It had been a long and tiring weekend. We’d had fun, but I was running on minimal sleep and hadn’t had enough to eat, so my blood sugar was a bit low. As we neared the end of the day, I thought I knew what was coming next, but suddenly and without warning or my input, the plans changed – leaving me feeling shaken and unstable.
Suddenly, I found myself past the point of no return. Tears started to well up in my eyes as I quickly hung up the phone. Throwing myself onto the bed, curled up in the fetal position balling, stuck on a horrible ride, wondering when it would end. About a half-hour later, I felt myself coming out of my tunnel as my senses and mental capacities slowly returned.
It had been a while since I’d had a meltdown. I don’t have as many these days because I’ve worked hard to decrease the number of stressors (mental, physical, sensory, and emotional) in my life.
“Some people say that ‘having a meltdown is a symptom of being autistic,’ but I argue that meltdowns are a symptom of being overwhelmed.”
The truth is, many Autistic and Neurodivergent people live in a state of nearly constant overwhelm from living in a world that’s not designed with our needs in mind.
I think non-autistic people would probably be overwhelmed by the world, too, if they had to live in a world that was not designed for them.
During meltdowns, I feel a lot of overwhelming anxiety; there can be overwhelming emotions, feelings, sensory experiences, or all of the above. Meltdowns are draining. Coming out of a meltdown feels a bit like coming out of a seizure. My body feels heavy, my brain is sluggish, and I’m often filled with a strong urge to nap.
From the outside, my reaction to a small but sudden change may seem to be more than what was appropriate, but in my experience, it’s never just one thing that set’s off a meltdown for an Autistic person (unless the one thing is a huge issue). There tends to be a chain reaction of small events, leading to a much more significant (and sometimes explosive) event.
Meltdowns aren’t logical, and they suck. In my experience, as someone who has both meltdowns and panic attacks, I would say the two events are similar in many ways. There is an initial rush of adrenaline and panic as the flight or fight reaction is triggered (or freeze if I shutdown instead) during both neurological events.
When I have panic attacks, they often revolve around fear, things that make me anxious or worry about the future. On the other hand, my meltdowns tend to be triggered by overwhelming stuff to me in the present moment.
With a panic attack, I feel the same impending sense of doom that I feel with a meltdown, but seem to have more control and awareness of my surroundings. During a panic attack, my breathing gets short and I feel like I’m spinning, but I can generally talk myself through it. My meltdowns are much more intense. I have little control over my meltdowns, other than to get somewhere safe so that I can ride them out.
“You must understand that meltdowns are not the same as ‘temper tantrums’. A tantrum tends to be more of a social event, where someone may lash out when they don’t get their way or an attempt to control a situation.”
With tantrums, generally, the person has motivation and a reasonable amount of control over their behavior. There is an end goal to the tantrum. Someone having a tantrum might stop long enough to make sure they’re being watched.
Tantrums, typically, stop when the person having the tantrum either gets their way or realizes that acting this way isn’t going to work for them this time. A meltdown, on the other hand, is something completely different.
Meltdowns are an uncontrollable reaction to intense emotions, sensory overstimulation, sudden change, or another overwhelming situation. Meltdowns are also physically and emotionally draining for the person experiencing the meltdown.
While tantrums will often stop after someone gets their way, meltdowns typically only end when the meltdown has run its course, or the person finds a quieter environment with less sensory information and can relax and soothe themselves.
If I had to describe a meltdown, I would say it feels like a volcano building pressure until it is ready to erupt. Eventually, there is a point of no return in that volcano, when I can no longer contain the explosive release of energy and emotion and bursts out. Normally, when I feel the pressure building up, if I notice in time, it becomes my cue to remove myself from a situation and find a safe, solitary place. Then, at the end of a meltdown, I often feel a sense of catharsis as the pressure is released.
That’s just my experience, but I am always curious to hear what other members of our community have to say on this topic.
So, as I’ve done before, I head to my keyboard, typing my question for the online Autistic community, sharing a bit about what I’d recently gone through:
“I recently spent 30 minutes curled up in a ball in the fetal position, stuck, crying and unable to move when a sudden meltdown was triggered earlier this week… goodness it sucked. What are meltdowns like for you? What are your triggers?“
Floods of uncontrollable tears. I think my triggers build up and it’s the smallest little that sets it off. Last year, I had two at work in front of my colleagues. It was the most embarrassing thing. However they were so supportive. | Ed Shearer, @SurvivorEdd
I don’t have specific triggers I have tipping points in which I’ll reach my level of stress. It’s not always the same so prevention can be difficult. I’m never fully prepared. The meltdown itself can be physically harmful to myself. Again, not always. | Beatrice Butcher, @Beautidivergen2
I tend to shout and/or hit and (unintentionally) break things and/or hurt myself, then feel shaken and distraught about the event for hours later. I thought I just had anger issues, but since I’m on SSRIs, feelings of anger have subsided, but the meltdowns are still happening. | Miro Hundak, @mirohundak
Meltdowns are more shutdowns for me. When everything gets too much, I tend to shut down. I remove myself from the world and stop all communication. Triggers are subtle for me (mostly) and stack up over a period of time until it “spills over” and BANG it’s there… | David Westerink, @WesterinkDavid
Feels like an anxiety attack. Pacing. Constant, rapid opening/ closing hands. Ears ringing. Panting. Unable to mentally focus or speak. My studder comes back if it’s bad enough right before I go completely non-verbal. | SamPiper, @SamPiper74
Last serious meltdown I had was in April. I was just so, so tired of everything and everyone. I got violent, it wasn’t pretty. I have smaller meltdowns about stuff that triggers me easily and causes stuff like a sick stomach, twitchiness (is that a word), and exhaustion. | January Embers, @ihatethistown19
I go into a rage for a short time (I’m able to direct that energy at things that won’t cause damage or hurt anyone) and then when that subsides, I go into a deep depression for a short time and shut down. | @EPCATDork
I had a meltdown traveling. I forgot where I put my transit ticket and thought I lost it and I couldn’t exit the station without it. Everyone was moving so fast around me and I didn’t have time to think. Wound up sitting on the floor crying with my suitcase. | Either Melody Recktenwald,
These days I take regular time out to recuperate, which has helped avoid meltdowns. Past meltdowns involved self-injury, screaming and wild outbursts. More often I have shutdowns these days. | Roland James Askew
Without saying too much it’s usually relationships with other people. Like if someone I care about said something negative to me like I look pregnant I dwell on it for a long time. I rarely have the courage to speak up and tell them they hurt me unless it’s someone in my family. But if it’s a close friend or when I used to work a coworker that I liked working with and spent a lot of time with i tend to pick it apart and think why did they say that they are so cruel…you know that sort of thing. People say cruel things without thinking and I think a lot before speaking. I don’t know if it’s because I’m an Aspie or it’s just me. | BipolarDreamer99