My Problem with Autistic Meltdowns

Image of a lighthouse in a storm about to be covered by a wave. Image is a metaphor for how an autistic person with autism may feel during a meltdown

I was thirty-eight years old when I stared down a late-in-life diagnosis at my neurologist’s office in 2018. Autistic Meltdowns had brought me to this place. I considered them a problem in my life; and I still do, but not for the same reasons.

After several years of contemplation and research, I’ve concluded that meltdowns are a necessary feature of autism.

Making Sense of Autistic Meltdowns

I often use this analogy to explain it: we humans can be seen as an empty glass when we wake up at the beginning of each day. Each social interaction, each sensory interaction, each event we go through adds water to our glass. Autistics tend to fill up much quicker than their neurotypical counterparts. A neurotypical person won’t even fill half their glass by bedtime, but an autistic could be overflowing by noon.

When the cup overflows, it has to be dumped out in order to make space for more water. Because the water will keep coming whether we want it to or not. So, I don’t think meltdowns are inherently a bad thing. They just are for us autistics, and we have meltdowns in common with a lot of other neurodivergent populations. They provide an essential function, a venting of steam, so that we can reset and get back to our day.

Reading my neurological report revealed a new lens through which to view my past. Prior to my diagnosis, I’d felt the meltdowns were a recently-manifested behavior. With the help of my wife and my therapist, I was able to identify a pattern of clear and intense meltdowns in my past.

Looking at these meltdowns as a pattern normalized the behavior and allowed me space to explore what these meltdowns really were, leading me to my conclusion that meltdowns are necessary for autistics to keep moving through a neurotypical world.

Recognizing the Fear and Discomfort of Meltdowns

Necessary does not mean comfortable. Quite the opposite. If someone is reading this and enjoys their meltdowns, I would genuinely like to hear about your experience. Most of us dread them. For me, they can be particularly scary, and this is my problem with my own meltdowns.

My meltdowns tend to be violent. Things get broken, walls get punched, words are screamed out loud that aren’t true, one time I even broke the passenger window of our car with my head. Thousands of dollars’ worth of damage has resulted from my meltdowns, and the guilt and shame I feel as a result causes deep depression.

It’s a cycle. Literally, it’s the shame/rage cycle. My meltdowns are complicated by my severe PTSD. I realized this when I synthesized my two diagnoses. The abuse I suffered throughout childhood and adolescence causes me to feel shame, which turns into negative emotions causing aggressive behaviors.

I engage in these aggressive behaviors to avoid the negative emotions related to shame. I then feel more shame for engaging in the aggressive behaviors and the wheel keeps turning, over and over.

Exiting the Shame-Rage Cycle

I’m stuck here. For now. But I’m climbing and clawing my way out. Even writing this blog is an action I am taking to end the shame-rage cycle that has infiltrated my natural meltdown system. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do to address my violent meltdowns, but I have some ideas to start with.

Number one is to increase my practice of mindfulness meditation. By increasing my level of mindfulness, I will be able to recognize meltdown triggers earlier and possibly head them off, or in the very least, funnel them into a more manageable and less traumatic experience.

My second action is to get a new therapist. I’ve been working with my therapist for eight years! As a former therapist myself, I could explain to you the benefits of a long-term therapeutic relationship based on humanistic psychology and person-centered theory, but I won’t. What I will say is there is a time to move on in therapy, and my time is now. I’m searching for a trauma-based therapist with certification in EMDR, a common, tactile/sensory technique for addressing trauma.

A new therapist is a fresh set of eyes on the situation, which is something I really need right now. After leaving the field of psychotherapy five years ago, I can finally say my ego is ready to accept new ideas without the preconceived bias of how I think my therapy sessions should go.

My third action is to keep writing about it. I will be journaling, and I hope to blog more about my progress on this great project of mine. There are lots of micro-actions I am going to try. I’d like to see how a strict regimen of eco-therapy would affect the cycle.

Establishing New Patterns

As I understand myself more through the therapeutic process, I hope to uncover deeply-seeded triggers that I am unaware of. I think they are there, lurking and locked away within my subconscious where all the serious work gets done. If I can find that door and establish new patterns of behavior, I think I can mold my meltdowns into an actual positive experience.

The meltdowns don’t have to be comfortable to be positive, but the violence does have to end.

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3 Responses

  1. I applaud you. self-consciousness is everything. knowledge about our neurology is so liberating in this sense.

  2. You are an amazing human. I can’t imagine the courage it took for you to put this out to the world. Shame, by it nature, likes to remain hidden and you just blew off the roof and demolished the walls. I was only diagnosed recently but have suspected for a year or more. I used to think I was this incredibly angry selfish person when in reality I was in pain mentally and physically. Add to that childhood trauma, ADHD (another late diagnosis), living on my own from the age of 15 with zero social skills was super fun too. I’ve been through many types of therapy, for whatever reason I didn’t feel like EMDR would be right for me, not sure why but it really frightens me. What I did find was DBT therapy and it spoke to me in a way that nothing ever has before. 1. I never understood what I was supposed to do in talk therapy. 2. There was some value in CBT but it only got me part of the way. 3. DBT worked for me not only because of my trauma but also because of my autism. I was given tools to deal with all of the things I was experiencing, I was given clear directions on how to use those tools and just as importantly I received coaching on real life situations that allowed me to see that while many of my behaviors were simply the way I was made, there were many that could do with a change. It was so incredibly helpful in learning communications skills with NT’s and lets face in, unless we become shut ins we are going to have to figure out ways to get along in the world. This was especially true for me as my daughter was 19 at the time and we were really struggling. One of the therapists took to time to sit down with me and discuss specific language I was using that might make the situation worse. She also gave suggestions and explained why they might be received better. One of the core goals of this therapy is emotion regulation and this was also life changing. It allowed me to truly embrace and hold on to the positives of having such strong emotions and gave me the tools to keep living through the negative ones. I wish you all the best on your journey and will be sending positive energy your way.

  3. Your article is interesting. I’m here to learn about autism. My boyfriend has a 15 year daughter that has autism and ADHD, she’s fairly low functioning, when she gets older she will be in a group home setting. I’m trying to understand why she has very violent, unsafe meltdowns, and how I can help. She’s allowed to do whatever she wants at home, plays with her iPad loudly for hours, terrorizes her little brother when she’s bored, kicks the dog when she’s crabby, hits and scratches people, throws large objects. She acts like a bully. People that are minding their own business, she will go over and knock them off their chair or throw a book or toy at them. She acts like this without anyone doing anything to start it. When people get upset or mad, she’s happy. If I didn’t know better, I would think it’s narcissistic.

    Basically everyone who interacts with her coddles her and sucks up to her because they are afraid of what might happen if they re-direct her or say no about anything. Her dad has been told she behaves the worst in her special ed school. She’s allowed to treat anyone poorly or nasty. It has to be sad going through life with people afraid to interact with her or upset her. When she wonders the neighborhood, people that are outside go inside, or they close their garage doors when they see her coming. She wears diapers, and many times she’s tossed a full one around the bathroom or her room, for no apparent reason. Then while someone is cleaning it up and scrubbing, she sits there all giddy and smiling. Her dad lets her be spoiled. She’s not treated as a child, but as a person that gets special treatment. Her little brother who is typical is in therapy because she’s his role model but he’s not allowed to behave rudely, swearing, tantrums, etc.

    When she does get in trouble and has a time out, she destroys her room. There’s a reason her bedroom door has plywood holding it together and plexiglass over the window panes. When she’s in her room on a timeout, she yells and swears, and is completely lucid talking about how she hates certain people, how she wants them to die, or lock them out of the house. Perfectly lucid paragraphs talking. I remember her saying she wishes her brother would run away and never come back because dad doesn’t love him. This is the girl when asked if she ate 5 cookies says grandma is ok with her going swimming. She’s verbal but can’t string a sentence together. Usually responds to multiple choice questions. How does she sound completely lucid, using the right syllables and tone when she’s going off on how much she hates certain people and why and where they should go. Does she know what she’s saying when she’s mad lucid or when she blurts out weird statements when being questioned about behavior?

    Thank you for your help, I’ll keep trying to learn!

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