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.

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7 Comments


  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!!





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