What the 'Riptide' of a Meltdown Feels Like


It happens to almost everyone on the spectrum, at varying degrees of intensity, and varying levels of frequency: meltdowns. It happens anywhere, anytime, with no discrimination on circumstance, location or time; it happens no matter who we’re with or who’s around us. If we’re unlucky enough to be pulled under by life’s riptide, and no one we love, no one who understands, is around to help, it becomes more than just a struggle: it becomes a terrifying ordeal. If we break down, alone, we’re left to our own devices and the knowledge that others around us are pegging us as things we are not. In our best efforts of closing out the world around us and trying to calm ourselves down, we are not totally impervious to our immediate surroundings; we are not impervious to the judgment, and that, alone, is what makes it terrifying. What is the riptide, though? What does it look like? And are there warning signs?

The riptide is, frankly, the brain getting forcefully fed with too much information — it gives “TMI” a whole new meaning. The senses, so overwhelmed, no longer do their job of processing and sorting through all the files coming in; they leave the doors wide open, and all the spam land in the inbox alongside all the important emails. The brain is forced to look through the emails itself — the filters have crashed — but there’s so much coming in, in so little time, that it can’t keep up. It gets up from the desk and storms off, and that is when the meltdown happens.

So, what does it look like? There’s no hard-and-fast rule, but, using my personal experiences, I will do my best to explain.

At its most severe, it looks like someone curling up into a tight ball, either on the spot or in a corner, hands on ears, rocking back and forth, trying desperately to shut out the world around them, find their happy place, get away. They may scream or weep, maybe even both; other times, humming, mumbling, or… no noise at all. At its most “mild” — and I use the term “mild” very loosely — it’s speed-walking passed the throngs of people, sidestepping, activating evasive maneuvers, body tense, eyes down; crying or mumbling may still happen. It’s all in an effort to GTFO — whether physically, or mentally or both.

In all cases, communication ceases to be. The brain has completely shut down, and we have no way of being able to communicate to the world that we are struggling and need help. If we can still physically move, we may be able to text, or write, or sign — give some forms of nonverbal communication as a means of trying to seek assistance, whatever we feel most comfortable with. Eye contact becomes impossible, so trying to grab the attention of someone we think will be understanding becomes even harder. And there is often repetitive motion — something that looks different in each of us that we feel is calming in some fashion. For me, that usually ends up being circular pacing, clenching and unclenching fists, rocking back and forth, bouncing up and down, rubbing my legs or arms or other parts of my body, sometimes twitching my head to the side slightly. For others, it can be hand flapping, head bobbing or anything else. Though it’s usually an aspect of autism that is inherent no matter if a meltdown is happening or not, it’s much more likely to occur during a meltdown, as that’s when we need to try to calm ourselves in a place so severely overwhelming. And, perhaps the worst part, is that everything becomes amplified. A noisy environment becomes deafening, lights become blinding, smells become rashes on the nostrils, touches become burns… Existing becomes next to impossible.

And if all of this happens when we have no one we can trust to keep us safe, it becomes terrifying, as we don’t know who may look on, what they may think, and it may bring on the wrong kind of attention — but we can’t do anything about it.

For all of this, you would think we might be able to know when it’s coming. Truthfully, however, we don’t always know. Usually, if there’s any warning at all, it’s too late. I can think of some factors that may heighten the risk of a meltdown that day — fatigue, hunger, mood — but that still doesn’t mean it will happen. That’s… kind of scary, if you think about it, and it’s still something not a lot of people understand. We need explanation, we need a warning sign — something we can use as a method of being able to know how to help — but… it’s difficult with a meltdown. It just… happens. No matter how well fed, or how well slept, or how happy, all it takes is to walk into a room that blasts away at all the senses, all at once, and all bets are off.

Now, with all this said, is there anything you can do to help save us from the riptide? Unfortunately, no, but there are lifelines you can throw out at us to help us get to safety faster. Don’t touch, unless you know us, and we know you; touch almost always makes it worse (for me, anyway). Let us know you’re there and that we’re safe. Don’t be afraid to ask the questions, but don’t lose your patience if there is no immediate response; we may be lost in our brains, but we are still presently aware. We just can’t do anything about it right now. It’s the small things that will matter; we may not grab on to the life raft right away, but, if we know they’re there at all, we will, eventually, grab hold of them. Be open to other methods of communication, as the meltdown lessens; I find, at the tail end, I cannot form full sentences, and I stutter, severely, and it becomes a frustration, so I resort to writing — others will sign or will simply shake or nod their heads; be open to it, and be understanding.

It’s all in the small things, but it’s in the small things we will find safety.

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