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Tantrums, Meltdown or Rage?

When is a meltdown not a meltdown? When is it temper? When does it expand and evolve, like an inflated, super-fast cell division into pure rage? And is there any real difference between them all?

Firstly, and this is aimed at the friends, family and best beloveds - yes, there is a big difference between all of these things so please rest easy in the knowledge that you are not being unreasonable in treating many of your aspie's outbursts as temper tantrums.

I think, as an aspie and the parent of an aspie, we can be far too eager to tiptoe around the aspie moods and treat them as something allowed instead of going with our gut instinct that is telling us the aspie is having a tantrum, not a spectrumised meltdown.

It can be unpopular to say that aspies have tantrums. No, come on, people with aspergers don't have tantrums, they have meltdowns! (Cue some patronising explanation of why aspies are misunderstood and why meltdowns are not the same as anger).

Listen, everyone has tantrums. Just everyone. Yes, your great aunt Ida in her bath chair, she has tantrums. And good old Uncle Simon, with his benign smile and model plane collection? Of course, I guarantee he has tantrums too.

Part of being a human bean is to have tantrums, it's probably why we're still here. It's hard to kill off a species that is so self-involved it feels the need to regularly let off steam in a display of selfish temper which makes the steamer look ridiculous and the steamees run away or kick the steamer.

The difference with grown up members of the human race is that their tantrums are not usually the same as when they were children. The usual definition of a tantrum is a loss of control and temper and, in the case of small children, a meeting of body and floor as arms and legs flail in an imitation of Godzilla shadow-boxing. If adults went down onto the floor and flailed about like small children, then there would be very many more hospital/police station admissions.

As adults, we do have tantrums but they are transmuted into something more personal and, at first sight, introverted. Uncle Simon, with his planes, will have plenty to say on the subject of the postman who regularly bends his plane magazines as they come through the letter box. He will have politely asked the postman to desist with the folding, he will have called and written to the post office. He will have had replacement copies of the magazine sent because you can't read a ruined magazine.

Amongst all this, at the moment when his magazine drops on the mat, a giant crease with broken edges running down the middle, right through the reanimated Spitfire F Mk. 21 in 1/48 Scale, Uncle Simon will have cracked, readers. If anyone had been present, they would have seen his face twitch, a feeling passing across it like ripples on the pond. His lips would quiver then thin, his hands clench, only opening to pick up the sad creature which used to be his beautiful magazine.

His tantrum is internalised and unseen, controlled by years of knowing how to behave but no less painful for that. Despite letting off a little steam with his letters and phone calls, if the magazines continue to be ruined, Simon will stop ordering them. The pain is too much to bear, the stress of not knowing if he will have to see them lying, creased and broken. He will avoid what causes the internal tantrum and move on.

And the aspie? Well, all of the above and then some. The extra ingredients with the aspie are not just less self-control or more temper, but rather the aspie feels it more keenly. I don't mean to demean what Simon feels over his magazine, but to the aspie this will be too much. There may be tears, this was the one they were waiting for! It cannot be read and why don't they listen and not fold it? Why do they have to be so cruel?

You notice how the aspie feelings escalate, creating more drama and sadness as they work their way into the event, all the while staring at the ruined magazine, fuelling the fire until it is really too much and either meltdown or tantrum occurs.

In the scenario of the magazine, it can go either way. A meltdown is more likely if the sadness is uppermost. The feelings of upset and disappointment become too strong and the aspie loses control, the kind of control that holds it all in and makes them safe to approach. It doesn't matter what you say, this magazine, this cruelty, this monthly torture, it has become too much to bear.

For the tantrum, things are a little different. I would say that the anger over the ruined magazine gains the upper hand. Either you have a more inflammatory aspie to begin with, or they don't care as much about the magazine and instead care more about the wrong done to them by the evil postman.

This gives anger a foothold and off they go, displaying many of the same traits as the meltdown but with more honest anger behind the scenes than an absolute lack of control.

And the rage? The rage is beyond anger and has little to do with meltdown. To me, the rage comes as an excuse to behave like you have a meltdown while being able to observe everything you do. I don't say you can necessarily control the rage, not once it's started, but I suspect you could, if you really, really wanted to.

I don't accept excuses that the anger was too much and the rage took over. Rage takes time to nurture and becomes a separate entity only when it is allowed to do so. I don't want any excuses about rage being a type of meltdown either. Rage is designed to hurt, designed to get out of the system the very real anger of the aspie and rage often touches the people closest to them.

Meltdowns can also hurt loved ones, through words or actions, but there is a panic and sadness embedded in it that is evident to the aspie, if no one else. There is an element of need, of reaching out in the full flood of the meltdown and yearning for someone to make it all right - even though no one can get near you to help.

The rage wants no comfort, it wants only to hurt like it has been hurt, to take self-justified revenge against the cruelties of life. Afterwards, the rage claims it had no choice or control and was a direct result of being provoked.

Meltdowns are too exhausting to explain themselves and can only say, 'I was so upset, I'm sorry.'

And temper? Plain old aspie temper raises its head many times in life, more in some people than others, just like other personality traits. Temper is there to let rip in the small ways, over things which annoy or patience tested past any limits. Anger is normal and, mainly, a healthy if aggravating way to get rid of negative energy and carry on with the day.

The problem comes when temper is allowed free rein and becomes rage and then rage is allowed to be passed off as a meltdown. I will allow that rage is a by-product of aspergers, something which occurs because of the way the aspie brain and heart process the hardships of life. But that is as much as you will get out of me.

Even if you are criticising yourself, readers, be brave enough to look closely and see the differences between rage and meltdown. And be honest if you give in to your temper. I know sometimes these things happen and you need to react, but how often do they happen and you could have held back a little?

It is very hard to step away from rage-inducing temper. Sometimes, often, it doesn't work. What has to happen is a gradual, small-step attack on temper, as well as a commitment to yourself to see it as a problem with a solution.

In small ways, every day, it can be done. I did it myself, I'm not just talking from behind the chicken here. More often than not, my temper would still rise and take me with it but by watching myself and wanting to change, I did change. I reverted to the person I was before, someone who could lose her temper and was (quite often) grumpy in the face of hardship, but who no longer gave in to the temper tantrums which I had told myself I was entitled to.

Readers, I don't often tell you what to do. No, honestly, I don't. I usually suggest, guide, inform and tell you what I do or did. This time, I am telling you, watch yourself and, where you are able, take a step back and turn down to simmer.

In time, with practice, rage is kept in a back cupboard only to be brought out on very rare occasions. The temper is always in your coat pocket but you can usually move through life without bringing it out.

And the meltdown? That one, readers, is a free spirit and I couldn't tell you where it is. All I can say is that it appears, often when least expected, and takes over proceedings when I am no longer able. Afterwards it departs, like a long-lost friend who you know you should drop but you can't because they care. At least it never outstays its welcome and leaves me calmer than when it arrived. How many visitors can claim that?

In the end, it is up to the aspie themselves to take responsibility for their feelings and to be honest about what is what and when a tantrum is more or less than it appears to be. Tell people, talk to your best beloveds, explain how flawed you can be and how you sometimes blame them when you are in the wrong. At least by talking about it at calm moments, you have something to hold onto after the harsher ones.

As usual, above all, reach out to one another. The aspie temper, meltdowns and rage are all there as part of your personality. I'm not asking you to change who you are, just sometimes to consider what you do.

In the end, the most important thing I did for myself was not to control the tempers and the rage, it was to appreciate myself. 'It's okay, you are a good person. These are small things we can leave behind and they don't change who you really are.'

Sometimes, readers, the most important conversations you have are with yourself.


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