How it Feels to Have an Autistic Meltdown

An Internal and External Struggle

How it Feels to Have an Autistic Meltdown

Autistic meltdowns are a common occurrence, and are hence becoming widespread knowledge amongst the autism community.

An autistic meltdown may be mistaken for a temper tantrum. Yet there are a few key differences which will be mentioned. During a meltdown an autistic child or adult may scream, yell, and thrash around uncontrollably. Meltdowns are so intense that police and/or paramedics are even called occasionally to assess and handle the situation.

Given that all of the possible characteristics of autism are becoming more widely recognised with each passing year, these meltdowns are being studied by the psychological and medical community. Some of the things most commonly associated with autistic meltdowns are all kinds of sensory overload, varying degrees of anxiety, and also excitement, which are almost identical chemically.

Much is observed and said about these meltdowns, however not a lot is expressed on what it personally feels like to have a meltdown. This may be a result of the child or adult not having the verbal ability to do so (as every autistic person is verbal to varying degrees). Yet it could very well be due to the fact that most of us feel highly embarrassed about having meltdowns. I must admit that I myself have meltdowns and despite having given a description of them below, I still get very embarrassed about them.

Whenever I wake up in the morning, I have absolutely no idea that I may or may not have a meltdown that day. Nor do I ever have any desire at all to have one. Yet throughout the early morning (of a meltdown day) my thoughts and feelings will be more negative than they normally would be. For instance, I’ll take everything said or done to me (past or present) as a personal putdown.

I will then notice this difference within me and do all I can to fix it. If I can’t find a cause as to what made me feel that way, I will assume it’s due to a sensory overload. So I’ll have my morning medication, have breakfast, get dressed, and then do some calming activities. This will calm me down to a point where I’ll assume that I’ve fully fixed the issue. Then it’s very easy for me to make the mistake of entering a deep conversation with someone (usually mum in these instances) or going out into a noisy public place.

From there the slightest word, sound, sight or smell will all of a sudden set me off like a firecracker. I’ll find myself uncontrollably screaming, yelling, thrashing around, and repeating the same phrase over and over. My inner thought process also becomes outwardly verbal. So I’ll discover afterward that I was yelling things out such as “I need help,” even though I believed I was thinking those words as self talk to encourage myself to do a helpful exercise.

During a meltdown I lose awareness of the people around me, my own body, rationality, and the possibly of serious injuries. When a person has a tantrum, they’re fully rational and aware of the people around them, as they have a specific purpose of getting the surrounding people to give them what they want. Yet once they discover that they can’t get their own way, they will fall silent. A person having a tantrum will also have enough awareness to not put themselves in serious danger, and they also wouldn't do it in front of anyone random, due to embarrassment. When a person has a meltdown it doesn’t matter who is there or where they are.

Owing to the fact that meltdowns can be very unpredictable, and also that many autistic people have an anxiety disorder attached, they are usually impossible to completely eradicate. However there are exercises that can help prevent meltdowns, and therefore reduce the number of times they occur.

In order to prevent a meltdown, it is absolutely necessary to begin in the early stages. As soon as we start to lose control of ourself, we’ll have to simply wait until the meltdown finally stops (by which time we’ll feel embarrassment, a sense of guilt for those around us and bruises). Yet each of us have our own early warning signs which indicate that a meltdown may occur (my own indicators are oversensitivity along with negative thoughts and feelings). That’s when we must try to do mindful exercises and take it easy, such as being cautious in conversation that day and avoiding going out somewhere chaotic. It would be a good idea for parents and/or carers to recognise early indicators too.

As mentioned before, meltdowns are usually impossible to eradicate completely. But by trying to take control of them, they will at least happen far less frequently.

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Rebecca Sharrock

I'm an autistic person who is making a career from writing, public speaking and advocacy work. 

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