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The Meltdown

by Russell Brown

As you might expect, I don't closely follow the singing career of Susan Boyle, so I'm a little late to the news that last month she suffered two traumatic incidents, at Derry and Heathrow airports respectively. 

My immediate thought was of her revelation in 2013 that she had been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. As is very frequently the case with people who are diagnosed as mature adults, the news came as a huge relief to her. Among other things, she learned that her childhood diagnosis of brain damage was incorrect. Her IQ was above average.

But that does not mean she doesn't need support. What happen to her last month sounds like a classic autistic meltdown – or, rather, two of them. It seems the earlier incident, in Derry, was triggered by the unexpected departure of her brother on an earlier flight. That meant two things: she didn't have her usual support person, and the plan had changed without warning.

I have been thinking about travel-related anxiety lately, because our older son, at his own behest, did his first independent travel recently. It was only to Wellington, and only after a test-run with me in January, but it did bring home to me how much potential there is for confusion and anxiety in air travel.

Further, he stayed with good friends in the capital, who reported his anxiety at not having, and keeping to, specific times and plans when they went out. We're all so evolved to each other at home that this is something we almost never see. So that was a reminder too.

I sensed a little of what it might be like on my first day in Brooklyn, New York, recently. I didn't know Brooklyn at all – which way was even up? – and it seemed like a series of small things, from the foreigness of the money and the voices to the Metrocard ticket machine inexplicably rejecting my Visa card, built into a feeling of anxiety that lasted perhaps half an hour.

But, of course, I was fine. And when, at the other end of the trip, I inflicted the ultimate unplanned change on myself – by being a great big dumbarse and getting my flight time wrong – I dealt with the problem wearily and methodically, even when things started to go yet more poorly. I'm lucky.

Our son is a far more frequent and accomplished user of public transport than I am, but when he first started, there was one evening when he accidentally shortpaid his bus fare and the driver told him he'd have to get off at the end of K Road. Big change of plan. From what I understand, our son got confused and anxious, then simply locked up. Not all meltdowns are kicking and screaming – sometimes they're more like self-shutdowns. I presume all this happened in front of other passngers.

I've always been grateful to the unnamed bus driver who realised there was something more going on than a shortpaid fare, and told our son to sit down and he'd take him where he needed to go. Part of the reason I'm writing this is that it might help other people recognise a meltdown and do the right thing if they do.

This checklist of what not to do is a good start. Our family experience has trained us towards declarative, rather than interrogative, language – don't pepper someone with questions to add to the processing overload. It's better to put a proposition: "If you're having a meltdown, we could go somewhere quiet." Don't raise your voice, obviously. There's no "snap out of it" fix, but reducing noise and stress will help. For that matter, helping will help, like the bus driver did.

Or ... as someone who works with core autistic people noted to me, it might be that attempts to help might simply add to the noise and be really unhelpful. I didn't say this was easy.

And I don't have all the answers here, so I'm interested in hearing from adult ASD people on their experiences and what has helped them. Given that almost all the information online about meltdowns relates to children, I think this would be useful.

Oh, and also, Susan got on her plane just fine the day after her bad experience at Heathrow. Good for her.

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