What does a meltdown feel like?

Image Meltdowns can affect any age of individual on the autistic spectrum, they are not the preserve of the child!  They aren’t tantrums, the reasons for them are totally different and they are not about demanding attention or histrionics.

Stress over something builds up, it can be anything, autistic people are all different and have different triggers.  For me, people refusing to listen or understand me is a difficult one, as well as noise, or feeling trapped or controlled.

You feel something bubbling up inside you that you don’t have any control over, you feel panic and you want to flee the situation/trigger.  If someone or something prevents that, the meltdown rises higher.  You can’t think of anything else, all you can think of is you want it to stop.

Someone said something insightful the other day, that for an autistic child at school, they are like a bottle of cola that is getting shaken a bit, periodically throughout the day, and if you don’t lift the lid to let a few bubbles out every so often, by the time the child gets home (where they feel safe) their attempts at bottling it in can be stopped and it all explodes out.

When you feel a meltdown rising inside you, part of you knows you must hold it in and you try so hard, you can even think (at an early enough stage) that you might feel embarrassed afterwards and know that you will wish you hadn’t had the meltdown, but if the trigger remains there is nothing you can do.  It’s like something else has got control of your body.  As autistics often have trouble speaking up, it can be hard for the individual (especially if it’s a child) to express the rising panic feeling inside them and warn whoever they are with.

When it’s imminent, you might start shouting at people who are the trigger/part of the trigger, or that you are desperate for to resolve the trigger, trying to get help with what’s taking you over.  The whole time your anxiety can be shooting through the roof because you are wanting it desperately to stop or go away.  Even people who are nothing to do with the trigger, if they spoke to you during this moment, you would probably scream/shout at them too – you don’t possess logic at this moment.

If you are trapped in the situation, despite your best efforts, and especially if it involves sensory overload, that meltdown will come.

It’s not an anger management problem (though it can feel like a hot rage taking you over), but before I knew I had Asperger’s, I presumed it must be temper in my case as I knew no different.  It might look like anger/rage to others, and they may think an older child or adult was very immature for behaving that way, or even that they had mental health problems, but it is none of those things.

When in a really difficult situation that I have no control over, I can also have a meltdown in my head (which is basically envisaging and partially experiencing the actual meltdown in an internal way) which could be a precursor to an actual meltdown.

I don’t tend to have massive meltdowns and they are very infrequent, I am a more passive autistic sub-type, although they can happen on occasion, mine are generally what I call “mini meltdowns”, they are a sort of “storm in a teacup” and once they’re done, they’re done.  Conversely though, if someone had a meltdown at me, I would be affected by it for many days.

I have a tendency to stamp my feet when a meltdown is building, and I have also broken things in meltdowns, which I wished I hadn’t afterwards.  Glue and sellotape are part of the survival kit in our house.  ImageLuckily I am good at fixing things too.

A meltdown is a state of overwhelmedness, and nothing else.  The word “meltdown” of course, is a colloquialism.  The research and clinical fields would use the terminology “emotional dysregulation” and the following article discusses emotional regulation in autism: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/august/autism-emotion-research-081312.html.  There is a specific part of the brain that is responsible for emotional regulation and people with autism are more likely to use suppression to try to deal with their anxiety, therefore leading to meltdowns.

So, the more you endeavour to meet the needs of an autistic, the less suppressing of anxiety will be going on and the less meltdowns will ensue!

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14 thoughts on “What does a meltdown feel like?

      1. what are some suggestions on how to handle a 6 year old meltdown. when daughter and son inlaw take granddaughter to school she has a meltdown. they are in process of having her tested for autism and or aspergers.it’s so heartbreaking. she always apologizes for doing it later in the day.and sometimes even days later. thank you

      2. Hello dawn. They should also assess for pathological demand avoidance (http://www.pdasociety.org.uk/what-is-PDA) because plenty of autistic girls have that sub-type and it’s very frequent among those with PDA to resist school and become distressed over it. She may have separation anxiety (not uncommon in autistics and especially in PDA).

        Have her parents tried asking her why she becomes distressed and anxious over school? It could be she is being bullied, or has no friends, or the teacher is stern, or there are sensory issues etc. It’s really worth someone she trusts sitting down with her and asking her why she is stressed over school and why it becomes too much for her when she goes in. It might be the change of environment from home to school even. Bear in mind she may find it hard to express though, many autistics have alexithymia and struggle to understand and express their emotions or reasons for them. If this is the case, PECS-style social stories to help her explain, you can buy those emotions rings with little cards with cartoon faces with a variety of emotions on which might help too.

  1. Reblogged this on Spectrum Warriors: The ABC's of Life in the Spectrum – Tips for Parents and commented:
    What does a meltdown feel like? For us who are raising a child on the spectrum we can never truely understand what it is like to have a meltdown. We understand the complexity and have learnt the triggers but will never truly get it. Thanks the Planet Autism we get to have a glimps into the process.

    A lot of this blog post resonates with me as the Monkey has this great ability to hold it all together till he is at home and then he blows up exactly like the pop bottle analogy. When he first started therapy they were amazed at how well he tolerated everything because no matter what they did he never had a meltdown. Well it was true he never had a meltdown with them but as soon as they left we would have a little boy who spent hours screaming.

    I am learning along this journey that a lot of individuals on the high functioning end of the spectrum are extremely self aware. Where as someone at the lower end of the scale may have a meltdown in public with out any hesitation someone, like the Monkey, will attempt to bottle it up inside as their anxiety increases. We very rarely have full blown meltdowns in public. These are usually kept for those he loves.

    I’d like to thank Planet Autism for allowing us a glimps into the minds of our children.

  2. Thank you for writing this post. For us raising children we can only imagine what is truly going on. Thank you for giving us a glimps into their inner workings. Reblogged at spectrumwarriors.com

  3. thanks for sharing this important information. It’s a shame we live in a world where some people still think of expressing emotions as bad behaviour, but I hope one day more people will understand this, that sometimes, we all just need to let our emotions out and that’s natural 🙂

  4. Reblogged this on Aromaleigh Mineral Cosmetics V.2 and commented:
    This is so insightful and accurate about meltdowns. My whole life I’ve felt like I was just a deeply flawed person. When I was younger, I directed my meltdowns inward, because I was too scared to express them outwardly. As a teen, this led to severe depression, self harm and disordered eating. As an adult, meltdowns felt like being engulfed in an intense, prickly heat. Losing control of my emotions and feeling like a screaming tea kettle. I’ve broken more things than I can count, because I would never harm myself or another human being or creature. In my post-diagnosis world, I have learned to respect my differences and avoid things that contribute to meltdown stressors. This meant going no-contact with my Mother and my Brother, and moving to a new area. It meant drastically simplifying my life, and adopting a more minimalist lifestyle. It means so many things and so many changes, but that is part of this journey. I do many things to cope with being on the autistic spectrum in this world. It is important to me to carefully manage the world around me so that I don’t have meltdowns. Meltdowns are horrifying for me. They are exhausting. They are messy. They are embarrassing and make me feel mortified for being myself. I think it is so important within the movement of neurodiversity acceptance, for the allistic world to understand what a meltdown feels like for the person experiencing it. And that it is never a ploy for attention, the desire to be a drama queen, or the equivalent of a temper tantrum.

    Excellent passage from Planet Autism: “A meltdown is a state of overwhelmedness, and nothing else. The word “meltdown” of course, is a colloquialism. The research and clinical fields would use the terminology “emotional dysregulation” and the following article discusses emotional regulation in autism: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/august/autism-emotion-research-081312.html. There is a specific part of the brain that is responsible for emotional regulation and people with autism are more likely to use suppression to try to deal with their anxiety, therefore leading to meltdowns.”

  5. Reblogged this on sonnolenta… and commented:
    This is so insightful and accurate about meltdowns. My whole life I’ve felt like I was just a deeply flawed person. When I was younger, I directed my meltdowns inward, because I was too scared to express them outwardly. As a teen, this led to severe depression, self harm and disordered eating. As an adult, meltdowns felt like being engulfed in an intense, prickly heat. Losing control of my emotions and feeling like a screaming tea kettle. I’ve broken more things than I can count, because I would never harm myself or another human being or creature. In my post-diagnosis world, I have learned to respect my differences and avoid things that contribute to meltdown stressors. This meant going no-contact with my Mother and my Brother, and moving to a new area. It meant drastically simplifying my life, and adopting a more minimalist lifestyle. It means so many things and so many changes, but that is part of this journey. I do many things to cope with being on the autistic spectrum in this world. It is important to me to carefully manage the world around me so that I don’t have meltdowns. Meltdowns are horrifying for me. They are exhausting. They are messy. They are embarrassing and make me feel mortified for being myself. I think it is so important within the movement of neurodiversity acceptance, for the allistic world to understand what a meltdown feels like for the person experiencing it. And that it is never a ploy for attention, the desire to be a drama queen, or the equivalent of a temper tantrum. Excellent passage from Planet Autism: “A meltdown is a state of overwhelmedness, and nothing else. The word “meltdown” of course, is a colloquialism. The research and clinical fields would use the terminology “emotional dysregulation” and the following article discusses emotional regulation in autism: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/august/autism-emotion-research-081312.html. There is a specific part of the brain that is responsible for emotional regulation and people with autism are more likely to use suppression to try to deal with their anxiety, therefore leading to meltdowns.”

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