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Asperger's Syndrome and Meltdowns

Date Last Revised: 
October 30, 2008
Date Published: 
April 2, 2007

For a person with Asperger’s syndrome, just living in the day-to-day world can be incredibly taxing. They depend on predictability in a world that is often random. They are constantly surrounded by other people whose social and emotional reality they don’t truly understand. If you have ever visited a culture significantly different from your own, you may recall how tiring it can be when you don’t intuitively know social rules or the meaning of people’s gestures and actions, when figuring it all out is work. It is like that for people with Asperger’s every single day. To make matters worse, they want to connect, but cannot often successfully do so, despite repeated attempts.

It is no wonder some of them are prone to meltdowns. In the case of children, tantrums or rage attacks often take place either just at school, where stresses are greatest, or just at home, where the child can let it all out.  The fact that the child is good-natured most of the time makes such outbursts all the more bewildering. The child can seem to be a “Jekyll and Hyde.” 1  In some cases, teachers and parents may be perplexed by each other’s conflicting descriptions of the child, with one seeing the child as untroubled and one seeing the child as raging. In other cases, the child has a hard time controlling his impulses across all settings. 2 

Hans Asperger, after whom Asperger’s syndrome is named, included conduct problems in his list of descriptors. Says one group of researchers:

“The most common reason for referral of Asperger’s patients involved failure at school and associated behavioral problems including aggressiveness, noncompliance, and negativism, which were accounted for in terms of their deficits in social understanding and extreme pursuit of highly circumscribed interests. Asperger was particularly concerned about his patients’ poor social adjustment and how mercilessly they were bullied and teased by peers.”  3

Coping with stress, confusion, and frustration is an enormous challenge for individuals with Asperger's. One way their supporters can help is by noting the patterns or total stress load around meltdowns and intervening before a blow-up. Those with Asperger's may not be able to self-monitor well enough to know they are building up to an explosion. For example, students with Asperger's…

“…may not always know that they are near a stage of crisis. Quite often, they just ‘tune out’ or daydream or state in a monotone voice a seemingly benign phrase, such as ‘I don’t know what to do.’ Since no emotion is conveyed, these behaviors go unnoticed by teachers. Then at a later point in time, the student engages, seemingly without provocation, in a verbally or physically aggressive event, often called a rage attack, meltdown, or neurological storm. The student may begin to scream or kick over a desk. There seems to be no predictability to this behavior; it just occurs.”  4

These meltdowns are horribly upsetting for the child while they are in progress; afterwards, he may think that once he feels better, everybody feels better, not appreciating the lingering worry, upset, or strain teachers, fellow students, or family members may still be feeling. 5

Clearly, such explosiveness, which seems from the outside to come from nowhere, can get a person with Asperger's into considerable trouble: suspended, fired, arrested. Working to know what types of stressors build up to crisis, and then working to help the person with Asperger's syndrome recognize when it’s happening and how to defuse it, is an important goal.

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References: 
  1. Attwood, T. (1998). Asperger’s syndrome: A guide for parents and professionals. London and Philadephia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. (pg. 39)
  2. Smith Myles, B., & Southwick, J. (1999) Asperger syndrome and difficult moments: Practical solutions for tantrums, rage, and meltdowns. Shawnee Mission, Kansas: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.
  3. Klin, A., McPartland, J., & Volkmar, F. (2005). Asperger syndrome. In F. Volkmar et al. (Eds.), Handbook of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders (pp.88-125). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. (pg.89-90)
  4. Smith Myles, B., & Southwick, J. (1999) Asperger syndrome and difficult moments: Practical solutions for tantrums, rage, and meltdowns. Shawnee Mission, Kansas: Autism Asperger Publishing Company. (pg. 25)
  5. Tantam, D. (2003). The challenge of adolescents and adults with Asperger syndrome. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12, 143-163.  Abstract