Thoughts on meltdowns – and on whether we call them meltdowns?

I recently read a post on social media which was a parent who was concerned about another parent sharing photos of their autistic child having a meltdown. This is an issue which comes up way too regularly. It got me thinking about meltdowns though – what are they, what causes them and what having them makes us as autistic people feel. 

There is a lot of misinformation about meltdowns. When a child has one it is often conflated with a tantrum but in fact those things are vastly different. A tantrum happens when a person – usually a small child – doesn’t get what they want or when they are angling to get something they want which they probably aren’t allowed to have. Like aggression in adults, it tends to be a method of influence borne out of powerlessness. By contrast a meltdown is not about getting needs or wants met at all. A meltdown is simply a release valve for overload. You put enough things in the pot and it will boil over. Overload is often sensory or social or emotional but other things can escalate a meltdown too – too many tasks, even an excess of positive but overwhelming experiences. Once it gets to that critical point a meltdown will happen and is usually beyond the control of the overladed person. Parents often tell me that if a child is having tantrum they will be looking at their parent to gauge their level of attention whereas when a child has a meltdown they are consumed by it and will not look at their parent as the parent’s reaction is irrelevant given the meltdown has nothing to do with gaining anything.

Autistic people do not generally want to have meltdowns. We often feel shame or regret after having one despite them being largely beyond our control. This tends to relate to how others treat a person who has a meltdown. If you are an adult or adolescent a have one you will often get the response from others that you are manipulative or that you are out of control. This is very tricky and these responses can often feed into the very stress which fuels overload in the first place. 

Sometimes people want to intervene when someone is having a meltdown. This is not helpful and can be very dangerous, particularly if armed police intervene. Someone having a meltdown just needs to get through it and out the other side. As they are already highly overloaded, people telling them to calm down – or worse still physically touching them – are not going to help and are this is likely to escalate the situation. So if someone is having a meltdown and they are not in immediate danger – and others are not in immediate danger – leave them be. When they come out of it they are likely to be emotionally overwhelmed and probably  apologetic.

The key piece of information for others to know is that meltdown is not intentional poor behaviour. It is largely beyond the control of the person experiencing  it. Don’t blame or punish the person. Reassure them and ask what they need.

One of the best things to do to address meltdowns is to work out some deescalation strategies. Many autistic adults and kids can feel when things are escalating and this provides an opportunity to build in some strategies to deescalate before the pressure increases to a critical point. These strategies often involve things like taking yourself away to a quiet space, listening to music, being away from people and doing some sensory or other stims. As we travel through life we tend to build more strategies to manage challenges and this can include meltdowns.

While meltdowns are not a good thing to have, forcing yourself to internalise them can be quite damaging too. I should know as I did so between the ages of 11 and 21. I am a very disciplined person and my family didn’t understand my meltdowns. I think they probably thought meltdowns were me being demanding. As a result of this I decided to not have any more meltdowns. The whole way through high school when I was bullied most days and in class, in the playground and on the bus. I had what I now know was high anxiety but still no meltdowns. I do not recommend this approach. It was not me consciously deescalating overload but me squashing down all the misery I was going through. When I got to my early twenties it all came out and left me in a very bad way for many years. So while my metaphorical pressure cooker didn’t go off for some years I was just adding and adding to the pressure rather than learning how to manage overload.

Autistic people do not generally want meltdowns. Some people fear them and  will avoid certain situations in case they have one. I guess I’m getting back to the start of this post where I mentioned a parent sharing pictures of their child having a meltdown. It is not OK to show us at our most vulnerable and at a time we probably don’t want shared. Being respectful and helpful involves supporting autistic kids – and adults – to learn strategies to manage overload and to understand without judgement if we do have a meltdown, not to plaster it all over social media where judging eyes can, well, judge.

And as an aside I have seen people say ‘meltdown’ is not the best word for it. They are probably right actually. Meltdown is what happens when a nuclear reactor explodes which seems a little extreme. I’ve had my fair share of meltdowns but nowhere is uninhabitable because of them! I am not sure what rename it as though – extreme overload? Not sure. If others have ideas please share. 

Autistic adults have meltdowns too. It is often due to overload. It is not poor behaviour and can be very traumatic for the person experiencing it.

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on meltdowns – and on whether we call them meltdowns?

  1. Well, one meltdown for me that I’d like to provide the anatomy of was when my father went to hospital. If I am able to plan my things out, I can do so, but, my mother notified my brother that my father was in hospital for a cellulitis infection and had to stay in overnight, and needed his pills. My brother dithered around, and I was aware that visiting hours would soon close, so I thought I’d get the pills ready. My idea was make a list of the medications and tick them off with each card, and I needed silence. My mother kept talking and had the temerity to say, “Don’t give me this, “I’ll have a meltdown,” rubbish.” Well, THAT was a red flag to a bull and I pointed my finger at her and yelled, “Don’t EVER invalidate my autism diagnosis! You are the mother of an autistic!” Then she says to my brother, “This is how you talk to your mother.” To which I replied, “No, this is how you speak to someone who refuses to accept that they have autistic offspring, or who tries to make them neuro-typical!” Another time she said, “I don’t want you to be more neuro-typical, I just want you to be more normal.” Well, normal doesn’t exist! Another one, I was doing something and my mother kept interrupting and I kept losing my train of thought, so, after several times, I said to her, “You can do something for me.” And she said, “What?” I said, “Stop talking! You’re doing my head in!” My anger rising with each word. She, instead of realising that she needed to stop, said, “It’s my house, I’ll do what I want to.” Well, that was another red flag to a bull! It may be your house, but when you’re dealing with an autistic person doing something, you need to back off, so, I yelled, “I am an autism Mum! Say it!” I was justifiably angry as she knows about autism sensitivities but she won’t accept them. She delights in causing meltdowns.

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  2. When Ben get overwhelmed beyond what he can handle he lashes out violently. We call it “going Tazmanian Devil” from the Bugs Bunny cartoons, because he turns into a whirlwind of destruction. Its definitely NOT a tantrum. We try to keep him, ourselves and our property safe and ride it out.
    After it’s over we give love and support and try to talk about other ways, besides hitting and breaking, to let the pressure off.

    Maybe “pressure release” instead of meltdown?

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  3. Thank you so much. You have a great way with words.
    I run a school for students with autism called Kishami Academy llc. and we allow meltdowns to happen and then discuss triggers and needs and how they felt afterward. This helps students know that they are okay and just the way they are is PERFECT.

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  4. I am actually really glad that people post videos of their children, and occasionally of themselves, online. It helped me get my diagnosis at 30 because I could see that what I was experiencing was a meltdown by comparing it to the videos.

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