The Autistic Experience of Sensory Overwhelm, Meltdowns, and Shutdowns5 min read

Sometimes it’s hard to find the words to describe our expe­ri­ences, or even reach a suf­fi­cient level of aware­ness to begin putting it into words. Since we nec­es­sarily only have one sub­jec­tive frame of ref­er­ence, it can be chal­lenging to figure our­selves out.

This post explores my expe­ri­ences of sev­eral types of over­whelm relating to autism, and I have been told they are a good descrip­tion of PTSD as well.

Either way, I hope it res­onates and/or helps you put your own expe­ri­ences into words.

Sensory overload

Type: sen­sory over­whelm

When I visit stores, the amount of visual infor­ma­tion I process often gets to be too much. Yesterday Natalie and I stepped into a ware­house, and after half a minute I said, “I am already not feeling well. I will wait out­side.”

What hap­pens is that I see so much detail that I am quite lit­er­ally get­ting sick. I expe­ri­ence a headache, and when it really gets too much, I become nau­seous and start sweating.

There isn’t so much going on men­tally, except for a great desire to go out­side, or to seclude myself in a dark room. Outside, things are more dis­tant, there is more open­ness, and a lot less detail. And in a dark room, there isn’t as much light coming into my eyes that needs to be processed, and we see less detail in the dark. As such, there is less to process, and I can breathe again.


Type: emo­tional over­whelm

Sensory over­load doesn’t lead to melt­downs for me. It’s usu­ally caused by anx­iety and mental dis­tress, but I found that when my sugar levels drop because I haven’t had pro­tein in a while, that is a major con­trib­utor to my agi­ta­tion and poten­tial melt­downs. Either way, when my child­hood traumas come up, I can lose con­trol over my emo­tions.

I become less rational and expe­ri­ence an exces­sive need for val­i­da­tion and com­pas­sion. Although some­times even that isn’t enough, as I first need to vent my anger. I have a lot of sup­pressed rage that often comes out during a melt­down. Although I can be ver­bally aggres­sive in this state, it all comes from fear. I guess it’s a fairly child-like state.

In terms of phys­ical symp­toms, during a melt­down I expe­ri­ence an extreme amount of anx­iety. I may expe­ri­ence stomach pain, and pres­sure on my chest. I don’t nec­es­sarily notice my phys­ical symp­toms, how­ever, both due to alex­ithymia as well as focusing so much on the emo­tional over­whelm that there isn’t any mind­ful­ness about bodily sen­sa­tions.

In terms of mental symp­toms, I guess I feel like a grave injus­tice is being done unto me. It makes me feel enti­tled to val­i­da­tion and com­pas­sion, which are things Natalie can’t nec­es­sarily offer me in such a state because gen­er­ally when I am having a melt­down, she is having one as well.

I get out of a melt­down by doing things that calm me. Generally, I will smoke cannabis, which helps me a lot. But I have also gone for extended walks. At first, I will loop on feel­ings of injus­tice and my anger. At a cer­tain point, I think my anx­iety dimin­ishes enough so that I con­nect more with my dis­tress than with the injus­tice I feel is done to me and the sub­se­quent anger I feel towards that person.

At that point, I start crying rather than expressing anger. I start to feel com­pas­sion for the other, and a lot of shame about my own behavior. It feels ter­rible about not being in con­trol of my emo­tions, and while I feel rational and jus­ti­fied during a melt­down, after the melt­down I realize how irra­tional I have been, how much I over-identified with my emo­tions, and how dif­fi­cult of a sit­u­a­tion I pre­sented Natalie with (or who­ever was in my path in the past).


Type: burnout

After a melt­down, a shut­down often fol­lows. In this state, I am also emo­tion­ally over­whelmed, but in a pas­sive way. What I mean by that is that I am no longer actively over­whelmed and out of con­trol. Instead, it feels like I burned through my emo­tions.

At this point, I will have trouble pro­cessing cer­tain things, but no longer because the sen­sory or emo­tional infor­ma­tion is too much for me, but because the emo­tional appa­ratus simply no longer works. So there is a lack of pro­cessing, rather than a des­perate attempt at pro­cessing a lot.

What this feels like is a numb­ness both of the mind and the body. I feel a strange mix of apathy and con­tent­ed­ness, I guess because a lack of emo­tion­ality feels like quite a relief after a melt­down. I don’t wish to be apa­thetic gen­er­ally, but after emo­tional over­whelm, not expe­ri­encing much in terms of emo­tions feels very wel­come. Ahh, a break!

There is still a bodily sen­sa­tion some­what com­pa­rable to anx­iety, but it doesn’t give me the feeling of pres­sure and dis­com­fort the way anx­iety does. I feel the best way to describe it is that I burned through my emo­tions, but this may not mean any­thing specif­i­cally to you.

Even though I think this is an apt descrip­tion, I realize now that it is more a coun­ter­in­tu­itive descrip­tion of my bodily sen­sa­tions than my mental ones. Mentally, I just feel exhausted. Physically, I feel in some ways that things no longer impact me. Maybe numb­ness is the best way to describe it after all.

Or maybe it’s some­thing I often say during or after a shut­down:

I feel like I have been hit by a truck.

Reported feelings of overwhelm

Autistic people also reported the fol­lowing feel­ings when it comes to over­whelm:

  1. Blood pres­sure changes
  2. Brain fog/clouding of con­scious­ness
  3. Chest pain
  4. Confusion
  5. Dizziness
  6. Dissociation
  7. Disorientation
  8. Fragmented per­cep­tion
  9. Headache
  10. Irrationality
  11. Irritability
  12. Nausea
  13. Neck pain (this seems to be som­a­ti­za­tion)
  14. Noise in head/ears
  15. Poor exec­u­tive func­tioning
  16. Stomachache
  17. Trembling

And I’m sure the range of expe­ri­ences doesn’t end here.

What is your expe­ri­ence of sen­sory over­load, a melt­down, or a shut­down?

This post is an edited ver­sion of The expe­ri­ence of over­whelm on the Embrace ASD web­site. You might also be inter­ested in our Sensory Sunday series, about the autistic sen­sory expe­ri­ences.

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  1. What about simple ‘panic’!

  2. I feel pretty lucky I don’t expe­ri­ence nausea. It’s mostly just pain and exhaus­tion and the feeling of tears coming.

    Also, to anyone reading this, if you don’t have noise-canceling head­phones, please get some! I got some last summer and they really help. They can’t fix every­thing, but they can make it a little better and some­times that means the world.

  3. I am just now learning to rec­og­nize the trig­gers that result in my over­whelmed states, which may include melt­downs, shut­downs and other emo­tional upheaval. The trig­gers are def­i­nitely cor­re­lated with existing child­hood and adult trauma, and they do not have to be sen­sory. They can be the minor actions of others with whom I come into con­tact, such as being ignored, dis­par­aged, and rejected by my “peers”. This hap­pened to me recently among a small com­mu­nity of non-autistic people online, and I saw the warning signs but did not retreat from the group imme­di­ately because a few of them had reached out to me. Then came Christmas Eve, and I had what I can only describe as a verbal melt­down, in which I attacked everyone who had hurt me, and even the ones who had nothing to do with what hap­pened. The stress of the hol­iday and mem­o­ries asso­ci­ated with it over­whelmed com­pletely and I buckled under it. The end result was my com­plete break from that par­tic­ular group of people. I am cer­tain they all now think i am dan­ger­ously unstable, which isn’t true at all. My ques­tion is, have any of you expe­ri­enced this sort of melt­down?

  4. i fre­quently get hot flashes when i feel a melt­down coming on like my feel­ings are just burning me up from the inside out. being too warm is also a sen­sory over­whelm trigger for me so run­ning out­side or tearing off my clothes during a melt­down is a common thing.

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