Thursday, October 12, 2017

I'm Not Perfect: My Meltdown

I hate to admit this, but as an autistic advocate I need to be honest: I had a meltdown yesterday.

"To Dare" by autistic artist Donna Williams

It was a difficult day to begin with. I was doing my best to adapt to unexpected schedule changes (by not thinking about them and pretending I'm OK--bad idea). I had the beginnings of a cold as well. I was with Matt (my fiance) at his college, sitting in a crowded, muggy library trying hard to function despite everything and get some writing done, and then I discovered that someone stole my lunch. That was the straw that broke the camel's back.

I was outwardly annoyed and inwardly upset, but I held it in all day until I got home and could be alone. I cried for several hours feeling like crap for being upset over something so "small."

I couldn't turn my brain off to sleep that night, thinking over and over how I'm just an ungrateful burden that doesn't deserve my fiancé or anything I have. I thought: I'll never get a job, and if I do, I only deserve a minimum wage one (despite my college degree) and am doomed to choose between acting "normal" or being rejected.

Of course, these are not necessarily true, but these worries crop up when my weakness starts to show.

Let me point out that everyone (even NT's) experiences a sort of "meltdown" in the form of "general adaptation syndrome" or how we respond to stress. Meltdowns are not just an autistic response, but a more noticeable response that seems "extreme" to others because they have a higher stress tolerance and normal senses. Little do they know how much we put up with, and how hard we work to smile regardless of it.


When I say "meltdown" I am also referring to "shutdowns." "Meltdowns" are usually defined as angry outbursts that look like tantrums, but in adults it tends to not be as obvious (mine are more like shutdowns) and behavior varies from person to person.


1. Don't hold it in.
Seriously. But I don't mean lash out without restraint: I mean don't stuff it down for too long, because like a can of soda in the freezer, it will explode at some point! It's better to handle it sooner than let it fester.

2. Escape.
This can be a physical place (like a dark, comfortable room) or when that's not an option, a safe haven for your mind (like playing a phone game that calms you down, or ranting your worries to a trusted friend).

3. Express.
You need to let it out. If social communication is difficult, express how you feel in other ways: write, paint, listen to music, dance, cry, yell, stim... whatever releases those emotions. Writing this blog post has helped me in the recovery process.

4. Apologize.
Meltdowns are not your fault! But chances are, the other person doesn't know that, especially if they are unaware of your autism or how meltdowns work. They might be confused, upset, or annoyed, so an apology will help them be calm and listen to you. Be sure to recover as much as possible before approaching them.

5. Educate.
Explain how your autism affects you, and how you perceive the triggers that can lead up to a meltdown. If this person is a friend, family member, teacher, or someone you will spend a lot of time with, give some pointers on how to identify a meltdown, and how they can respond in a way that doesn't worsen, but helps the situation. While other people aren't responsible for your well-being, a helpful response can smooth out the process of calming down and make it easier on both people.


1. Don't express disapproval.
"Again? *sighs*"   "You're just overreacting."   "Calm down because I'm too busy for this."
Please don't say things like this. Save those thoughts for later, and confide in another person (not the person in meltdown) after the situation de-escalates. Keep in mind that the autistic person is not intentionally acting that way. In fact, they probably already feel ashamed about it--so expressing frustration, disapproval, or general negative feelings (like suggesting they are a burden) about their meltdown will only make them feel worse and want to shut you out.

2. Know ahead of time what they need.
It's easier to ask how to react to meltdowns when they are not already melting down. Ask if touch is helpful or not (like a hug, deep pressure, etc), or if they need a quiet, dark room to calm down, what coping mechanisms help (i.e. stim toys, games, music), etc.

3. Keep communication simple.
If they are in meltdown, ask what you can do to help with as few words as possible. Avoid figures of speech, sarcasm, and anything that is not honest and literal statements. Give them the option of texting or writing their response if necessary. If they don't respond to verbal expression, try texting or writing your question. Yes or no questions are best, like: "Want to be alone?" "Do you need quiet?" "Are the lights too bright?" "Do you feel ignored?" "Are you hungry/thirsty/tired etc.?"

4. Listen.
When the autistic person tries to communicate, listen and reassure them that you are listening. Feeling ignored can make the meltdown worse. And, you might get some vital information about what's upsetting them and how you can help.

5. Reassure them that they are not a burden.
For me, half of my upset is me feeling guilty about my meltdown. Feeling like a burden makes the situation worse and prolong it. Being assured that I am loved even at my worst is one of the best things for me to hear, and can snap me out of it enough to take care of myself and recover more efficiently from the meltdown.

How do you deal with meltdowns? Leave a comment below!


  1. Thank you, Alyssa, for being so honest. I'm currently going through so much stuff--stress after stress--that I really needed to be reminded it's okay, that I'm not a bad person for reacting this way. I hope others will leave some suggestions on how to start feeling better because right now I feel lost and so frustrated.

  2. I feel you, especially recently. I can be really snippy and dysfunctional when I'm overwhelmed. I need to make some changes in my life to simplify and make things easier.

  3. Typically for me is that I shut right down and see the negative side of everything, so I become completely unhappy and pessimistic. Also in this mode, I can't see the effect of what my meltdown might cause- like missing work, or neglecting responsibilities- I only see that as the cause and think that things will be better without, which has gotten me into some trouble. I've learned that also for me, it's not just one but many factors added up that cause it to come on. Anyways, I liked your tips at the bottom- they could be helpful. :)