Autistic Meltdowns: From the Inside8 min read

It wasn’t a bad day, in fact it was pretty good. I had worked a little over­time and was bringing some dinner home to my wife.

There was a Chinese place that we hadn’t tried, and I wanted to do some­thing nice for my wife. I placed my order, waited about 10 min­utes, and then pro­ceeded to take the food home. It didn’t occur to me to check the box; after all, this was a pretty nice place.

But lo and behold, once I got home and opened the box, I found every­thing except for my wife’s entrée. I couldn’t even feel it coming on. I was crying, I was cursing, I was stomping around slam­ming doors. I got in the car and started to drive the 20 min­utes back to the restau­rant, called them on the way and told them that they messed up the order.

Of course they apol­o­gized and told me that they would fix the order, but the damage had already been done. I was crying, cursing, screaming… I was having what many autistic people described as a melt­down.

After the fact, I could reflect a little more about why that event was so trig­gering.  The day before, someone had called me a “short bus riding window licker.”  This brought back mem­o­ries of years of being bul­lied and feel­ings of inad­e­quacy.  So, when I couldn’t even get my wife’s food order right or follow through with a sur­prise, I was caught off guard by all that emo­tional weight I’d been car­rying.

Merriam Webster’s dic­tio­nary defines a melt­down as a break­down from fatigue or over­stim­u­la­tion. It’s a good starting place to describe what exactly is hap­pening. The Interactive Autism Network describes a melt­down as an “insta­bility.”

Think of it like this: you’re working with a com­puter, and you’re giving it too many com­mands at once. What does the com­puter do?

At first, it kind of shuts down. It doesn’t respond to any of the input that you’re sending to it. But then some­thing inter­esting hap­pens: every­thing starts flashing, win­dows start opening and closing all at once, maybe key­board strokes from moments ago start appearing on the screen.

You can say the com­puter has reached an insta­bility and is responding as best it can to all of the input that it has received. That’s kind of what it is like in the autistic mind when a melt­down occurs. The whole system– not just the brain– becomes over­whelmed. This can happen for many rea­sons; for instance, in my sit­u­a­tion last week, it hap­pened because I had the best inten­tions and had planned some­thing to happen. What actu­ally hap­pened was totally con­trary to what I expected… thus: melt­down.

It can be very dif­fi­cult for neu­rotyp­ical people to under­stand exactly what’s going on during a melt­down. They can also be dif­fi­cult to describe as every autistic person expe­ri­ences melt­downs slightly dif­fer­ently.

From the Community

What fol­lows are some answers to ques­tions about melt­downs that I asked some of my friends in the autistic com­mu­nity.

Question 1: what do your melt­downs feel like?

Personally, I tend to have more shut­downs versus melt­downs. I think of shut­downs as “internal melt­downs,” as they feel very much the same, but exter­nally look very dif­ferent.

For both a melt­down and shut­down, I feel over­whelmed and gen­er­ally go non-verbal/mute (not by choice). I usu­ally can under­stand other people speaking without too much effort, but I cannot figure out how to make words come out of my mouth. I feel con­fused and frantic inter­nally. It is painful. My body feels like it’s on fire and raw.

I want to col­lapse or lay down. All the while I want to hit myself in the head or chest. If I am in a melt­down, I’m usu­ally also crying and shaking, feeling scared and help­less, and oth­er­wise broken and embar­rassed. During a shut­down, I feel stupid and incom­pe­tent, and still feel the feel­ings of feeling scared, help­less, con­fused, embar­rassed, etc.

Everything feels too bright, too loud, too much. My senses are on over­load and I just want to curl up and dis­ap­pear. I keep coming back to the word, “frantic.” It feels like the cat­e­gories and orga­ni­za­tion my autistic brain thrives in and has built all have disappeared…it’s like I sud­denly dropped into a world that I am unfa­miliar with com­pletely and have no ways to make sense of. It’s dis­ori­enting and con­fusing.

“When I feel one coming, it’s like mental pres­sure building, my move­ments become more agi­tated and jerky.”

I can’t answer the ques­tion of what my melt­downs feel like because I lit­er­ally don’t know.  That’s why they’re so ter­ri­fying.  I have an extreme need and can’t tell what it is in order to meet it.  It’s as extreme as being on fire, but even then I’d know I needed to either smother it or get in some water.  With this, I don’t know what the feeling is or how to stop it.

“Intense brain fog and irri­tability signal that I am going to have a melt­down soon. If it’s slow coming on, and I rec­og­nize what’s hap­pening, the symp­toms often feel sim­ilar to a migraine. My senses are height­ened to a painful degree (the stuff that is usu­ally just sort of irri­tating becomes debil­i­tating, like I am going to throw up), and I can’t handle light or sound or smells– must escape– my anx­iety becomes so con­suming that I feel like I will never be free from the intense misery I am feeling at that moment. ”

Like I am going to die right then and there and there is no hope, and I hate lit­er­ally everyone– even those I cherish most in the world. I speak very qui­etly and walk into another room to be alone and cry in dark­ness and quiet, and my entire body aches. I scream into a pillow and feel com­plete agony until it passes. I also can’t really feel my body as I’m walking. I feel like I’m out­side of my body pushing myself to move into another room by sheer mental force.

Question 2: How long do your melt­downs last and how do you feel after?

It’s a bit hard to answer how long a melt­down or shut­down lasts for me because there’s a time leading up to it, then the peak of it, then the drop off. I’d say the “peak” of it (which is more of a plateau) lasts around 30 min­utes max­imum, with the “ulti­mate peak” being prob­ably around 7 min­utes in the middle of that 30. The effects go on for hours or days, how­ever.

Afterwards, I feel exhaus­tion that is inde­scrib­able. If I was around people, I feel embar­rassed and inse­cure, like I needed to explain myself and give a mini lesson on what autism is and why I sud­denly seemed to “go offline” or melt­down. After melt­downs and shut­downs, I need a lot of rest in a low-sensory envi­ron­ment. I need min­imal tasks required of me, min­imal social con­tact with people, and a lot of under­standing and non-judgement from those who I am in social con­tact with.

“My melt­downs last until some­thing can stop them.  Sometimes it’s a friend talking to me, some­times I faint or have a seizure, and some­times I start throwing med­ica­tions at it hoping some­thing will make it stop.  In the past, I used to self-harm or run until it stopped, but I try to manage them in healthier ways now. ”

Question 3: Is there some­thing that you wish neu­rotyp­i­cals knew about your melt­downs?

I wish that others knew when I’m having a melt­down, I can’t be polite. It would be like making small talk and being polite while on fire. I’m likely to not be able to con­trol my tone, might say the wrong things, and no one should touch me. I need them to under­stand that it’s not my fault, I usu­ally need space and quiet time, and to not take per­son­ally what I have to say or how my behav­iors present. If they are pre­pared in advance, then they can help me to get to the other end of a melt­down safely.

“I am not in con­trol during a melt­down, I cannot ratio­nalize, I may get mean, and I’m hurting myself, but yelling or putting any pres­sure on me is going to make it worse. Be calm, be gentle, remember I’m in CRISIS.”

Something I guess I wish that people knew is that I appear like I’m fine until I’m really, really not fine, and at that point, there is nothing that can be done– I just need to get through it on my own. I once tried to leave a friend’s house before my daughter had a melt­down and it didn’t work, so we ended up sit­ting in our car in her dri­veway while my daughter melted down, which made me melt down. It was hor­rible and kind of embar­rassing. The friend was kind about it, but like, people don’t truly get it– our sys­tems get over­loaded so much faster because we take in so much more infor­ma­tion and feel so much more intensely.

That input has to make an exit at some point, and we can’t con­trol how or when that hap­pens without mind-breaking plan­ning and even with all that, there are still unplanned vari­ables that throw the whole plan off.”

Circuitry Overload

As I said, I could have asked a mil­lion dif­ferent autistic people and received a mil­lion dif­ferent answers to these ques­tions. The fact is, melt­downs are not some­thing that we choose to do. These aren’t just emo­tional reac­tions to not get­ting our way. They’re not tantrums, not even in chil­dren. They are very much an over­loading of our mental cir­cuity.

What is the way for­ward? What is the best way to deal with melt­downs? It’s all about putting more tools in your tool chest. Knowing your own per­sonal signs and trig­gers, knowing what it feels like before having a melt­down, will help you be able to pre­vent them.

If you’re autistic, you need to know it’s okay to to set healthy bound­aries for your loved ones by making it clear that you might need to wear ear plugs or sun glasses, stim to help reg­u­late your ner­vous system, decline some invi­ta­tions, or take social breaks during events.

If you are a loved one of someone who is autistic, be gentle and kind while the person is having a melt­down and after. Often, they need space. When the person is calm and having a good day would be a good time to talk about how you can best sup­port them when they feel melt­downs coming on, during a melt­down, and after­wards.

Also I think that prac­ticing rad­ical accep­tance is key–not only for autistic loved ones, but for those of us on the spec­trum, as well. I am autistic and just as much as my ability to pay atten­tion to details is a part of who I am, melt­downs are also a part of who I am. I can get better at avoiding them, but over­whelm will still happen.

It doesn’t make me a bad person, it just makes me autistic. I tend to be a spir­i­tual person, so I see myself exactly as God planned me to be. Learning how to accept and embrace my autistic self– that is my life’s goal.

Latest posts by Mike Wise (see all)


  1. I have a com­ment on the new site layout over here… The quotes in the grey small font are really hard to read and I tend to skip them. Especially in this blog post, these quotes are an impor­tant part of the story and I feel really bad that I can’t read them. I hope someone can make them a bit bigger and increase the con­trast a bit. 🙂

  2. Oh, I know those melt­downs 🙁 Soon after we were mar­ried, I told my hus­band that I was having a bad day and there­fore to be careful, HE, said well IF you know it, then just stop it (or words to that effect). I went off like my mum’s pres­sure cooker when it has gone over pres­sure — like beet­root juice all over the ceiling!!

Talk to us... what are you thinking?