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What I Wish People Knew About Meltdowns

Autism is a spectrum, as are meltdowns.

Even as an adult I can’t always prevent one, or get out of the situation before it happens. A lot of the time I don’t realize I’m heading towards one, while others around me can tell I am.

A meltdown is not a temper tantrum. This is the biggest thing people need to know. Giving me what I want, yelling at me, or putting me in “time out” isn’t going to work. In fact it will likely make it worse. A meltdown occurs when my brain can’t function anymore. Often when I try to act “normal” for too long, or am bombarded with sensory input or anxiety, it shuts down, leaving only the necessary functions to survive. Trying to reason with me isn’t going to work. A meltdown feels like my brain is flipping a switch in my head. Like Bruce Banner becoming the Hulk; he can’t control it, and can’t control the Hulk when he’s the Hulk.

On the mild end, my brain kind of implodes; I can’t talk, I can’t think. I’m just there. I can nod and shake my head. But I’m not really there, I’m just a shell of a person. I can follow basic instructions, am rational and agreeable.

Another one could be when I’m being bothered by sensory input, usually being outside in the heat too long (hot plus sweating is a nightmare for me), and I get frustrated with a task. Eventually I’ll explode, usually a short outburst followed by crying. Then I need to sleep for a few hours. This one is seen a mile away by everyone else. They see me getting antsy and frustrated easily. They can tell I’m getting short, and not talking as much. This one is the most common for me.

Moving up a bit on severity.

Once you add anxiety to the mix, and a lot of sensory information (crowded, loud, lights, heat etc.) I go quieter and talking gets difficult. And then poof! I just melt down like a shaken pop can. If I have the ability to speak I say “no” over and over again. I hold my hands over my ears, or rub them over and over on my shirt. I do a lot of stimming and often crying. I’m not rational, and need to be directed and often pulled into a direction. I have no sense of danger and will walk into traffic. I need to get out of the situation; I need a quiet spot to regroup. Once I get that, after 15 minutes or so I’m good to go again, like nothing happened.

Let’s say I can’t get to a quiet place, and keep getting bombarded with sensory input. Things start to get ugly. I’ll start to panic; an anxiety attack is no picnic, and combining one with sensory overload is even worse. My rationality is gone, so I can’t reason myself out of the anxiety. I’m at the mercy of the attack (shaking, fast breathing, chest pain and tightness, dizziness, etc.) and my brain can’t handle it. I pretty much turn into an overgrown toddler in comprehension and reasoning. I can usually follow basic commands like “sit down,” but might need a friendly nudge. My communication skills turn into two or three word sentences if I’m lucky — or I go completely nonverbal. I can’t communicate my needs or what’s bothering me. I don’t know if it’s from frustration, panic, need for distraction or what, but I will often start hitting myself. My brain is so overwhelmed that I often don’t remember everything that happens in this stage.

I’m glad to say my absolute worst meltdown stage is a rarity, when I become a danger to myself and literally have to be restrained and held down until it passes or I get tired. I still have quite a few self-injury scars left from one incident.

Another cause of a meltdown is during a panic attack. Sometimes if I can’t get my anxiety under control, it’ll start to combine with a meltdown into one big clusterfudge.

Meltdowns are not something I can control. Sometimes I can hold them in for a few minutes, but soon the dam will burst. Don’t scold me after I have one. Nothing you say will be as bad as how I feel about myself. I feel ashamed and angry. I hate myself for not being in control, and worthless because I can’t function like everyone else. It’s not for attention. Believe me, if I could go through my everyday life without having to plan exit strategies for everything, or figuring out how to be the least disruptive if it does happen, I would do it.

In my opinion, autistic meltdowns are the worst part of being autistic. Not the constant confusion and uncertainty in social situations, not struggling to make friends, not the tics, not the executive functioning challenges. No, it’s the meltdowns, it’s 100 percent the meltdowns.

Getty image by IG Royal.