What is an autistic meltdown?

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:

15 People on the Autism Spectrum Describe What a Meltdown Feels Like


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.


When to Fight and When to Retreat

An Autistic’s Take on Autistic Burnout


Living as an autistic can be difficult. You’d be hard pushed to find an autistic that doesn’t feel this way. As an autistic, wider society can seem like a battlefield, like a war. The autistic is constantly barraged by intense sensory information that is not felt by non-autistic people. There is a secret fight in every conversation we are uncomfortably conscripted into, edging through it like a mine-field, planning your next verbalisation as a chess player would his next move. Strategising. This is the fight to look ‘normal’. Whether drummed into us in therapy or gleaned from every sneer or condescending look or comment we are taught that we must act normal, but there comes a point where this is no longer possible. We pull on our armour – ear plugs, sun glasses and compression material and try to tough it out, but there comes a point when the sound of the traffic is too loud,  when you run out of your regularly deployed scripts for conversation. When you are revealed as an imposter, as a spy in the camp. This rarely ends well. When the barrage becomes too much, too loud, too often, you crack. The meltdown. Your strictly disciplined façade is ripped off and you are exposed, raw. You want to tear at something, everything, anything. To charge into no-man’s land with nothing but your fists. Some of us, sometimes, can stop ourselves and instead force ourselves to stay below the parapet writhing in agony on the cold uncomfortable ground. But there are those who cannot and return exhausted, bloody and shuddering, or do not return at all… The survivors, still filled with adrenaline, drag themselves from the mud, take a large gulp of air, replace their masks and brace for another onslaught.

Meltdowns are nothing new to most autistics. They’ve fought that battle many times and pick themselves up every time. Nearly every time. When the barrage has become too fierce for too long, when it penetrates your armour, sometimes we don’t get up. Sometimes we are still cowering in the mud for days, weeks, months at a time. Then a decision must be made. Whether to retreat or to stand your ground. To stand your ground means to take these barrages at an increasing rate, fighting the meltdown almost constantly, in the hope that maybe, this time, this day, it will stop. You’ve stood your ground before but this time might be different, this time it might end you. To retreat, to pull oneself from the fray even to just a short distance may give you the respite you so desperately need. Maybe retreat could be seen as a tactical movement to the rear, to rebuild energy for a return to the fight. Maybe. But sometimes the barrage keeps creeping slowly forward, consuming your normality as it passes. Then it becomes an all-out sprint backwards. A fumbling, stumbling surge back and back and back until you are crawling, until you can go no further. It leaves you far from the frontlines, far from the barrage, but trapped. Burnout. Trapped in a paralysis which no doctor can say how to treat, how long it will last, if you’ll ever move again. A paralysis, a coma but a desperately needed one. You wait stuck, paused in time until the paralysis passes, until you can feel sunlight on your face, until the wounds heal enough to release you from your bonds.

Eventually you advance again. Retaking ground lost in the retreat, sometimes all, sometimes some, sometimes very little and with no guarantee that you will ever reach the line that you once braved. Often, you are left with scars, some small and barely noticeable, some gaping wounds which are tacked together with improvised bandages. On the advance back an autistic watches as those who stood their ground pass. Some run wildly as you did, some dragged back screaming, some wide eyed, vacant on stretchers. You pause, thinking of joining them in their movement backwards, but a hand on your shoulder pushes you forward. The hand belongs to one who has advanced again with you. You hear calling from the line you left, words of support encouraging you forwards. The autistic steels themself and begins to push forward again. On the way you meet people just like you advancing at different speeds despite the increasing noise of the barrage. Some at a limping, dragging speed, some running double-time. Some are resting, just for a little while they say, sometimes you join them. You do not know if you’ll ever reach the line again, but you sure as hell won’t stop trying. You may not be able to battle as you did in the past, you may never be able to, but this is not waving the white flag. This is not yet surrender.

Emma Paley


*Note: this post is not about fighting autism itself.