An Autistic Meltdown is not a Tantrum

Wen of Zen Sensory Overload Red
Wen of Zen Sensory Overload Red

and what it feels like to have an Autistic Meltdown

By Keira Fulton-Lees

This can’t be said enough…

An Autistic Meltdown is Not a Tantrum!

Sure, some of the outward exhibited behaviors may appear the same, but the causation of an Autistic Meltdown is vastly misinterpreted.

So, what’s the difference?

A tantrum is intentional manipulative behavior that someone exhibits in order to get something they want that they are told they cant have. Once they are given that which they can’t have, the unpleasant behavior ceases.

To the extreme contrary, there is nothing manipulative about an Autistic Meltdown, nor is it in any way intentional.

An Autistic Meltdown is a physiological autonomous response caused by prolonged exposure to cognitive distress, conversational difficulties, social pressures and anxieties, transitions, sudden and unexpected change, and sensory integration issues that any one, or any combination of each or all, overloads an Autistic person’s mental and physical abilities to cope or compensate.

Once an Autistic Meltdown begins, there is nothing that can be given to the individual that will stop it, as they were never seeking anything in the first place. It has to run its course until it’s over, and the only thing that will end it is the passage of time.

It’s analogous to an overloaded battery – its power surely dissipating due to the load, ultimately resulting in total depletion of all its stored energy, until it’s completely dead.

There are things that help.

The first and most crucial thing is to remove the person from the source of the trigger or the environment that is causing the stress.

Recently, I posted a story about a story about a frustrating session with my therapist which resulted in my experiencing a serious meltdown afterwards. You can read the story of my Autistic Meltdown here, but the gist of it was that my therapist had mentioned my Autistic traits, and in my attempt to clarify if I was on the Spectrum, I was met with an unexpected apathetic response.

You might assume that this frustrating session itself was the trigger that sparked the Meltdown, but in fact it was not.

It never is. In this particular case, for me it was actually the severe traffic jam I got stuck in after the appointment that was the final trigger.

Heavy traffic is a common meltdown trigger for me – and it’s a very dangerous place to have one.

It’s not a situation where I calmly pulled over to the side of the road and casually decompressed, but of a sudden panicked unthinking jerk of the wheel, steering haphazardly, totally unaware of the presence of other cars, then a slamming of the brakes to a skidding dead stop on the shoulder of the road.

What followed was an immediate reaction of furious fists pounding the steering wheel, shaking uncontrollably, screaming at the top of my lungs, and fits of inconsolable crying.

Kevin Hosseini Sheriff's Car
Kevin Hosseini “Sheriff’s Car”

It’s ugly and the extreme fear of police finding me this way is very real, as if that did happen, they would certainly have detained me for an extended staycation at the nearest psych ward.

They’ve got beds and they’ve got meds – that’ll fix everything. Right? – Wrong!

Although a Meltdown can be triggered by one event, typically it never is just one trigger. This is what confuses people. They see an Autistic person seem to overreact over one minor incident, and they assume that one thing was the root cause. That is rarely the case.

What people don’t know and don’t see is the steady build-up of stressors that manifest and grow exponentially compounding over the course of the day, to the final point where that any one additional trigger, no matter how small or minor, that even a stressor no bigger than the figurative size of a hair is enough to be the final rapidly firing trigger that ultimately sets it off.

Every Autistic individual experiences Meltdowns differently.

There Are Generally Two Broad Types of Autistic Meltdowns: Implosions and Explosions.

Implosions and explosions can co-occur – an explosion followed by an implosion, or an implosion followed by an explosion, or even simultaneous occurrence of both kinds at the same time. The traffic Meltdown I described earlier was the latter.

It’s difficult to describe in concise words just what it feels like to have an Autistic meltdown – it simply cannot be fully explained as its incomprehensible for most neurotypicals to grasp…and even if so, everyone has their own unique experience.

What a Meltdown Feels Like to Me

If I had to describe it with words, I will say that a meltdown for me is like a total assault on my mind and on my body – like having multiple seizures and blackouts at the same time – thoughts in my mind become this altered version of reality – like being as being as totally out of control of yourself as a person as you can possibly imagine.

I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t know who you are anymore, and I don’t know who anyone else is anymore either…

I don’t know where I am anymore. I don’t know where you are anymore, and I don’t know where anyone else is anymore either…

Tremendous pressures builds inside my head, auditory and visual information become depleted, compressed, and filtered into a muffled tunnel too small for the ingress volume. In my brain, thoughts are stilted as trillions of synapses audibly misfire, causing a loud snap-crackle pop-rocks sound effect that impedes and truncates coherent thought.

It’s like my brain is floating in the aftermath of a Mega-Tsunami of randomly competing thoughts, each colliding and combining together into an incomprehensible string of misinformation spinning violently around in my head.

My thought pattern has no pattern, and is more like the unpredictably random pattern of a pinball bouncing wildly around inside a pinball machine – and that pinball is my thoughts – and that pinball machine is my head, until finally that pinball drops straight down into a deep dark hole of emptiness.

That deep black hole is the Recovery Phase, and it may be quick or it may be slow – I never can know. If it’s a particularly severe meltdown, the recovery is very slow. I may stay there cowering in the emptiness of that deep dark hole for a very long time. Hours, or days may go by while my body and mind try to recover.

Amanda LaMunyon Chaos to Calm
Amanda LaMunyon “Chaos to Calm”

Cognition is very slow to return. Words at first merely partially patterned rhythmic syllables – phonetically formed groupings of letters that seem to float in the air then suddenly fall – an alphabet soup of magnetic letters then strangely arrange like ransom notes stuck to the frig. A cerebral perception of polarity pulls the groupings ever so slowly across the surface towards each other, each movement met with a varying intensity of resistance, but eventually I do then become, to some degree, aware of their presence.

At first, just single letters I see all at once – a 500 piece jigsaw newspaper jumble puzzle of letters that somehow find each other, almost by rumor, to then finally join together to form coherent words that then mysteriously morph into complicated combinations of word pairings, marching in curious cadence, with final comprehension somewhere to arise in the uncertain future – if at all.

Although the words are now there, I’m utterly exhausted from this assault. I collapse in a heap, and I sleep until I’m finally ready to tolerate being amongst the humans again, and throw the dice one more time in this game that is the Meltdown Monopoly of my Game of Life…

Games usually end – but oh no, this game’s not over yet. And, it’s never really over, because I only lie in wait until the next one comes. It’s not a matter of “if” it will come again, but of “when” it will come again – because Autism is a lifelong condition for which there is no cure.

That is as close as I can describe to what I experience when I have an Autistic Meltdown.

I can’t speak for everyone, as this description is only my personal experience, but one common theme to everyone Autistic is that a Public Meltdown is extremely embarrassing for all of us on the Spectrum.

If you’ve ever witnessed an Autistic Meltdown, you know how disturbing it is to watch – but you may not know that it is exponentially more difficult it is to experience one.

The thing is…

As horrfic as an Autistic Meltdown can be, it’s a good thing…

It’s a much needed release, a rebooting of the system, and it is essential…

We just pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, dust ourselves off, and continue on with Life on the Spectrum as if nothing happened.

Originally posted here as What Meltdowns Feel Like to Me as an Autistic Adult: The Melted Mind.

Keira Fulton-Lees

Keira Fulton-Lees is an autistic advocate, blogger, and poet whose website is artfullyautistic.com

Cover image: Wen of Zen “Sensory Overload Red”

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