When do adult ASD meltdowns become manipulative?

Over the course of life, some ASD individuals might come to realize that emotional dysregulation can be used as a means in which to manipulate a desired outcome. While perhaps the majority of autistic meltdowns are sincerely the result of sensory and social-emotional overwhelm, it’s an unfortunate reality that sometimes ASD individuals use their frequent emotional dysregulation as a smokescreen in which to control or manipulate those around them. Generally speaking, manipulative meltdowns (and shutdowns) are borne out of desperation for the ASD partner to gain what they desire, or to act out against what they perceive as a wrongdoing ‘against’ them. (Neither fact lessens the impact nor damage of using maladaptive behaviors to gain control of results.)

How does an autistic individual learn that meltdowns are a means in which to meet their needs or preferences?

The longevity of ASD meltdowns often cannot be rivaled, whether in children or adults. Moms of autistic children struggle with feelings of powerlessness as they come to realize that the neurodiverse child is uniquely single-minded when distraught. Hearing the word “no” is often very aversive to a child with autism, and many also struggle with pathological demand avoidance. Both can be antecedents to meltdowns, along with sensory overload, social confusion, emotional overwhelm, etc. Distracting or diffusing an ASD child can be very challenging and sometimes impossible. The autistic toddler or child is often so immersed in distress that comfort is continuously resisted, and the only non-punitive measure a caregiver can take is to hold space until the child has fully released their meltdown. (Usually, punitive measures drastically increase the ASD child’s inconsolability and can then add trauma.) The volume, intensity, duration and frequency of ASD meltdowns may continuously increase as the child’s world gets bigger, more confusing and incontrollable. What is originally a toddler having age-appropriate tantrums becomes a furious teenager who is screaming, throwing things, threatening bodily harm to self and others when a boundary is set. It is understandable that many situations may arise in which a parent or caregiver cannot “wait out” a meltdown. Unfortunately, this lends to an ASD individual “learning” that if they persist in relentless meltdown mode – eventually the person withholding what they want will given in to their demands. (Again, there is no blame for exhausted caregivers in this scenario, it’s merely an explanation of what shapes the trajectory of social-emotional learning for ASD over time.)

What is the difference between an authentic meltdown (or shutdown) and a manipulative meltdown (or shutdown) in an autistic adult? (It is important to note we are discussing adults and not children at this juncture.)

Authentic meltdown in ASD adults have some or all of these characteristics – spontaneous occurrence, sometimes a slow work-up (called “rumbling,” plus a lack of insight into recognizing), reactive to sensory or social trigger, significant loss of body or behavioral control, may include stimming or bolting behaviors, happens with or without an audience, lack of rational thought, may have high occurrence of language that is uniquely characteristic of ASD (echolalia – repeating phrases, sounds, etc).

Manipulative meltdown in ASD adults (toward their partner) have some or all of these characteristics – threatened ahead of time, self-serving, possibly intended as a punishment or negatively impactful to the spouse, jeopardizes something important to the spouse, sometimes includes bargaining (claiming they will stop if they get what they want), transmits a message of defiance or adversarial opposition (vs. overwhelm), can serve to withhold help or invoke shame and embarrassment to partner (such as a looming social engagement), seems purposeful in timing and can often stop like a light switch. Verbally articulating blame towards his partner is common.

Both can include anger, rage, screaming, sobbing, throwing things, swearing, etc.

Many individuals with ASD strongly protest that a meltdown could ever be intentional or manipulative. This is black and white thinking, as of course it is not a universal issue for every autistic person. But, it DOES happen, and autistic adults are certainly cognitively capable of applying learned behavior to achieve their desired outcome. Tony Attwood, world-renowned autism expert, discusses this briefly in the book Neurodiverse Relationships by himself and Joanna Stevenson:

How would you know if the meltdown was intentional?

The difference is in the eyes. In a genuine meltdown there is a look of absolute panic and despair: ‘I have to get out of here, I am overwhelmed.’ That’s versus a glint in the eye and a feeling that this is under cognitive control in an intended meltdown. It is hard to define, but sometimes you know by the circumstances if the meltdown is a bid to control. A meltdown is a constitutional part of Asperger’s syndrome, but that does not always mean it is out of the person’s control…. That is the issue – the lack of control. Then there’s the punishment of the apparent perpetrator, ‘You must be punished for doing something wrong.’ This ‘punishment’ will affect both the partner and the children of the person with AS. Quite often the AS parent is a strict disciplinarian and expects obedience and learning by fear rather than by compassion, understanding and explanation. …satisfactory resolution and closure is retribution and punishment. This is where the NT partner has to adjust their management strategies in various situations according to the developmental level of their partner, which may range from two-year-old temper tantrums to adolescence, despite the fact that, intellectually, their partner may be superior to others.”

Tony Attwood says additionally, in the same discussion:

“…the AS person, throughout childhood, may have learned that throwing a wobbly means that you get what you want. This learned behaviour can subsequently be used as manipulation. With an NT fearing the anger attack, they will do anything to prevent it. The threat of a meltdown can be used by the AS partner to deliberately manipulate situations. Sometimes the meltdown is due to a build-up of being overwhelmed by social, conversational, sensory and cognitive aspects. There is a build-up of tension that is released in the meltdown – but then the AS partner can start to use that as emotional blackmail. We are used to the term ‘international terrorism’; I call this ‘domestic terrorism’ – it achieves control in the family environment. Controlling by fear is basically bullying – which is ironic, because the person with Asperger’s syndrome has often been the focus of bullies at school.”

When we have an ASD partner who also has a character issue – that is, an unwillingness to recognize, acknowledge nor change the practice of bullying his partner and family – the neurotypical wife is subjected to abusive practices and left feeling very confused. She has compassion for his legitimate overwhelm, but he has put her in the position of feeling suspicious, hurt and in disbelief each time he becomes emotionally dysregulated. She has to spend valuable time and energy attempting to discern what is real distress and what is manufactured. She’s subjected to the relentless longevity of meltdowns (and shutdowns) that will stretch on and on until she relinquishes her boundaries. Over time, this dynamic diminishes her tolerance and empathy for his legitimate challenges, as it is unclear when he’s truly struggling vs. just bullying her to get what he wants.

What are some example scenarios in which an autistic husband is manipulating his wife through the threat of meltdown/shutdown?

Perhaps the NT wife needs to prepare for a special occasion with guests coming to the home. The ASD partner is occupied by his hobby, and is resentful that she has expectations for him to help clean, cook, bathe children, etc. He may be wholly uninterested in helping with mundane tasks to accomplish an invasion of his home (by his perception). To sabotage, he may use emotional dysregulation to discourage her from persisting in her requests, as it simply creates more work for her in having to convince him to help, or deal with his meltdown. This effectively frees him to continue spending time on his special interest instead of assisting his wife, and he may feel some measure of satisfaction if the event is stressful for her and possibly unlikely to be repeated.

The ASD husband may want to make a significant purchase in regard to his special interest. The NT wife is concerned that his spending is not within the budget, or is disproportionate to other needs of the family that need financial attention. The ASD partner is single-minded and cannot be persuaded by compromise (a specific timeline, etc). He might stonewall her (a shutdown symptom, but purposeful tactic in this scenario) and cease any communication, as well as withhold practical help or parenting duties, until she is overwhelmed enough to acquiesce and ultimately not protest his purchase any further.

The NT wife may have plans to have dinner out with her girlfriends. This social time is important for her and a rare event. She secures agreement from her husband that he will parent the children while she is away for a few hours. On the day of her plans, he begins to act resentfully toward her. He seems to pick a fight, finding fault or criticism where there was none intended. Having been through this before, the wife is increasingly anxious that he will refuse to watch the children when it’s time for her to leave. Sure enough, he announces to her that because she’s been so ‘mean’ to him, he isn’t going to help, and he starts to escalate when she reminds him of their agreement. She feels caught between leaving anyway and triggering his meltdown – potentially subjecting her children to his rage while she isn’t present – or keeping the peace and missing out on socializing.

The ASD partner has lost his job. Because structure and routine is very important to his daily functioning, the absence of his usual activity quickly descends into executive dysfunction. He settles into staying up all night, playing video games, sleeping late into the day, and otherwise relaxing with his phone. He ignores household and parenting duties that could be prioritized with his extra time. When the wife becomes increasingly urgent about his need to look for more employment, he warns her repeatedly to not bring it up again, or he’s going to ‘freak out.’ If she persists, he treats her to the beginning of a meltdown, which effectively holds her hostage to the status quo – choosing between his anger and resistance, or calm at the price of income and employment for him.

As we can see, when one of the most difficult aspects of ASD behavior is weaponized by the autistic spouse, it can create a multitude of difficulties for the neurotypical wife who over time, will be continuously worn down (and have her trust in his good intentions eroded) by trying to avoid the threat of punishment in her marriage.

One thought on “When do adult ASD meltdowns become manipulative?

  1. I have an autistic sister 26 years old. She is manipulative toward us to get her way. When it comes to eating, drinking or playing cellphone games she is very demanding and manipulative. Leading to over eating and us always having to look for new games and items to keep her entertained because we eventually have to give is because she threatens so leave the home and go to live on the streets. What advice can you give to us.

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