What is a meltdown?
One aspect of autism that most people are aware of, even if they don’t know the name, is an autistic meltdown. In the media it is typically portrayed by a child, usually a boy, screaming and engaging in behaviours that people associate with tantrums. The first thing to know is that a meltdown is not a tantrum, despite how similar they may look. A tantrum is manipulative behaviour employed by young children in order to get what they want. As soon as they achieve the desired result, the tantrum will stop. Meltdowns are very different. A meltdown is a form of the fight/flight response. Another example of the fight/flight response is a panic attack, or simply becoming nervous before public speaking. As such, a meltdown is not under the control of the individual having one. It is a state of extreme distress that cannot be stopped, only mitigated.
What does a meltdown look like?
I am far from the first person to describe what a meltdown looks like, and many others have done a better job of it than I will do here, but I will try my best.
A meltdown differs from individual to individual and is affected by the age and personality of the person affected. For example, a 6-year-old boy’s meltdown will not look the same as a 45-year-old woman’s.
What do meltdowns look like in children?
In children, at first glance, a meltdown is likely to look similar to a tantrum. There may be screaming, crying, throwing objects, and running away amongst other things. There are important distinctions though. During a tantrum a child is aware of their environment, they may engage in dramatic behaviour, but they will not hurt themselves. They will also look to the caregiver to make sure they are paying attention, and, as mentioned above, the episode will stop when the child gets the thing they want. During a meltdown a child may not be aware of their environment, they may engage in self injurious behaviour, they are unlikely to look to see if anyone is watching them, and finally the behaviour will not stop if the cause of the meltdown is resolved (e.g. not getting the right brand of juice to drink). As you can see, it is not easy to tell the two apart at first especially if you don’t know the child. There is also the very real possibility that the meltdown will not take this form as all autistics are different. Some people may be wondering why I haven’t used video evidence to show the difference between the two. The answer is that I think it is unethical to record a person in severe distress and put it online without their informed consent. I don’t believe most children are able to grasp the consequences of a video of themselves being broadcast online, so I don’t think they are able to give consent.
So, if you see a child having a meltdown, what should you do?
Hopefully the child’s guardian will be present, however if they are not, attempts should be made to find or contact them. You should not leave the child alone, so you may need to enlist the help of another person. After that you should just keep a safe distance and just make sure that the child doesn’t run off or do anything too dangerous. Trying to restrain the child may make the situation worse and can be dangerous if you do not know safe restraint techniques. So, unless the child is putting their life in danger you shouldn’t try to stop what they are doing.
If you come across a scene in which a caregiver is present either offer help, if appropriate, or keep walking. It isn’t comfortable for the child or the caregiver to be stared at when this is happening. If you see others staring, commenting on the situation, or even filming it, it would be helpful for you to ask them to stop. I’d advocate this approach even in the case of tantrums because it doesn’t benefit anyone.
It is important to remember this when you see a child screaming in a supermarket or on a bus. They may not be having a tantrum and may just be so overwhelmed that their brain cannot cope and are therefore having a meltdown.
What do meltdowns look like in adults?
Again, there is the issue of individuality, although it may be more pronounced in adults. As such two people can meltdown in completely different ways. For one person, it may seem to others that they are being an over-emotional ‘drama queen’. For others, they may start stuttering or ticking. Many have similar meltdowns to the ones they had in childhood, but now may have slightly more control. The meltdowns may occur less or more frequently, entirely depending on the individual. The adult meltdown is still a type of the ‘Fight or Flight’ response and there will therefore be physical symptoms; hyperventilation, increased blood pressure, jumpiness, dilated pupils, tunnel vision, shaking, and dry mouth to name a few. However, adult autistics often recognise these symptoms and manage to get to privacy. This is because a meltdown is an intensely exposing loss of control and deep embarrassment can be felt if one is had in public. There is also an aspect of danger of having one in public. People may misinterpret what is happening and become hostile. At worst, in places such as the USA, autistics are afraid of being killed by police or people who feel threatened. As I realise that I haven’t given a very good picture of an adult meltdown I have included a video of myself having one.
Content Warning: Self injurious behaviour from the start.
In the video, I am ticcing a lot. This is common in my meltdowns. Every tic is an attempt to suppress an impulse to lash out at my surroundings or myself. As you can see, it doesn’t always work. I cough at times, but I wasn’t ill when I recorded this. The coughing is an effort to get rid of the build up of energy that occurs before a meltdown. This video probably doesn’t look as dramatic as you would think a meltdown should, but it certainly felt a lot worse than it looks. For whatever reason, I have very quiet meltdowns, but they are still meltdowns none-the-less. The price to pay for having a quiet meltdown is usually physical injury.
What does a meltdown feel like?
This is a question that many people and it is very difficult to answer. The only real way to describe it is through metaphor, which has its own pitfalls, however I will do my best. For me, it feels like having restless legs, but in every joint (that is the reason you can see me hyper extending my elbows) . It feels like I am going to explode. In fact, I want to explode and just destroy my surroundings. We’ve all seen the videos of office workers smashing their computers or printers out of frustration. Everyone has experienced a lesser version of that by, for example, slamming a door when angry. There is a build up of frustration, agitation, or anger and then a physical release which usually brings some relief. Now imagine that you cannot release the negative feelings. They are stuck in you at the point just before you would be slamming a door. That’s what a meltdown feels like for me. Here are some descriptions by other autistics about how they experience meltdowns:
How can you help an adult having a meltdown?
If you do not know the person, the best way to help is by not making it worse. Don’t ask questions. Don’t come too close. Try to keep others away. Try to minimise any sensory input, for example, turning off music or lights in a room. If you think that they may be a danger to themselves or others you might have to call emergency services. If you know the person it is best to ask them what to do in event of a meltdown when one isn’t happening. Everyone is different, so what works for one individual may make the situation worse for another.
I hope this post has been informative. If you have any questions, leave them in the comments.