When you look up what Autistic people have said about how to help us through meltdowns, the most foundational piece of advice you will see again and again is to remain calm. But what about when you can’t remain calm? What about when that Autistic person’s meltdown is triggering your own trauma response?
Why is Being Calm During Someone Else’s Meltdown So Important?
Before I address my own question, I want to talk about why it’s important to stay calm, if you are able to. Remaining calm when someone else is melting down is so crucial because your emotional content is more information we have to process when we’re already overloaded from processing too much.
If you read the wrong writers, you will be told that we Autists can’t see or read emotions and that we have severely impaired empathetic perception. Now, that may be true if you show me a still photograph of someone’s eyes, snipped out of a still photograph of their face and ask me to identify the word that describes the emotion those eyes are conveying. I will fail that test every time, 100%, and so will most Autists I’ve known.
But there is a deeper-than-language, visceral sense of picking up on intense emotions of those around us that we all have, from birth. Gabor Maté writes extensively about the research around this emotional communication in his book about trauma and ADHD traits, “Scattered,” if you are curious to take a deep dive. Pay attention to the chapters mid-way through the book where he talks about emotional attunement between a mother and infant and the neurological wiring that is present in all of us around the unspoken communication of attunement. (Ignore his emphasis on eye contact, because Autists often have other ways of achieving attunement with people we are close to. Also, ignore the couple of breathless passages where he talks about autism. His understanding of autism seems more nuanced today than it was when he wrote “Scattered,” over twenty years ago.)
If you read a lot of articles about autism, you’ve surely seen the term, “self-regulation.” I see a lot of writers and hear a lot of speakers putting heavy emphasis on the importance of teaching us self-regulation. And, yes, self-regulation is a very important skill for everyone to strive toward attaining. However, placing all the emphasis on self-regulation is yet another case of Autistic people being held to a higher standard than the rest of the world. All human beings are wired for co-regulation, not strictly self-regulation alone.
In “Scattered,” Maté writes that “ADD is a diagnosis not of category but of dimension.” Often the same can be said about autism. Every human being has a fundamental need for co-regulation, but you will probably only see the word at all if you are reading about raising infants. The assumption seems to be that co-regulation helps us develop the ability to self-regulate and then all our need for co-regulation dissolves and we’re finally fully out of the womb and ready to carry on as entirely emotionally independent adults. If you just think about that for a moment, you will realize what an impossible standard that is.
Everyone Co-Regulates Sometimes
What do you do when a cherished friend bursts into tears in front of you? Chances are, you co-regulate. That is, you act in ways to lend some of your emotional strength to them, whether it’s silently listening, offering them a tissue or a glass of water, putting a hand on their shoulder, or whatever it is that you and your friend are comfortable with, within the boundaries and expectations of your relationship. Co-regulation is such a basic human function. If you’re neurotypical, you’ve probably not put much thought into it. These gestures are automatic. We see children and infants helping one another co-regulate without ever having been taught the skill.
Autistic people are not categorically different when it comes to co-regulation. I have watched so many Autists help one another co-regulate. It doesn’t always look the same as neurotypical co-regulation, although sometimes the two look pretty much identical. We Autists need co-regulation, as does everyone. We are, however, dimensionally different. Where someone with neurotypical wiring may feel distressed but most times they can manage to pull themselves together and soldier on in the moment, we Autists often need help navigating big feelings and information floods. We have a higher need for co-regulation than the general population.
That is why it is so important for others to strive to remain calm when we are agitated, activated, slipping toward meltdown, or actively in full Neuro-Crash. (Meltdown is what you see. Neuro-Crash is what’s going on inside our brain when meltdown happens.)
But, as you probably already know, that calmness is not always available for you to offer. Sometimes two or more people are both/all Autistic or neurodivergent in various ways and one person’s meltdown activates another person’s overload. I’ve seen entire rooms of people melt down like dominos from a Neuro-Crash chain reaction. There was an infamous meeting of a narcolepsy group, attended by several people with whom I am friends, where one argument between two people caused over two dozen other people to collapse in cataplexy (a condition that often accompanies narcolepsy, wherein strong emotions (either positive or negative) can cause a person’s body to stiffen or collapse). Expressions of strong emotion really can be contagious, especially to people with neurotypes wired to be more strongly affected by co-regulation (or the lack thereof).
Many parents of autistic children are living with their own active or residual traumas that can get triggered when their small child, teen, or adult child loses hold of their own regulation, cascading both parent and offspring into a mutual trauma spiral. Professionals with years of training and experience sometimes lose their cool on a bad day or during a difficult time in their life (death of a loved one, divorce, etc.) and are unable to remain calm while the person they are supporting is heading into Neuro-Crash.
Trauma Clashes Are Access and Accommodation Clashes
In an access clash, two people have accommodation needs—in the examples I’m using in this article, at least one is Autistic and the other(s) have any of a range of Disabilities: autism, PTSD, cPTSD, ADHD, cataplexy, or anything that can be activated by someone else’s trauma response. Both need accommodation. Neither is getting what they need.
Access clashes are not limited to trauma clashes, though. For example, I’ve seen a presenter with autism who needed to reduce motion in their visual field while presenting clash with sign language interpreters and even other Autists in the audience who were doing whole body stims to self-regulate the information overload of being in a crowded presentation hall. I knew a married couple, both Autistic, one with a need to avoid loud sounds, the other with a need for the auditory stimulation of loud sounds. I read a mother’s story (written with her childrens’ permission) about one child recovering from illness who needed to cough and the other child with sensitive hearing who was thrown into neurological chaos by the sound of coughing.
And, although this article focuses on access clashes involving Autistic people, access clashes are not limited to Autistic folks. Any time two or more people have access needs there is always a possibility of an access clash. I knew a man whose ankles had been broken and healed in a fused manner. Any entrance that had only a ramp was not accessible to him other than shuffling up it sideways because his doctors helped his feet heal in angles that allowed him to navigate stairs but struggle with the slanted surfaces of ramps. I had a conversation with a Little Person who said she often had to wait in line for the bathroom twice because she needed the lowered sink in the accessible stall so she could wash her hands but she couldn’t climb up on to the elevated toilet in the accessible stall.
If you are finding access clashes interesting, I’d suggest reading more in the field of Universal Design. We need more curious minds working on access clash issues to help create a more accessible world for everyone.
For help in figuring a path for navigating the access clash of Autistic trauma clashes, I found inspiration in this article about presumably non-autistic (allistic) people navigating trauma clashes: Understanding Relationship Conflicts: Clashing Trauma. The site offers three strategies for navigating trauma clashes in relationship, which I will now address from within our context of Autistic meltdown and trauma.
Strategy One: Prevention
This is, or should be, a foundational strategy and it’s one I often see promoted around autism and Autistic communities. Prevention involves clear communication of boundaries and expectations before a Neuro-Clash occurs. It requires a willingness of everyone to learn as much as possible about autism and meltdowns before navigating anyone’s meltdown (including our own meltdowns!) Listening, believing, and remembering what a person discloses about themselves is crucial to prevention of Neuro-Clash situations with their possible resulting mutual trauma clashes.
I will say, however, that relying on prevention as your only strategy is, to quote a truism, “planning to fail.” No matter how sensitive, cautious, vigilant, supportive, and understanding we are, we are also human beings in a chaotic and unpredictable world. Neuro-clash will happen. Meltdowns will happen. Trauma clashes will happen. I’m not being negative; I’m being realistic. It is inevitable that people with Autistic neurotypes will lose the ability to self-regulate sometimes. The goal of prevention is to reduce the chances of meltdown as much as possible.
I’ve had people forget everything they knew about autism and even everything I had disclosed to them about my own trauma triggers. I don’t know if it’s because I (usually) speak easily and often or if some other factor is in play, but people—even people with decades of experience around Autistic people—sometimes “forget” I am Autistic and interact with my meltdown in all the wrong ways, pushing me deeper and deeper into a traumatic Neuro-Clash downward spiral that can take weeks (or longer, if the stress is still ongoing) to recover from. (Living with this kind of stress every day is a recipe for long-term Autistic burnout.)
I’ve unintentionally activated someone else’s trauma responses, neuro-itches, or full-on Neuro-Clashes. I have self-regulating stim behaviors (finger flicking, gum chewing, rapid pacing in small circles) that have triggered other Autists. Access clashes are so common, I’m surprised we don’t write and say more about them than we do.
Yes, education is vital. Yes, we need to talk about our access needs and our boundaries and limits and expectations. The lines of communication need to always be open on these topics. Yes, we need to do everything we can to limit Neuro-Crashes in ourselves and those around us.
But counting on education and communication alone is, as mathematicians say, “necessary but not sufficient” for navigating Autistic trauma clashes.
Strategy Two: Interception
This can work in the early stages, if one (or more) people are less triggered and are able to tap into their inner resources to stop the downward spiral before it really gets going. This strategy mostly involves removing one’s self from the situation. Gabor Maté writes about this in “Scattered,” saying that parents can negotiate ahead of time to help one another in stressful situations. A parent can say, “I need to go calm myself. It’s not your fault. I just need to take a breather and I’ll be back to help with this.” Then the other parent steps in.
This, of course, is not a helpful strategy for single parents with no extended family or outside help in their family. But if you do have the option to “tap out” of the interaction without harm, it is better to take that opportunity to get yourself centered again than to start a feedback loop where your agitation is making the meltdown worse, which is making you more agitated, which is increasing the intensity of the meltdown, which … you get the picture. The strategy of interception is to step out of that feedback loop before it really gets going.
Whenever you have to step away from a trauma situation, be sure to communicate that you are going, that everything is okay, that you will be back. So many people carry trauma from parents and other caregivers who used the Silent Treatment or stonewalling tactices to punish children. So much Autistic anxiety stems from not understanding what is happening or what to expect next. The emotional damage from the Silent Treatment cannot be overestimated: it is one of the more damaging abuses children endure and a huge trauma and anxiety trigger for many adults.
When someone is anxious, spiralling, melting down, or dealing with the floods of shame and guilt so many Autists must cope with after a meltdown, failing to communicate can be devastating. Even if it is just to communicate that you aren’t ready to communicate more extensively yet, keep in touch with the person who has had a meltdown, reassuring them that you will be back to work things through. Keep that promise. Don’t let things drag on too long without another check-in.
Never underestimate the harm that silence and apparent ostracism can cause an Autistic person who is raw and vulnerable from the extreme loss of control that comes with a Neuro-Clash and meltdown.
Strategy Three: Repair
We, as a society, are notoriously bad at relationship rupture repair. And it is such an involved topic that entire books and courses have been written around ideas of relationship repair. Yet it is arguably the most important strategy of these three.
My (undiagnosed) Autistic father modeled relationship repair to me several times in our life together and it was the second greatest gift he ever gave me (after the gift of bringing me into existence.) Still, I’m far from being an expert on repair. Heck, I’m still wearing my relationship repair training wheels in middle age. My attempts are often clumsy, but I keep trying. Being open to repair is hard because it requires one to be vulnerable. It requires a terrifying level of honesty and personal disclosure. It requires risking rejection.
When it comes to those relationships we are given for life, repair is a non-negotiable necessity (that we too often ignore, walk away from, or find impossible due to the other person’s will toward non-cooperation.) Our society teaches parents to be afraid to apologize to their children. There is an idea that it will create a sense of weakness and parents will lose their power. My father apologized to me several times and every time he did, I respected him more, not less.
I had a good therapist for a couple of years when I lived in Colorado and I learned through that relationship that rupture repair is the secret to deeper trust and mutual alliance in a relationship. Obviously, we shouldn’t do damage just to have the opportunity to do rupture repair, but repair truly is an opportunity. Any time we make the space and put the energy into repairing a relationship rupture, we gain from that process, whether the relationship is saved or lost. We learn and grow through our attempts to learn and grow. Or as one of my writing professors liked to say, “the work comes from working.”
And this is where we come to a positive feedback loop to counteract the difficult feedback loop of a trauma clash: repair naturally leads into prevention. When we are calm and sit to talk (or write) about what happened—ask questions, be curious, learn why—we are building a more solid foundation for preventing many potential future meltdowns.
Over time, a pair of people or a group that takes the time to genuinely work on repairing rupture will find Neuro-Clashes and trauma clashes happening less and less frequently. What used to happen daily moves to weekly, then monthly. What took a year to finally break down may continue on for several more years before the next clash.
We are human, we are fallible, we lose focus, we let each other down, we struggle, we dig deeply into our inner wells of compassion for ourselves and others, we rebuild trust and connection, we grow, we grow closer to one another. Life is a process: dynamic, ever-changing.
We live in a disposable society and that mentality is so engrained in us, we have become quick to discard other humans when the time comes to put real work into our relationships. When we can move past that mentality, past the idea that we can just pretend nothing happened and everything will just “blow over,” or the idea that we can just find more people (there are, after all, eight billion humans in this world now) we will learn the richness and joy that come from allowing our rough edges to become polished when we come into conflict with others.
The alternative is leaving a trail of scraped and scratched people behind our scraped and scratched selves.
And that will never teach any of us how to remain calm when an Autistic person is melting down.