When a Meltdown Strikes in the Workplace


The woman on the phone was not listening. I had called her for help and quickly realized she would not be able to help me.

I told her, “Nevermind. I’ve made a mistake. I’m going to let you go.” She kept asking questions. To every question she asked I said, “I don’t know. I don’t have any more information. I am going to let you go.”

She kept asking. I told her again, “I need to let you go. You cannot help me.” Her overly helpful insistence that I not hang up the phone was about to make me blow up.

Finally, in a harsh tone I told her, “Look — I was trying to be nice, but I am hanging up now, because there is nothing you can do for me.”

I slammed down the phone and ran quickly out of our office in a panic. My heart was beating fast and my mind was racing. Everything was a blur. I wanted to scream, cry and hit someone. More than anything, I wanted to get away and be alone.

Run. Run. Escape. Escape

Bursting into the hallway, I frantically looked both ways. I wanted to go someplace without people. The bathroom? Elevator? Emergency stairwell!

Hyperventilating, I burst into the stairwell. It was dark and quiet, as most people take the elevator. I ran up and down the stairs until finally I collapsed exhausted on the bottom floor.

I sat for a moment, curled in a ball, rocking. Grateful for the moment alone, I sat breathing in and listening to my breaths.

Coming back to reality and feeling much better after my tiny explosion (this was a very small meltdown), I realized I had left my key card in the desk as I ran out in a panic, so I exited the stairwell and took the elevator back to my floor.

Back at my desk, I sat down like nothing ever happened — as if I hadn’t just had a meltdown at work.

When an autistic person is having a meltdown, they are often unable to think clearly. The fight or flight response is triggered, so forcing them to engage with you may actually cause more stress.

We are all unique individuals, but I like to be alone during a meltdown. If I get up and run away, don’t chase me — this is flight, and if you corner me my brain can switch to fight. I’m on autopilot, and running has become the way I protect myself (and those around me).

If I’m having a meltdown, please do not touch me. My senses are whirling out of proportion, and I am not thinking clearly. I may become unable to communicate other than one-word answers, and trying to communicate makes me feel worse — so don’t ask me to explain what’s happening. If you are in the room with an autistic person having a meltdown, I’d recommend turning off the lights and getting them a blanket or pillow and some space. A favorite stim toy might also be a good thing to offer.

You can stay in the room if the person you are with does not mind, but give some space and sit quietly. Accept that they can’t control what is happening to them. Sometimes we feel the meltdown coming, but other times it can hit without warning.

Once started, the meltdown has to run its course. Just wait; let me meltdown and don’t try to stop it. We may feel tired after a meltdown, but sometimes we can feel relief, as the pressure may have been building for quite some time.

Remember, as hard as watching a meltdown can be for you, having a meltdown is horrible for an autistic person. The pain is mental and physical. Autistic people having meltdowns are in crisis mode, and our brains are lashing out at us. We don’t mean to be out of control and are often embarrassed after having a meltdown.

Image via Thinkstock.

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