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What Meltdowns Feel Like as an Adult on the Autism Spectrum

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I went on Google the other day, trying to search for other people’s experiences with sensory meltdowns. I was a bit shocked to see almost everything was about children.

I think us adults on the spectrum (or with sensory processing disorder) are under-represented. I’m not sure if it’s because some grow out of it? Have better coping mechanisms? Or are just embarrassed to talk about. I get it, it’s humiliating.

But I’m going to swallow my pride and talk about it anyway.

I will disclose that the majority of the time my sensory meltdowns lead to panic attacks. So there are symptoms that overlap, or I don’t know which causes which.

Things seem louder to me than to others. I also hear those tiny noises most people can’t hear unless I point them out. Usually I’m able to block these sounds by wearing earplugs. But sometimes the sounds win; or if my anxiety is higher it’s hard to regulate.

During a sensory meltdown, I start to be unable to block out sounds. Every single noise is coming at me. Let’s say I’m in a grocery store; I can hear the ovens in the bakery, the water coming on in the produce, the cashiers scanning products multiplied by the number of open registers. I hear the buggies moving, the footsteps, a baby crying. I hear my breathing speeding up, my heart beating. Every sound feels like a gunshot going off beside my head. It physically hurts me.

I’ll put my hands over my ears, clutching my head, eyes scrunched. Trying to block the battle going on in my brain. It feels like the world is spinning, and my legs are weak. I collapse on the floor, tears filling my eyes.

I start rocking back and forth. My heart races and breathing quickens. Then the panic starts, my anxiety spikes. I start to lose control. (I often have blanks in my memory during these. So some of this information has been relayed to me over the years) I think it’s my brain’s way of coping, just checking out.

I’m scared. No, I’m terrified. I can’t focus; I feel trapped.

I hit myself in the head, or bang my head against things. I’ve given myself black eyes. I’m not sure if I’m trying to make my brain calm down, or if the pain is a distraction. Once I accidentally headbutted someone. I think that’s the thing I’m most ashamed of. I shake and tremble uncontrollably. There’s no reasoning with me. All logic and thought is gone. I’m just a shell. Trapped in my own head.

Then one of two things seem to happen.

1) The noise is removed, by putting noise cancelling headphones on or by leaving the situation, and I gradually calm down.


2) I pass out. My brain gives up trying to fight.

Everyone is different, but here are a few things that help me.

Stay calm. I’m panicking, I don’t need you to be freaking out. It’ll make me worse.

Talk to me. Either force my head towards yours, or talk close to my ears. Speak slowly and calmly, in short, simple phrases. I may be out of it, but a familiar voice can penetrate my thoughts.

Keep me from hurting myself. Hold my arms down, sit on me, do whatever you need to do, please.

Deep pressure. I’m probably one of the few autistic people who don’t mind being touched. In fact the harder you touch me, the better. Hold my hands, or even better if you’re comfortable with it; give me a bear hug. Hold me tight, and I guarantee I’ll start to calm down once I stop squirming.

Don’t judge me. I’m not in control during these episodes. Something else takes over. I’ll be embarrassed enough afterward without your judgment.

This is only one random guy on the internet’s experience. Everyone is different. But I hope this helps people understand what it feels like. I hope someone can read this and feel less alone.

Getty image by Master Z Photois.

Originally published: April 24, 2018
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