Autistic Panic Attacks and Meltdowns
Welcome back to Lighting the Way: Teaching the Gifted Child. It's been awhile since I have last posted in this series. I was preoccupied with things that were happening my life. I'm so grateful that I am back to daily posting on my blog.
Meltdowns and anxiety attacks are common for Autistic children and adults to experience. Yet, often times, the public doesn't understand the difference nor what to do when the person is experiencing one. Daily life can be overwhelming, especially for Autistic children and adults. Understanding the difference between the two can help anyone who cares about person with Autism.
Many people think a meltdown and an anxiety attack are the same thing because they oftentimes exhibit the same symptoms. Yet, when fully examined, they are not. Panic attacks occur suddenly. The DSM - IV defines someone having a panic attack with having the following symptoms.
1. Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
3. Trembling or shaking
4. Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
5. Feeling of choking
6. Chest pain or discomfort
7. Nausea or abdominal distress
8. Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
9. Feelings of unreality or being detached from oneself
10. Fear of losing control or going crazy
11. Fear of dying
12. Numbness or tingling sensations
13. Chills or hot flushes
Panic attacks occur due to a misfiring in the brain. Every human has a fight or flight response to stressful situations. A panic attack when the brain mistakenly believes their is an imminent threat to a person's life. Yet, there really isn't one. It mistakenly releases the stress hormone, norepinephrine, into the bloodstream. The hormone causes the person's heart rate and blood pressure. It also causes the person to experience an overwhelming fear/dread and panic. It can take up to three days for a person to fully recover from a panic attack.
Meltdowns, on the other hand, happen as a result of a gradual increase in the person experiencing stressful or anxious factors. These factors build upon each other until the person experiences a meltdown. It's important to understand that a meltdown is not a temper tantrum. Temper tantrums are controlled by the person while a person in a meltdown has no control over their mind and body. The may not remember afterwards what they said or did. The meltdowns are not directed towards anyone. People who do not understand meltdowns may accuse the sufferer of being self-centered. While this is simply not true.
It's important for people to understand that a child or an adult experiencing a meltdown is a threat to themselves and others while experiencing the ordeal. It is also important for people to understand a person with Aspergers or Autism does not grow out of having meltdowns. Meltdowns can happen for a number of reasons. The duration of them can be sporadic lasting a few months or all in one day. The most at-risk group of Autistics to experience meltdowns have been identified by the Adults with Aspergers chat as having:
A history of physical abuse or bullying: “Aspies” who were abused as kids have an increased risk for frequent meltdowns as adults.
A history of substance abuse: Aspies who abuse drugs or alcohol have an increased risk for frequent meltdowns.
Age: Meltdowns are most common in Aspies in their late teens to mid 20s.
Being male: Aspergers men are far more likely to meltdown than women.
Having another mental health problem: Aspies with other mental illnesses (e.g., depression, anxiety disorders) are more likely to have meltdowns.
A meltdown will gradually resolve itself. A meltdown can take anywhere from 5 - 20 minutes. The after effects of which causes the person experiencing the meltdown to be tired. It can take a few hours to a day for the person to fully recover from a meltdown. You can learn more about Autism and Meltdowns in Adults.