The Mighty Logo

The Metaphor I Use to Explain Autistic Meltdowns

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Imagine you’re a bull, a happy, well-mannered bull. One day the rancher comes out to lead you to a trailer. You don’t know where you are going, but he’s the rancher and you don’t really have a choice so you happily go along. You go to a place you’ve never been before; you’ve heard it called a rodeo!

You are placed in a pen by the rancher and tended to by people you don’t know. You may recognize a face or two but for the most part, you’ve never been around these people. Their faces are difficult to make out, you don’t know them. Strange place. Strange people. Then someone comes and puts a band around your midsection, painfully tight, squeezing. It feels as if someone slipped burrs under the fabric. You squirm. It’s extremely uncomfortable. Suddenly, it gets loud!

You can hear cheering! It’s a crowd and the sound is deafening, disorienting. They are laughing and pointing at you. Not long after, a clown appears, running around taunting you, laughing in your face. His visage is painted in bright contrasting colors, and you can’t tell if he is a good clown or a bad clown. You become distressed. What is happening?

It’s hot and you’re panicking and you try to get away! You try to alert the people near you, but they don’t understand. They don’t speak your language and you don’t speak theirs. You try to communicate your needs but fail. No one is going to help you! You look around you for an escape. You’re frantic; the tension is building up within. A feeling of impending doom wells up from inside you.

Suddenly, to your horror, a man gets on your back and you break. Your fight or flight takes over. It’s all instinct now! You’re terrified!

You try to escape the horror of what is happening to you. You buck and spin to try to stop the onslaught of the painful sensory stimuli. Instead of freeing you and leading you to safety, the man on your back digs spurs into your sides inflicting more discomfort and more suffering. All you want to do is escape! Get away!

Your entire focus now is to flee the area and find relief. Your nervous system takes over and you are no longer in control of your body. You are compelled to react by the force of survival, the need to escape certain death. Against your will you buck, spin, jump, run in a frenzied effort to dislodge the man on your back to escape the dreadful anguish you are enduring. Against your will, you accidentally injure yourself. You didn’t mean to hurt yourself, but you did. It hurts but you can’t stop! You have to free yourself! It’s a nightmare that seems to last for eternity.

Except you aren’t a bull. You are a human. An autistic human. You may be a child, adult, male, female, trans, intersex, young, old, middle-aged, with high or low support needs. You might be an Islander, Black, White, Middle Eastern, or a mix of everything. You might be independent with a job or living with your family. You may even reside in a group home. The “rancher” isn’t a rancher at all, but instead they may be a parent, partner, guardian, friend, cop, teacher. Anyone you know. Anyone you trust.

The “rodeo” is simply a place where there are people you do not know, do not know very well or trust much. It could be a doctor’s office, a school field trip to the zoo, the dentist, a mall, the park or even simply work. It may even be your own home and people are visiting unexpectedly or maintenance is working in your apartment.

A banner promoting The Mighty's new Self-Care Lounge group on The Mighty mobile app. The banner reads, Taking care of yourself is important, but that doesn't mean it's easy. Join the Self-Care Lounge group so you can prioritize you. Click to join.

You started out the day OK enough, yet something’s off. Your clothes feel tight, almost painful. The feeling of them is tight and you squirm attempting to relieve some of the pressure. You’re burning. Hot. You want to remove your clothes but it’s not acceptable to do that here and now. Somehow a pebble got into your shoe and you can’t do anything about it. The pebble digs in and rubs your skin raw. That’s all you can focus on. The pebble keeps getting bigger and bigger. Your foot aches, then your leg. Then, suddenly it’s loud, you hear everything!

The buzz of the electricity overhead. No, it’s all around you! The chorus of human voices surrounding you. A roar of incoherent voices in a never-ending clamor. The clinking of metal, pens writing, humans scratching, sniffling noses, the gurgling drinking fountain. Someone laughing loudly. Too loudly. Were they laughing at you? You can’t tell. Is that man furiously mad at someone or is he exuberantly happy? Is the woman at the desk upset? Is she frowning at you? Your own heartbeat and breathing sound thunderous. It’s all so disorienting and you don’t know exactly where you are in relationship to an exit. You don’t know how to leave or if you can leave.

You hear some people singing “Happy Birthday” and then applause. Someone points at you, smiling. He’s saying something but you can’t focus. You become distressed. You try to explain what’s going on, but he doesn’t understand what you are trying to tell him. You clamor for his attention again to ask for help, but you can’t comprehend what he’s saying. He holds out… what? Cake? You can’t put an answer together. You panic! No one understands what is about to happen. A wild energy rises up internally, a build-up of anxiety in a reaction to the situation around you. It all is about to come out!

You try to get out, but you can’t. You are met with obstacles, people, chairs. Lights get bright, blinding you! Like a bat trying to escape a noisy room the assault on your auditory throws your balance off. You bump into things. Your mind racing, you feel a sense of impending doom enveloping you. The assault on your nervous system is anguishing. You bolt!

Sensory overload is coming in from all directions, inflicting more and more and more pain. All you want to do is escape!

Instinctively, your entire focus now is to find relief any way you possibly can. Your nervous system takes over and you are no longer in control of your body. Very much the same way that the body forces you to breathe when holding your breath underwater, you are compelled to react by the force of survival in an audacious move to escape a fate that feels worse than death.

Your nervous system is stuck in fight or flight. You can only react. You yell, scream, pull your hair, stomp your feet, throw things! All your efforts are sensory needs seeking to be met, searching out input and stimulation to bring harmony back to your internal anatomy. You’re desperate, crying! You are stuck in an eternity of frenzied horror and can’t escape. Panic! You’re dreadfully helpless as you watch your body do what it needs to in order to stop itself from reacting to the overstimulation of your environment. You can’t stop it.

A tenacious impulse comes on, one you try desperately to ignore. You tell yourself to keep yourself together, but you are helplessly subjected to nature and to instinct. It’s overwhelming! Impossible to overlook! You don’t want to do harm to your body, but you unintentionally injure yourself as you hit your head with your fists, bang your head against a wall. It’s all against your will. It’s your nervous system.

Finally, it stops! A wave of relief washes over you. You feel yourself calming. Your heartbeat slows. You cry. The noise level is more bearable. The energy that had been in control of your body is waning. Compliant, your nervous system has balanced itself and has handed the agency of your being back over to you. The headbanging and extreme stimming worked, even though it was not your choice. You’re exhausted and all you want to do is quench your thirst. Sit in a hot shower. Then climb into bed. You can’t fully communicate yet. You write down enough to tell someone to get you out of there and that you need to go home. You’re free!

You don’t know what impact this neurological event, commonly referred to as a meltdown, will have on your friendships, job, social standing and life in general. It’s happened before and it will happen again. The fallout won’t be good. At best, it will just be something that happened — as it should be. You just have to pick up the pieces later.

For now, your focus is self-care. Your needs are very basic. You get home, assess your injuries, tend to your wounds. You hydrate, maybe eat something simple. You take a warm bath or hot shower and calmly stim. Your spouse, friend, mom, dad, maybe all of these people, help. Maybe no people help because you know you’re safe now and you just want to be alone, at peace. You crawl into bed and you shut down.

Once again, you were on full display at a rodeo — a fearful bull bucking in pain. Now you are just a person with an autistic neurology that has an unquenchable craving to rest, to sleep.

This story originally appeared on Beautidivergence.

Getty image by alberto clemares expósito

Originally published: June 16, 2020
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home