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11 Things Autistic People Say Can Trigger a Meltdown

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Many people on the autism spectrum experience meltdowns, and contrary to the negative stereotypes out there, meltdowns are not a behavior issue that require an intervention, but coping tools and accommodation. They are a normal reaction to feeling flooded in an overwhelming environment that is usually not designed to take into account the needs of neurodiverse people.

Maxine Share, a self-advocate and autism expert consultant, emphasized that unlike what people may perceive, autistic meltdowns are not behavior issues. They can be the result of sensory overload, pent up emotions, or difficulty with changes. When the body and mind are unable to process what is taking place — and some individuals do experience physical pain from too much sensory input — kicking, crying, screaming, or “shutting down” can happen during a meltdown.

It’s important to understand what can trigger one in the first place, from overstimulation or uncomfortable social situations. The Mighty reached out the the experts — actually autistic individuals — to share what triggers their meltdowns. When we better understand our neurodiverse friends, then we can learn to better support their needs in the moment.

These were some of their responses:

1. Changes in Routine

While there are some truly spontaneous people out there, most of us feel most comfortable when we stick to a routine so we know what to expect. Of course, sometimes things don’t go as planned, which can be stressful. However, the disruption from a change in routine can seem magnified and for some, lead to a meltdown.

“Changes in my routines. … Understand that long distance travel is dysregulating for me and I need structure and routine. Don’t be upset if I don’t go to your long distance event. Also, don’t try to get in the way of my routines; I will turn you down.” — Crystal G.

“When something doesn’t go the way I planned.” — Chris K.

“Mostly just change within my routine, or just unexpected things happening, new places like visiting a city or place for the first time, conversation with strangers, it goes that far that I’m literally not able to order food at McDonalds. People pressuring me.” — Jeremy

2. Too Much Noise or Loud Sounds

Sensory sensitivity is common among people on the spectrum — it’s overwhelming to be bombarded with too much input from the world around you. While you may have a sensitivity to a variety of things you can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch, loud sounds and places with too much noise can be especially dysregulating. Loud sounds are also often found in places that are busy, chaotic, and full of people, which can increase overstimulation in the moment.

“Noise, too many people, and I think the worst one for me is mess.” — Kathryn M.

“Trigger wise it’s all over the place from any loud sound to something [that] disturbs or startles me.” — cameronpark

“Any loud noise or weird smell or if I get too excited [triggers me]. I have a PECS board and an emotion board for when I have a meltdown because I become mute in a meltdown.” — kdog2543

“To many people, too loud, too busy, way too much noise.” — Taylor R.

3. Feeling Overwhelmed in a New Environment

There are perhaps several ways a new environment can trigger a meltdown. It’s a change in routine, may be full of new people, can cause overwhelming anxiety and might require communication with new people who may not understand neurodiversity. It’s therefore no surprise many autistic people say a new environment can lead to a meltdown.

“Not understanding when I have truly done or said something wrong/offensive or if the person who is telling me off is just a jerk. Bullying affects me badly. Emotional/mental overwhelm when in new environments trying to cope with it without showing that I am struggling. Others can help by thinking before they speak, and be aware of their prejudices.” — Andie K.

4. Places With Too Many People

Many public spaces are also crowded — think the mall, train stations, restaurants, popular tourist destinations, and even theaters. The list goes on. Places where lots of people gather can be incredibly overwhelming to many of the senses, and overly peopled places can be the trigger for a meltdown. Getting to a quieter, less crowded place can be helpful.

“I have less meltdowns now as an adult but because I learned to identify the factor that trigger my meltdown. I used to get them quite often. Things like places with a lot of people, around the mall, weddings, at a club still make nervous, too much noise, etc. The one thing that really calms me down is taking breaks that last like 10 or 15 minutes, just being by myself in a quiet place.” — Mony P.

“I get meltdowns quite often when someone’s yelling doesn’t need to be directed at me while I am not able to understand why. Or when I get frustrated with a given task and am not allowed to ask for help. In other cases I usually get meltdowns when I am expected to hold a presentation in front of unknown people or in general too many people.” — Severus

5. Unmet Basic Needs

It’s hard to be at the top of your game when you’re missing out on some of your basic needs, like food, water, and sleep. It can be distracting or distressing when you feel discomfort or tired, and that makes you more vulnerable to triggers in the world around you. This means meltdowns can be more likely to happen during these times.

“Meltdowns are caused by tiredness, lack of food (must eat snacks every two hours) too much people contact, dehydration, etc. The key to fewer meltdowns is balance: a good eight hours of sleep, nutritious food with protein, water, peace and quiet.” — Sally F.

6. When People Aren’t on Your Level

Most neurotypical people don’t know much about how to accommodate autistic people in conversation (or anywhere, really). Often, you’ll be waiting for people to catch up to you, and that’s frustrating. When people aren’t quite getting you or you’re in a situation that’s generally a mismatch — like a job that requires lots of social interaction — the distress or overwhelm can easily lead to a meltdown.

“Being ridiculously outspoken has helped to get me a position as head of discipline for a High School of over 600 students. You can imagine in that situation that meltdowns are predictable, primarily because of the amount of interactions I have to have daily. I am also a hyper intellectual which makes me see things ‘first,’ in a manner of speaking. When I see what other people should be seeing, I will often wait for them to come to the realization within a situation and when they don’t, I can get anxious.” — Darin J.

7. Sensory Overload

Extra sensitivity to the world around you is a hallmark of autism, so any time the senses get overloaded or overstimulated, you might get flooded and have a meltdown. Overstimulation can be too much light or noise, crowded spaces, or too many things going on at the same time. Sensory overload is one reason many public places, like football stadiums, zoos, and theaters, are finally creating sensory rooms.

“Too much light. Too many people in a room. Too many stupid conversations about nothing. Too much noise including certain kinds of pop music. I just can’t take it.” — Susan B.

“Overstimulation for sure!” — Diana D.

“Triggers? Too many things to do, not feeling well, sensory overload, being pressed for time, trying to handle an emergency, too many things going wrong, too much time around people.” — Wendy B.

8. Specific or Small Triggers

Sometimes, the cause of a meltdown can be something that looks small and super specific. Maybe it’s a minor change to your routine, a missed word in a conversation, the texture of one kind of vegetable or one particular pop song on the radio. While others may not think a “small” trigger is a big deal, it can be majorly overwhelming.

“Trigger wise it’s small things for me. Small changes, [like] a route I’m used to changing. Whether that be a misunderstanding, small comments about me. A specific smell or texture of something, high pitched noise, not being able to find stuff.” — Cara

9. When Things Feel Out of Control

Having a particular a routine or building a certain amount of predictability into your day is comforting. However, if things start to feel out of control or chaotic, that can cause anxiety, overstimulation, or sensory overload and lead to a meltdown. It can also feel out of control when a series of smaller things seem to go wrong all at the same time.

“What triggers me to feel extremely uncomfortable in my body and head is chaos, yelling or if there’s a lot of movement at the same time that it’s loud. So if I go somewhere chaotic, I try to just plan for three hours. When it gets hard I leave for a bit, I bring a sensory bag and I always take my own car.” — Veda F-P

“When too many unusual things happen at once and shatter my belief that everything is alright.” — marlynmorgan

10. Feeling Trapped

Maintaining comfort in your physical space is important. When that space is compromised somehow, it may lead to a meltdown. This could mean feeling physically stuck in a small room, trapped into a conversation or when someone is too far into your personal space. This is doubly true is the invasion into your space makes you anxious.

“Being stuck, most of all. Also when someone harangues or just hovers over me physically. My anxiety is thus, triggered.” — Michele V.

11. Uncomfortable Social Interactions

Social interactions can be exhausting, confusing, and uncomfortable on their own. For some people, certain types of social interaction can also lead directly to a meltdown, especially when there’s more than one person coming at you at once. The social discomfort can also look like being interrupted too often or needing to change topics too many times in the same conversation.

“People coming at me from all sides, for example in trade shows, I just freeze and start sweating and palpitating, my skin on fire, about to burst into tears whilst internally screaming at myself to stop being stupid and just move. My friends say, ‘Well just move out the way then,’ out loud, not sure they get how painful it is and that I can’t do that.” — Amanda

“Usually for me, it’s a lot of people at once, or repeated interruptions from people when I am trying to talk to a particular one or two people. Having to make my brain jump from topic to topic over and over again leaves me shaking, if not worse. I’m really lucky with the people around me, some of whom recognized my ASD before I did!” — Maura

Getty image by g-stockstudio

Originally published: September 28, 2019
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