I want to talk a little bit about meltdowns. Why do they happen to autistic people? What do they look like? What should you do in that situation? Hopefully this post should clear up any misconceptions around this topic, and help any autistic readers to understand why our brains do this thing.
What are meltdowns?
According to the National Autistic Society;
“A meltdown is an intense response to an overwhelming situation. It happens when someone becomes completely overwhelmed by their situation and temporarily loses control of their behaviour.”
In my own words I would describe a meltdown as a sign that I’ve been pushed too far. Being autistic means every single day I have a low level of stress that I constantly experience from masking, social interactions, and basically just from trying to live in a neurotypical world. That stress builds up over time and eventually results in a meltdown.
This means that even small things can trigger a meltdown if the autistic person does what I do and internalises stress until they can’t deal with it anymore. For example, after a particularly stressful month at university I was at my flat cooking the most perfect omelette I have ever made (according to uni student standards). Unfortunately, the omelette ended up on the floor before reaching my plate. To anyone else (and to my housemate in the room), this was hilarious. However, to me it felt like the final straw and my emotions just took over, leaving me a mess while my poor housemate kindly cleaned up the offensive omelette.
This is often why autistic children or adults are misunderstood as being “too sensitive”, or “overreacting” and these episodes are often mistaken as tantrums. But please understand that autistic people do not have control over their meltdowns, what triggers them, or what they look like.
What do they look like?
I have experienced meltdowns my entire life without recognising them as meltdowns for most of that time. Although I can now recognise them, it has shown me how they can look very differently in different people.
As I mentioned before, meltdowns can be mistaken for tantrums, especially in young children. And although they may look similar, they are very different reactions to different experiences. Ambitious About Autism describes this very well;
“Meltdowns are often the result of situations which are highly stimulating or create high levels of anxiety which feel like they can’t be escaped. When someone is in this situation their reaction is either flight, fight or freeze. If the person cannot escape that leaves two options: either fight or freeze. Meltdowns are similar to the fight response. When an autistic person is having a meltdown they often have increased levels of anxiety and distress which are often interpreted as frustration, a ‘tantrum’ or an aggressive panic attack.”
Meltdowns are often predictable if you know about certain triggers, or if you can recognise signs in a person’s behaviour that they will have a meltdown soon (this is sometimes called the “rumble stage”). For me, the rumble stage includes a lot of internal frustration and I can seem very short-tempered and irritable to others.
My meltdowns “look like” a whole lot of crying. This is probably why no one ever recognised them as a sign of autism, but these are my meltdowns. From my perspective the experience is very exhausting. I can feel dismay, fear, and frustration all at once and although it sounds melodramatic, it honestly feels like the world is ending. I have never been able to stop a meltdown once it has started, but I have learned to ride them out because I know I will be okay eventually. Afterwards, I often get a very bad headache and I am both emotionally and physically shattered and I need some time to recover.
How to help someone having a meltdown
I know I have said this before, but every single autistic person is different, and will need different things from you when they are having a meltdown. The best thing to do is to try to communicate with them. If this is a loved one, try talking to them when they are not having a meltdown, as they may not be able to clearly tell you what they need when they are in that situation.
If you happen to be around someone who has a meltdown and you don’t know what they need, then the safest course of action is not to touch them unless they are a threat to themselves or someone else. Please speak in soft tones if you can, and do not raise your voice at them. The National Autistic Society has a page on meltdowns including what to do when someone has one, which I find extremely helpful (I will link it down below).
For me personally, I hate to be touched during a meltdown because it can make me feel suffocated and may lead to a panic attack. I am also not very good at communicating what is wrong during a meltdown, so I appreciate that my loved ones are all very patient when I do not answer questions straight away.
Meltdowns are definitely not an enjoyable experience, for anyone involved. They are also very exhausting for the autistic person, so please be understanding if they don’t bounce back to normal once it has passed.
As always, the best approach is one driven by kindness and compassion. I know this post has been quite long, but this is something I wanted to do right, rather than summarising it too much. I want other autistic women and girls to know that meltdowns can look like a crying episode, because I thought that my meltdowns weren’t valid and I wasn’t “autistic enough”. There is no right or wrong way to be autistic, and it is definitely a spectrum with so many different colours. Please be kind to yourself and to others, and respect those of us who find living just a little bit harder than most.
Link to page on meltdowns: https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/topics/behaviour/meltdowns/all-audiences#H2_2