The Autistic Experience of Sensory Overwhelm, Meltdowns, and Shutdowns

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 autistic experience of overwhelm on the Embrace Autism website. You might also be interested in our Sensory Sunday series, about autistic sensory experiences.

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12 Responses

  1. 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.

  2. 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?

    1. I am 60 years old. I had my most recent meltdown on Sunday night. I am still in shut down and non-verbal. I think this may have been the meltdown that ended this friend group. I think it is the 3rd one. I don’t know because they haven’t responded after i sent the “this is what I was perceiving” “this is what happened as a result of those perceptions” “I am autistic, here is what that means” “i’m sorry. I will try very hard not to do it again.” I think if this time this friend group drifts away because they experienced a meltdown, that will be it for me. I can’t keep trying to build close relationships only to have a very public meltdown like you describe and lose them all at once. It only compounds the pain and trauma. I’m going to ask my doc for my benzo prescription back. Because before a meltdown starts when i know i am in the red zone, that is the only thing that works fast enough to calm my brain. And there’s nothing like a 60 year old woman having a completely public autistic meltdown to draw friends and support to me. NOT!

      1. Oh dear, indeed that would be distressing. And yes, being 60 then having autistic meltdown is a thing it seems only very few of those who are not autistic can wrap their minds around. Then there is the thing of feeling both physically and psychologically drained dry from the thing. I wish the least loss & the most restoration for you.

  3. 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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