Aspie in the Office #2 – The Meltdown

It can really be anything, depending on who you are. The cube-neighbor who decided to put his conference call on speakerphone. The two managers who each gave you a task that needs to be done right now. The customer who’s completely unwilling to stop yelling at you just because you won’t tell them that they’re entitled to have that phone for free.

Or maybe it’s something smaller—the fact that you forgot your lunch and your stomach is crawling up your ribcage. A flickering fluorescent light. Maybe even the fact that you didn’t brush your hair this morning and spend every interaction convinced that everyone’s judging you for it.

Either way, it’s here, and you’ve got to deal with it: The Meltdown.

There seems to be a couple of disagreements about what’s involved in this term, so I’ll go by what I generally experience: an emotional tsunami, a loss of control, a tendency toward regrettable actions. It might involve screaming and crying, it might involve beating your head against a desk, it might involve running out the door like the hounds of Hell themselves were chasing you.

It’s bad. It’s my absolute worst work nightmare, and to some degree or another it’s happened more than once at every job I’ve been at.

So, sit down and make yourself comfortable as I share what little I’ve managed to learn over the years about meltdowns: Prevention, what to do while it’s happening, and how to deal with it afterward. I hope something helps. And if you’ve got any advice of your own, I’d love to hear it in the comments!

An Ounce of Prevention

In a very real sense, most of the meltdowns I’ve ever had could have been prevented.

That is to say, it’s very rare that something was so egregious to my senses all on its own that it sent me instantly into meltdown mode. Even in those cases, if I’d maintained the presence of mind to go to a manager in the early stages and change the circumstance, they probably could have been kept at a much lower level.

Now, the world’s not perfect and I don’t really blame myself for those circumstances where I started out off-kilter due to insufficient self-management. But the fact is, when I’m mindful and take care for my routine, I am way less likely to have problems.

So what’s really important for keeping my balance?

Food. Food is probably my number-one issue. If I don’t eat breakfast, if I forget my lunch, I am in Problemsville, and even a sideways glance is likely to send me over the edge.

Fortunately, this is one of the easiest issues to solve, as well. And it’s not just a matter of never forget your lunch. It’s possible, and I highly recommend it, to set up about half a dozen backups. Keep backup meals in your desk. (There are a lot of options for shelf-stable meals, and if anyone’s curious I’ll make recommendations. They’re more expensive than cooking your own lunch, but ideally you’ll only use these occasionally.) Also snacks. Teabags or soda cans work great if caffeine is something you just can’t get through your morning without. Nothing perishable, and mind your office’s rules about food… but even if it’s just keeping a crate of individually packaged cheese-and-crackers in your car’s trunk (or even military-style meals-ready-to-eat), it’s better to have something.

If you can rely on yourself not to spend whatever’s in your hands (…I’m really bad at this), I’d also recommend keeping an emergency twenty-dollar-bill somewhere you won’t usually think about. It’s great for food, but also for a lot of other unexpected things that might send you into a tailspin. (Like gas. Yes, I’ve had a meltdown because I didn’t know how I’d get home, too.)

Sleep. Everyone gets extra-snappy when they’re tired. They lose capability, they can’t keep track of their thoughts… they even get more hungry. In short, they’re bad for everyone—and for Aspies, it’ll bring you even closer to the edge.

Unfortunately, there is no magic-wand for sleep. But if it comes time to start a new tunnel in Minecraft or to get some shut-eye, try to remember how much easier it’ll be to tell your boss “No problem!” with a smile if you’ve got your Zs.

Emotional comfort. Issues at home spill immediately at work for me. And it’s not just my husband and baby (who are both gigantic net-pluses to my mental health and wellness… but come on, there’s not a relationship on earth that doesn’t sometimes get you down). My relationship with myself, my concept of my future, the state of my house… it all builds up and adds in.

When I find myself consistently on-edge and having trouble keeping it all in… okay, I think what I’m supposed to recommend here is making sure the house is clean and all of the things I can control are controlled. And I won’t deny it’s nice and always feels good when I do that? But if you’re on edge, I can’t recommend anything more highly than reading an old favorite book or watching an old favorite movie. Get into the head of someone strong, capable and willing to save the day.

It’s honestly done better for my sense of wellness than sleep sometimes. And that makes no sense.

When it happens

Now it’s time for the bad news. Meltdowns will still happen, regardless of what you do to prevent them. They’ll just happen less. But it’s how you handle it that says whether or not you can look your boss in the eye tomorrow.

So, what are my recommendations for when you feel that nasty feeling coming on?

Take a break. Ideally, you’ve saved your break for this occasion—in a lot of my jobs, I always took my breaks and lunch at the last possible moment so I knew that I had a card up my sleeve in case I needed it. But even if you didn’t… it is so amazingly much better to leave before the meltdown starts than to try to weather it out. Imagine the reprimand you’ll get for taking an extra break. Then imagine the reprimand you’ll get for screaming curses at your coworkers while hitting yourself in the head with a ceramic mug. Choose wisely.

Go to your car. If you don’t have a car, you’ll have to be more creative. But the idea is someplace distant, enclosed, and with some amount of privacy. Somewhere where you can scream obscenities and cry and do whatever you need to do without having security called on you. Even if it turns out you just needed a quiet place for a few minutes… your car is a little part of the world where you’re the only one you have to answer to.

Phone a friend. Once you’re past the peak, you’re probably still going to be in a fragile and angry place. (If not? Congratulations, you can go back to work without further incident.) Try to have it set up in advance that there’s someone you can call to talk you down, reassure you that you’re still okay and a functional person, and maybe even give you advice for the issue you’re facing. (Also, to tell you you absolutely should not go back to work right now and should go home instead, if that’s the case. It happens.) Ideally, this is someone who doesn’t have a job of their own—or whose job it is to help you. Either way, it can be good to get some perspective from someone who won’t judge you.

Sing. I cannot tell you why, though a friend suggests it’s a way to regulate your breathing. But singing is a great way to make me feel better. Also drawing or looking at pretty pictures. (Yes, I keep a sketchbook in my purse.)

Stay as long as you need to. Yes, you might get fired for not returning to work on time. You’ll definitely get fired for screaming curses at coworkers. Choose.

When it’s over

We’re back to good news again: Your meltdown won’t last forever. Once you’re back on an evener keel, you can return back to work, and there’s a good chance you can pretend like nothing happened. (Yes, some people will have noticed your sudden exit. Depending on the workplace, they might think it’s rude to bring it up. That’s okay. It might go against all of your instincts, but the stuff that they don’t talk about will be sooner forgotten than what they do.)

A lot of this depends on the workplace. My current workplace is very image-conscious, and I’ve been brought to the office “to talk” a number of times because my odd behavior was disturbing others. That was okay too, because, well, I still have a job, right?

I don’t have a lot to say about this part, because it’s so amazingly different depending on your particular workplace. But. The main concept is to re-normalize.

Something that helps me is, among the different types of work I can do, to pick the simplest one to do first. That’s a good way to remember that this is something you can do. If it was a particular work item that caused my meltdown, a quick message to my coworker asking if they can take that particular piece for me, or to my manager asking if there’s any way I can not, sometimes helps. Figuring out if it’s the sort of thing that can be put off until I feel better.

Either way, the point of this stage is to pretend like you’re already better… and a fair portion of the time, it’ll turn out that you are.

So yes, that’s my meltdown advice, beginning to end.

It’s very incomplete, this having been my number one unsolved issue so far—but that’s part of why I want your advice so much. Help me! Let me know what else we can do!

And thank you for your patience. I’ve been wanting to write this one since I wrote the last one, but it got bound-up in my heart because the bigness of the topic. I hope it helps someone, in any case.


Personal Best

If having a child teaches me nothing else… it’s helped me grok, really understand the concept that doing well isn’t a comparison against anyone but yourself.

Stacking six blocks on top of one another is not a particularly overwhelming feat. But… for someone who’s never been able to stack more than two on top of one another, it was amazing.

And it’s tempting to think that this stops being true when you stop being a kid. I in particular have spent a lot of time thinking about how easy it used to be, when people were impressed by ridiculously small and simple things… but, well, they weren’t. They only seemed simple for someone who’d picked it up already.

And it doesn’t stop being impressive, to pick up new things. You just stop getting a cheering section to tell you it’s impressive.  You gotta do it yourself. (And to withhold it until you’ve actually done something.)

It seems like you’re competing against the world. For the eyeballs, for the job, for the love. And a lot of time, you are–but even then… the only way you actually improve is to reach your personal records. Comparing yourself to other people can be limitedly useful, but in general, it’s hard to really understand their strengths and weaknesses in a useful way.

And… yeah. I have to keep that in mind.

Personal best.

Jammed and Productive

I’m kind of jammed up, right now. Mostly mentally.

On the bright side, aside from doing my job (which is very well-defined and doesn’t actually require a great amount of personal initiative), no one particularly relies on me for anything I’m blocked on.

I’m blocked on editing that book I wrote because I’m basically convinced it’s not worth it? I’ve started on as paint-by-numbers a plot as I could to get my confidence back. (It’s actually being surprisingly fun. So I’m calling that a win already, even with only a couple of pages down.)

I’m stymied on where my professional aspirations should go. (My husband pointed out to me over the weekend–a lovely, lovely date weekend where we took some money he’d earned from an extra job and got a sitter and a hotel in a reasonably nearby city–that I’ve got some presumptions about what I can and can’t do based on some pretty iffy ground. Failing as the sixth couple-of-months secretary in a row for a lawyer who’d lost his fifteen-year workhorse to retirement doesn’t mean I can’t be a paralegal.) So… I picked up the clutter from the house, which already is making me feel good.

I’m kind of lost as to who I am and what I’m supposed to be doing. So I’m going to go fold laundry.

Then I’m going to wake up early (much earlier than my standard), make breakfast so that my husband feels guilted into getting up early, take the baby to his parent’s house (so that his dad–currently suffering a gout flare-up–doesn’t have to come down to the valley), and get to work at a reasonable hour.

Really… it’s something I need to remember. If you’re feeling dissatisfied and like you’ve wasted your everything, do something useful. Anything useful.

It at least kicks the question down the road a little, and gives you a better hand.

Aspie in the Workplace: Fulfilling Expectations

I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of tips I’ve picked up to make working in the office easier or more feasible, and it’s been hard–it’s so easy to look back and see basically an endless string of failures, even though I logically know that if I’ve been working in an office continuously for the last year and a half (and more sporadically before that), I’ve got to have managed something correctly.

But it occurred to me today that there’s one thing that’s absolutely essential, on which everything else builds, and so it’s an absolutely perfect start to this whole series. It’s less of a tip and more of an underlying philosophy, but hey, you gotta start somewhere:

You are expected to function on a level with your coworkers, and it doesn’t do anyone a damn bit of good to pretend this isn’t the case.

Which would all be really good and straightforward if “perform” meant “fulfill the productive aspects of the job competently.” But it doesn’t. There’s this whole package, largely not only undefined but undefinable, that comes as a base expectation of almost any office job… and woe betide us unfortunates who can’t figure it out. Seriously: The person who completes their work accurately and ahead of schedule, but never manages to look anyone in the face or respond to a friendly “hello!” or chip in to the office charitable causes or food days… he’ll be viewed with suspicion and never quite accepted. And that feeling like they’re “not really part of the team” will be considered when it comes time to renew the contract.

But before you throw in the towel and give up on the concept of ever having office employment, I want to tell you that there’s good news. In fact, there’s kind of a lot of it.

First? It’s not just you that’s not living up to the unstated expectations. Let’s look at a few case studies for examples.

You know your gregarious coworker? She’s always got a kind word for everyone and can make you feel warm from your head to your toes with just a smile… but she’s consistently ten minutes late and can’t manage to sit down at her computer before she’s spent twenty minutes saying hello to everyone in the building. Is she fulfilling all of the base expectations?

How about that one, over there? He’s a great guy, always willing to go the extra mile, never takes a sick day. But… every day, he lets himself get buried under a pile of “just this one little thing” coming into him by phone and email and never gets around to his core work. Is he fulfilling base expectations?

Meanwhile, there’s that girl. She does everything she’s asked, promptly and without attitude–but a third of it needs to be done over again because it’s wrong. I don’t think we need to mention that she’s not quite fulfilling everything her bosses would want of her.

So, long story short, there’s a lot to this pile of expectations. And the more things you’re good at? The more forgiveness you can stash up for the things that are just beyond your capacity.

Second: The stuff you’re not good at? You can cheat. You may not know how to hold your end of the office cooler small talk, and not know what’s expected when someone comes to your desk wanting to chat about something entirely unrelated to work. But there are a couple of tips that you can use for those sorts of interactions that allow you to basically fake it until you make it. Hopefully, I can go more into depth with this sort of thing later, but… well. Let’s take one of my weaknesses. I tend to obliviously go on at length on subjects that nobody gives a damn about–or worse, are actually repulsed by. (Yeah… the dreaded Office TMI.) So, what are some interpersonal tricks I’ve picked up to “cheat” my way around this issue? One, don’t start any conversations. (You can branch out into “Only start conversations when you’re very sure the other person is interested” once you’re more confident–stopping by to ask someone how their daughter’s minor dental surgery went is likely acceptable.) Two, be reactive instead of active; express interest, nod, and ask questions like “And what happened then?”–but shy away from adding anything to a conversation unless specifically prompted. And finally, keep an internal list of topics to shy away from, even if someone else is discussing them already. Even if you have to leave the room in order to keep your mouth shut, don’t discuss politics, don’t discuss sexx, and don’t discuss anything negative about anybody.

There! I still don’t know anything about how to talk to a person, and in fact these rules aren’t going to make me seem more like a regular person to anybody. But I’ll avoid a black mark. And honestly, that’s frequently as good as any of us can ask for, and every bit as good as we need to be.

(Meanwhile… let’s take a coworker I had once. He never talked to anyone unless prompted, and when you did get him to talk, he only complained. I’m absolutely sure this was because he was deeply unhappy. But in his case, the advice might be: Smile when someone greets you, respond to questions with rehearsed non-specific answers, and under no circumstances use curse words. They wouldn’t have made him happier, but he might not have been fired before leaving training.)

Finally, and almost most importantly, Surpluses in one area can make up for deficiencies in another–though never at a 1:1 ratio. Say you’re interpersonally lacking and have trouble switching between tasks. You’ve done all you can to cheat competency at these things and you still don’t think you’re up to snuff.

That’s okay. Or it can be. Because these are only two of the aspects you’re being graded on. And let me tell them? Some of them are really easy to game in your favor.

For instance? Every day, show up fifteen minutes early to your shift. (Don’t charge your employer for this time. I don’t give a damn what the law says. (Obviously, if your boss insists, or doesn’t want you coming in early, that overrides this suggestion.)) Come back early from break’s and lunches.Volunteer for overtime whenever asked.

Or maybe something simpler, softer. You can make the coffee in the mornings, make sure that the general-use office supplies are stocked. Buy the office’s affection by bringing doughnuts every other Friday.

Even something as simple as accepting any task that’s handed to you without complaining (asking questions if you’re not sure how) can do wonders. A lot of office staff will get snippy about, for instance, emptying trash cans or sanding icy sidewalks. Or, frankly, anything that they don’t consider part of “their job.” You’re already miles ahead of these folks if you do it with a smile.


In summary… you’re going to have to live with the fact that there are a lot of things expected of you that you’re just not going to be able to fulfill, or at least not fulfill very well. But it’s okay, because a) nobody else is fulfilling all of the obligations, either, b) you can figure out ways to cheat at “being good enough” at some of your deficient areas, and c) you can make up for deficiencies with strengths, albeit at a discount.

(And if your response to all of this is “But it’s not fair that they’d judge me on something I can’t help, you’re in the wrong blog. I’m not here to make things fair, I’m here to help you succeed in spite of it.)

So! Get to work, my friends. And let me know if you have any questions or suggestions of your own.


One of my favorite games with my sisters growing up was called Scribble. Most of the kids I’ve played it with–older than my young one, but still–have enjoyed it, too. So I figured I’d share, because I don’t know if it’s widespread or something my older sister invented.

What you need is a piece of paper and a drawing implement, doesn’t matter what kind. (As a personal preference, probably not pencil; the paper will get handed around enough that there’s a lot of potential for smudging.) And at least two players.

The first person makes a mark on the paper, any mark they want to, and hand it to the next person. This person will incorporate the scribble into a full drawing. Say, maybe a wavy line becomes a fish in the ocean, or a tight little scribble becomes a raincloud. (When my sisters and I played, a zig-zag line usually became Bart Simpson–my older sister got frustrated with that, but it amused my younger sister and me endlessly.)

Then that person makes a new scribble and passes the paper along.

It doesn’t sound like it would be very engaging, but I’ve managed to keep children occupied for a long time with that one. And… well, me, too. I still like to play it.

(I look forward to when my daughter is old enough to understand the concepts–we’ve graduated from “she wants to immediately scribble all over whatever I’m drawing” to “she wants to steal my pen and see if that lets her make the same thing I did,” but we’re still a little bit distant from where we need to be for Scribble.)

So, yes! Go! Enjoy! Play it with adults! Make up variants! (Maybe everyone has a different colored pen/crayon so you can track who did what after the fact? Maybe all the drawings have to fit a theme?)

And heck, take a picture of the paper once it’s done and send it to me. I’d be thrilled to see what you do with it.


It occurs to me that I filled Thanksgiving with angry-rar-rar with a post from a month or so ago… which, y’know, is a little tacky, particularly because… I’m feeling great.

Seriously. My husband and I are both in the realm of “I don’t even know how to narrow down what I’m thankful for.” We’re becoming better people at an amazing rate (that is, those bad habits and tendencies we’ve always struggled with are… actually getting better), we’ve got an amazing amount we each never thought would be in our futures (marriage, children, close-knit friendships of mutual aid and companionability, and certain core competencies for which we are in demand)… life is good, and it only looks like it’s getting better.

Today was a good example of that.

Okay, it wasn’t all great shakes–the baby tried to swallow a quarter, which doesn’t sound like it should be as frightening as it was but I swear the ten seconds it took for Bill to get it out of her throat/airway were the longest ten seconds of my life. Anyway. She lived. And kept trying to fall off of everything. But…

Well. Our friends, who are aid workers for the disabled, both had worked massive overtime on Thanksgiving ($$$), and thus threw their Thanksgiving bash tonight. Invited us. Invited another friend we haven’t seen in too long. Great food. (Seriously, the rule has always been that if Mat invites you for dinner, the answer is yes.) And…

And it didn’t even stand out as that outstandingly awesome, because life has been so outstandingly awesome lately.

So. Yeah. I just wanted to give a… life is good, and I think that deserves some recording.