What it’s like to experience a meltdown

Kaelynn P:artlow

By Kaelynn Partlow

Often those of us on the autism spectrum do things that neurotypical people have difficulty understanding. To outsiders, autistic behavior can look “odd” or seem “not to make sense.” Sometimes a person’s behavior can even be frightening.

It’s not uncommon for autistic people to sometimes engage in behaviors that are harmful or dangerous, especially during a meltdown. For their loved ones, watching someone they care about have a meltdown can absolutely be scary and confusing at times. Lets face it, meltdowns aren’t pretty, and they’re certainly not fun, especially for the person experiencing it!

Meltdowns can be caused by a whole host of things. Their triggers are different depending on the individual. Many autistic people report struggling to think clearly during a meltdown. They feel held at the mercy of their emotions and senses until it passes. The good news is, many also report feelings of clarity after the meltdown has passed.

As a nearly 22-year-old woman on the autism spectrum, this couldn’t be more true for me. A lot of people around me don’t understand why I can have such clarity of my thoughts and intelligent reasoning most of the time, but then still experience meltdowns, where I don’t seem to have clear thoughts or the ability to reason.

My meltdowns usually stem from being overwhelmed or confused by information or sensory input; major changes without warning; and medical procedures. Over the years I’ve learned to cope with the stress of everyday life as any young adult does. I might just go about it a little differently. I work really hard to control what I say and do during a meltdown. In the past, I’ve said or done hurtful things. I try my best to remove myself from the situation to “take a break” in order to collect myself, and return when I’m ready. However, sometimes my best efforts fail and I’m left crying on the floor unable to think rationally until the feelings pass. I’m thankful I’ve been able to learn strategies like taking a break somewhere quiet; holding a fidget toy; or squeezing my hands in order to get myself back on track.

Everyone seems to question the reason for the meltdown in the first place because I’m normally so capable of intelligent reasoning and problem solving. I’m really not so sure on the specifics of why I can get overwhelmed past a point of no return. I guess the short answer in one word is AUTISM.

To put it in perspective, here is an analogy that seems to illustrate my personal experience:

Your friend has a cold, and gradually, you begin to feel some of their same symptoms; a runny nose, a headache and sinus congestion slowly infiltrate your body. You begin to feel worse as the day goes on. You finally get home where you can actually take care of yourself. You remember all the times you could breathe through your nose, and how you took them for granted. You wonder how long you’ll be a mouth breather with an increasingly bad headache. Maybe this terrible cold is your new existence? A few days later you wake up feeling a little better. You reach for a tissue (and bear with me here – this may be a little gross), you blow as hard as you can … and it is really productive! You reach for another tissue and suddenly you feel most of the sinus pressure release. You are able to breathe fully through both nostrils. It took some time, self care, and maybe the help of a loved one but now you can breathe clearly.

That may be a little bit extreme, but for me, I can feel the pressure building. Sometimes I can grab a tissue and immediately relieve the pressure, and other times, it builds and worsens. However, after going through the worst of it, once its over, I can experience that clarity again. I can reflect back on the situation and see that I wasn’t actually dying, it was just a bad cold. That change in my schedule wasn’t actually that bad, in fact, it makes sense to do it that way, and I can see that now.

No one likes having a meltdown, but I’ve learned to appreciate the clarity they bring for me after the fact.

When it’s over I appreciate that I can reflect on the situation and see what I might do differently next time.


KaelynnMy name is Kaelynn Partlow. I live in Greenville, SC and I am 22 years old. I work full time at a fabulous nonprofit organization teaching kids on the autism spectrum. I love my job and my family! I am also passionate about dog training, and work with service dogs in my free time.

5 replies on “What it’s like to experience a meltdown”
  1. says: Tatyanna

    I get meltdowns when things don’t seem to be going right or when I get provoked by someone. I also get a meltdown whenever I am super late to go somewhere.

  2. says: Tatyanna

    I get meltdowns when things don’t seem to be going right and when I am getting provoked by someone. I also get a meltdown when I feel like I’m going to be late for something.

  3. says: Steve Staniek

    Kaelynn, -thanks for raising this important reaction that many of us share. I’m 71, and I still have them, even in public, when I hit my frustration limit [I frustrate easily].
    Last year I had a massive meltdown in the lobby of our local radio station, because they refused to provide air time to an important public issue that I was shepherding forward. Somedays, my coping mechanisms don’t seem to work, and I have to face the raw physicality of the world head on. Now, when I can feel a meltdown coming, I have it safely at home before I go out to face the situation.
    When I sense my emotional pressure increasing and approaching my “meltdown point”, and I know in my belly that it’s time for me to blow….I throw myself on my bed with a bunch of pillows, and give my body permission to let go, and release all the growing tension through a controlled meltdown. My body knows instinctively what it needs to do to correct and stabilize itself, and I give it permission to clear itself of unwanted tension. I like to use the metaphor of a dog shaking water off its coat.
    Sometimes it takes screaming and yelling, and sometimes vigorous shaking, to help release my unwanted energy. Other times, its more effective if I lay down and allow my body to shake gently, softly, and quietly for a few minutes, until its almost imperceptible. This allows the excess energy to detach and leave me more peacefully. Sometimes, this method brings moments of joyful release.

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