns to me, how they handled the fall-out of their meltdowns. I know no two people with autism are the same, their meltdowns might have been far milder or worse than yours, my personal preferences might not work for other people and there may even be a cultural difference because I was raised with a 'they can't help themselves, so you deal with it instead' attitude. Still, I hope this might help.


First off, friends. I don't know what your standards are for calling people friends, but to me, it usually implies that this is a person I can trust, that I would not be afraid of sharing information with, it implies already having a relationship in which self-disclosure is common. If you have any friends that don't know about your autism and meltdowns, I'd find a way to tell them sooner rather than later and let them know. Prepare them for what might happen, and offer a solution/tell them what they can do when a meltdown happens.

For example, I became friends with Jane before I knew she was on the spectrum and I saw her having a meltdown for the first time. After a while, Jane first just told me she had autism, later added that she sometimes had meltdowns where she locked herself in the toilet and told me to never try and talk to her while she was in there, she locked herself up mainly to have a quiet place where there were fewer stimuli (light, sounds). She couldn't really offer any solution, except for me to give it time and wait it out, and I could be quiet when walking past the toilet. I've 'seen' Jane have a few meltdowns, I've cleaned up the hairs after her a few times. In each case, it was sufficient for her to say something along the lines of 'I'm sorry, I'm okay now, let's get back to work/partying'.

Because I knew what might happen and was able to easily recognize the meltdown when she had it, there has never really been any fall-out or ruining of our friendship because of a meltdown. We're still friends, and because I know her and her meltdowns, I also know they will pass and that she'll be a nice person to interact with once she's back to normal.

Hopefully, by educating people beforehand of what might happen, you'll have a lot less explaining to do afterwards. If you're dealing with friends, explaining about your autism and meltdowns, especially before they have ever seen them happening, should lead to a lot less fall-out. I know the world isn't perfect, and depending on who you call your friends, you might lose them if you disclose about your autism and meltdowns, so please use your own judgment in this.

Disclosing your autism to your friends might also lead to you encountering what's called a social stigma and if you feel someone might be very prone to stigmatizing you, disclosing your autism might never be an option if you want to keep that friend. In my opinion, disclosing after a meltdown may then still be worse than before, because now they have seen the kind of behaviour that leads them to stigmatize you in full force instead of having just a description of it.


For acquaintances and strangers this is a lot harder. These are usually the people that you know by name and see when doing the groceries every Friday, or don't even know at all. Self-disclosure in such a relationship isn't going to work. I would first of all advice you to only invest your time and effort into strangers or acquaintances you'd like to interact with more often. It can take a lot of time and energy, and it's up to you to decide if this person is worth that. Once people see you have a melt-down, even when you try to explain it afterwards, you're likely to encounter the social stigma attached to autism or disbelief:

Sometimes parents attempted to defuse the situation by explaining the nature of their child's disability to the person who made the comment. Often this was successful and the other person was mollified, and, sometimes, even apologetic. Other times, however, an explanation made no difference. source

It's very strange, being on the other side of a meltdown if you have no idea the person is having one. One moment Alice seems perfectly fine, the next I'm standing there with wet and dirty hair/clothes because she threw the bucket of water and the cleaning rag at my head, because 'I talk too much'. Or you're discussing your code with Joe when all of a sudden he explodes in a fit of rage against another co-worker because of something completely unrelated but it has been bothering him and he wants it out of their system NOW and it started because you mentioned the word 'test'.

If you don't know people have autism, and they suddenly have meltdowns, prepare to be shocked. Especially when their meltdowns are so very different from the meltdowns you're 'used to' (in this case, quietly locking yourself up in a toilet, trying to avoid light/sounds) that you don't even initially recognize them as such.

If you decide you want to put in the time and effort to manage the fall-out and keep the social relationship intact, your best bet is to apologize, explain, and show you're not always like what they just experienced. My co-workers (both were what I would call acquaintances at the time) explained their autism and meltdowns to me after having had a meltdown in front of me, and despite everything, I'm still in contact with Alice and I still love working with Joe. Their explanations included more than just a 'Sorry, can't help myself, it's autism' though.

Keep the explaining and apologizing separate.

Here is an example of using excuses in an apology: "I'm sorry that I snapped at you when you came into my office yesterday. I had a lot on my plate, and my boss demanded my project report an hour earlier than planned." In this case, you excuse your behavior because of stress, and you imply that the other person was at fault because he bothered you on a busy day. This makes you look weak. A better approach is to say, "I'm sorry I snapped at you yesterday." This is short and heartfelt, and it offers no excuses for your behavior. source

In fact, neither co-worker 'explained' their autism in their apology. The first sentences they spoke to me, after having their meltdown, was more like the second example in that quote: "I'm sorry about yesterday".

As for the explaining, this is what is very likely to make people suspicious and what can do the most harm. I've personally found that I find it a lot easier to accept the explanation, when it's offered as a 'warning' that this might happen again, than as an 'excuse' for what has already happened. So, only explain after the apology (this doesn't even need to be during the same conversation), and explain in terms of what might happen, like I described Jane doing above in the section on dealing with friends. Phrase it as a 'warning' for the future, explain what people can expect and how they can recognize a meltdown, and if there's anything they can do that's helpful (even if that means not doing certain things) tell them that too.

Acts speak louder than words. Joe and Alice apologized, then left it at that for a while. A big part of apologizing is showing you have moved on. They didn't bring up their meltdown at every corner, instead, they apologized and we all went on with our lives. That's why I mentioned not doing the explaining in the same conversation as the apologizing above as well: An explanation to me works a lot better if I have already seen behaviour that confirms this is an incident, not regular behaviour. Of course, that doesn't work if you're having meltdowns often, but the people I met didn't have them that often, so they could risk not directly explaining and sounding like they're making excuses.


Another method that might work for you when dealing with strangers and acquaintances, is having another person that knows you well do the explaining. When I went to Paris on a school trip, I was put in a guest family with a girl from another class/year, that was basically a stranger to me. She had some kind of disability (I forgot which one), and was showing some pretty erratic (to me) behaviour: I had to do all the translating because she somehow had some mental block preventing her from speaking French to our hosts (which I at some point just started to refuse), and meticulously keeping a travel diary to the point where she'd wake up at night, turn on all the lights and had to write down that she'd also had a croissant for lunch because she forgot to mention it.

I later had a teacher explaining her disability to me (on her request) when I snapped and told her that turning on the lights at 3 a.m. was stupid, that writing down that you ate a croissant could wait till morning, she should go back to sleep, and I turned off the lights again.

Having a teacher, someone that knows you and the other person well, explain to you that someone has a serious reason for behaving the way they do works well, because then you have a (hopefully) impartial looking party doing the explaining, which will take away some of the 'that's just excuses for shitty behavior' attitude.

Make sure your chosen narrator knows what they're doing though: They should be able to explain in pretty impartial terms and not sound like they're making excuses for you or defending your behavior. Instead, they should be capable of conveying a sense of mutual respect and impartiality when explaining, recognizing the fallout and hurt of the other party as well as represent your difficulties and being capable of explaining them to the extent that the other person knows what they can do next.

5
+500

My background

Much like you, I'm a high functioning autistic person who mostly can "pass" as neurotypical. I've never had any meltdowns to the degree that you have, but I have spent a lot of time dealing with the social fallout from other side effects of autism that I do experience. I have found 2 things to be particularly helpful when dealing with this fallout.

  1. Explaining how autism affects me
  2. Having an advocate on my side

Explaining how autism affects me

As I explained in this answer

People have a tendency to expect certain social behaviors (such as the spouse of a family member coming to family functions). If someone knows that a person has autism (or some other diagnosis that causes them to have atypical social behaviors), it's been my experience that they will be more likely to alter their social expectations accordingly.

In your case, the behaviors that they expect are that you don't do all of the things that you've mentioned that your meltdowns cause you to do. You aren't going to be able to stop the meltdowns or the behaviors they cause, but you can help people understand why they happen. The typical way that I do that is by explaining how I am affected by autism. Because autism is such a wide spectrum, just telling people that I'm on the spectrum doesn't do much good because it gives little to no context of what challenges I actually face. Instead, I explain to people that my brain processes sensory information differently than most people, and I give analogies to illustrate what that is like (my personal favorite is to liken the brain to a circuit that can blow a fuse if it overstimulated).

A few years ago I wrote a blog post where I explained the challenges that I faced due to my autism. When I shared it, I had messages pouring in from friends, family, co-workers, acquaintances, etc... They all said basically the same thing.

Oh, I never knew that you had to deal with all that. I'll try to remember that in the future.

There are two ways to approach this. You can take a proactive approach and tell them before hand about your autism and the potential for meltdowns, or you can return after the meltdown is over and explain what happened. The proactive approach is more likely to be successful the closer you are to someone, so I would recommend only using it with close friends.

Having an advocate

Another really great solution to help with the social fallout is to have another person who can advocate for you. Ever since I posted the blog about my sensory issues with eating, I've been more proactive about telling people about my issues "in the moment" that I'm experiencing them. They end up being more receptive to the information because they get it at a time when it is useful for them to have it (i.e. when there is an action they can take or not take in order to help you). With your meltdowns you've pointed out that you are unable to communicate about your meltdowns in the moment, which is where having an advocate comes in.

Find a friend or two who you are frequently around and that you can trust to be your advocate. Explain the issues you have to them and ask that if they see you having a meltdown they help explain to the others around that you what is happening. This will give the others in the situation access to the information that they need in order to properly handle the situation.

In addition to the benefits of just getting the information out in a timely fashion, having an advocate makes others more likely to accept that your behaviors are genuine and not "playing the victim". The reason for this is the psychological phenomenon of social proof, which is

a psychological and social phenomenon wherein people copy the actions of others in an attempt to undertake behavior in a given situation.

Research has shown that the actions of a group have impacts on individuals within the group that last even once the individual has left the group.

When two or three individuals within a group give their judgments in the presence of each other (group situation) the whole group establishes a range and point of reference peculiar to the group. A norm once established in a group situation persists in an individual member even when he faces the same situation alone subsequently.

This study, and a others since have shown that the judgments that people make are influenced by the judgments of the group around them. Specifically, their judgments will be pulled towards whatever the collective judgment of the group is. By having your friends present the view that your meltdowns are 1) not a show and 2) socially acceptable, you will increase the likelihood that the others in the group will accept your meltdowns as an acceptable way for you to cope with stimuli beyond your control, thus decreasing the potential for social fallout.

I had this happen quite by accident a few years ago, but it turned out really well. I have a lot of sensory issues related to food. This has caused me some hassle throughout my life and I've had several people express the desire to avoid eating with me because of it. I had a coworker a few years ago who took it upon herself to educate some others about my sensory issues on my behalf. When she did this, coworkers who had previously been averse to getting lunch with me quickly became less so, which improved my relationships with them.

1

I'm on the spectrum. I'm 47, and I've at least suspected that I was on the spectrum for over 30 of those years. I've been convinced of my borderline autism for a bit over 20 years. My father's side of the family has a lot of people on the spectrum or only just barely off of it. I was actually raised to not look at people in the eyes, because of the number of people in my family who are less comfortable with looking people in the eyes or being looked at in the eyes than me.

My meltdowns were similar to yours. I'm sure there were differences, but it sounds to me like there was one thing in common beyond just the set of features involved:

When I was having a meltdown, my panicking brain felt that the most important thing I had to do was to explain exactly what was wrong. Selective mutism was therefore seen as the worst possible outcome. It was also, "unfortunately" where I tended to go immediately on my worst meltdowns. There was no explaining it, no stimming, and all of the literalism and inability to filter was minimized because I just shut down.

But that was 24-29 years ago. And over time, I managed to have the presence of mind to reflect on how my various meltdowns went.

My worst meltdowns were really not that bad. They were generally with the person who matters most to me, but the only thing bad that really happened was I didn't speak when a response was needed. If I had known enough to apply either Peter's or Tinkeringbell's answers, they probably would have worked. As it was, I had no clue what to say about them, I didn't even really understand what happened. "Meltdown" as a symptom of autism wasn't something I even knew about until later.

But my not so bad meltdowns of 20-22 years ago were much worse. If I had not worked in an environment with a suffusion of people on spectrum, and a suffusion of people experienced with dealing with people on spectrum, I potentially could have been fired. I didn't hurt anybody, but I said very inappropriate things to people with the authority to fire me, I had barely muted screams of frustration, I stimmed in front of coworkers.

Eventually, I had the presence of mind to realize that conveying exactly what was wrong is not something I can do during a meltdown. That selective mutism? That's helpful. Embrace the selective mutism.

With some experience in embracing it, I learned that I could actually convey one sentence, which made things much better. "I can't deal with this right now." Sometimes saying that wasn't enough. The person who triggered the meltdown would insist that the situation had to be dealt with right then. My control was less good, but I managed to whimper, "I can't deal with this right now." The same sentence, but it was clearly a struggle. And that convinced them that I was serious about it, and they left.

It's been 16 years since my last really socially awkward meltdown. The few times when I had to tell someone I couldn't deal with something right then were all situations where a technical action needed to be taken. I was the expert, and I knew what the technical action needed was, at least at a high level. The person who triggered the meltdown was my boss or my boss's boss, and they wanted to know what to report.

Without them there, I was at least able to recover enough to do the technical work. I was definitely not verbal yet, but computers generally can't understand my voice anyway. I fixed the issue, then spent a long time drafting an email explaining what happened and what I did to fix it, which was very therapeutic for my sanity. Generally, after sending that email, I was back in a mental state where I could talk. If the person who triggered my meltdown was still around, I'd go to their office and poke my head in to say the problem was resolved and they had an email about it.

I like to think of myself as sophisticated about this stuff, but I actually only learned the term 'meltdown' was used to talk about this sort of thing a few years back, and only more recently realized that my meltdowns were meltdowns. But I think knowing what's going on is quite helpful.

Since I can pass for neurotypical most of the time, I have found that I can actually tell people about my borderline autism and talk about what autism is and how it affects people without getting nearly as much of the social stigma that people get when they talk about it right after they've had a meltdown or some similar issue.

I don't harp on my autism, but there's a few dozen people around who now know about my autism who aren't my coworkers. I haven't had any meltdowns at all recently, but I have seen a couple of these people react to others having meltdowns both before and after, and it's like they understand better.

TL;DR: The selective mutism is possibly the most socially acceptable aspect of the meltdowns you describe. Especially if you can combine it with a pre-prepared card, per Peter's answer, or something similar. If there's a technical situation involved, and you're the expert, you may be able to focus on that while you recover from your meltdown. Then see about apologizing, but not explaining, per Tinkeringbell's answer. After you have distance, you can explain, also per Tinkeringbell's answer. Rainbacon's answer is also good. But also remember that you can be an advocate for someone else in addition to getting some people to be advocates for you.

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