This post is part of a series for Autism Acceptance Month in which I will be exploring various ideas and subjects relating to autism and being autistic.

My senses aflame. The world too loud, too bright, too much. A squirming, burning, writhing, searing energy grows deep within. Growing. Consuming. Too much, too much. Teeth yearn to sink into the flesh to which they belong. A driving urge to cancel pain out with pain. Fingers twitch and jerk aching to tear into skin. My head longs for rhythmic banging, to bounce off the wall, a pillow, something again and again. Tears pour from burning eyes like rivers of lava carving paths down cheeks. Great sobs wrack my chest, replacing words with desperate cries. My body rocks and sways while limbs flail and thrash. Escape, escape. A deep seated urge to escape the pain of a world too much. Out of control, a loss of control. A brain overwhelmed desperately searching for release. Finally, the twisting, burning, squirming pain begins to ease. The volume of the world begins to fade. The lights lose their harsh edge. The tears slow to a trickle and a sense of release fills me. I am empty and new. A phoenix reborn.

Meltdowns are one of the most ubiquitous traits of autism, yet also one of the misunderstood traits. While often compared to a tantrum, meltdowns are an entirely different beast. Tantrums are a battle of wills, a child trying to exert themselves against the forces that be. Meanwhile, a meltdown is a fight or flight reaction, an explosion of an overloaded brain. Meltdowns are, at their core, what happens when flight is no longer an option and fight is all that remains.

But what leads to such an intense reaction? Though it varies from person to person, one of the most common reasons for an autistic meltdown is sensory overload. Many autistic people have sensory processing differences that lead us to experience the sensory world more intensely than non-autistic people. For us, lights often seem brighter, sounds seem louder, textures more harsh, and much more. To really understand sensory processing differences, we need to understand what the senses are. While most people are taught that there are only five senses, there are in fact many more. Our senses include sight, hearing, taste, smell, texture, pressure, temperature, pain, balance, proprioception (the sense of where our bodies are in space), and interoception (the sense of what’s going on inside our bodies). For an autistic person, any of these senses can be hyper- or hyposensitive. A lack of sensory input for hyposensitive senses can be disorienting and distressing. Too much input for hypersensitive senses can be overwhelming and lead to sensory overload, often a precursor to a meltdown or shutdown.

Aside from sensory overload, there are many other factors that can cause or contribute to a meltdown. Changes in routine or plans, emotional overload, exhaustion, communication challenges, rigid thinking, and more can contribute to meltdowns, particularly when more than one factor is involved. Personally, most of my meltdowns are a combination of sensory and emotional overload with emotional overload often being the tipping point for me, though abrupt changes in plans or routine can also send me into a meltdown pretty consistently.

So what exactly is a meltdown? A meltdown is when the brain becomes so overloaded that it needs to escape from whatever is causing distress. When escape is not an option, the body and brain go for fight rather than flight. A meltdown is the fight reaction. A meltdown can involve yelling, crying, kicking, hitting, flailing, rocking, head banging, and more. However, while an autistic person may seem aggressive during a meltdown, their aggression is typically not aimed at a person but rather whatever provoked the meltdown (sensory input, emotions, change, etc). While we may seem violent or aggressive, what we are really looking for is a way to escape the pain.

Different autistic people will experience meltdowns in different ways, and not all autistic people experience meltdowns. I started this piece by describing one of my meltdowns, but others’ experiences of meltdowns may vary greatly. Meltdowns are one of the most difficult parts of the autistic experience and can drain a person for hours, days, or even a week or more. If you are not autistic, but have an autistic loved one, you may be wondering what you can do to help in the case of a meltdown. Because we all differ so much, the best thing you can do is to communicate with your autistic loved one when they are not having a meltdown to find out what would best help them if you ever encounter them having a meltdown. Because we are all so different it is hard to give general advice. However, the following are some general things you can to help someone who is going through meltdown:

  • Do not touch the person! Unless you have a prearranged agreement with the autistic person in question, do not touch them. This can make meltdowns worse.
  • If possible, try to guide the person to a quiet, dark, calm space.
  • Do not physically force the person to move unless they are in immediate danger
  • If unable to help the person to a calmer space, try to reduce sensory input in the environment they are in. Lower lights. Reduce noise. Remove any strong scents.
  • Give the person space, both for your own safety and theirs. An autistic person doesn’t mean to hurt anyone during a meltdown but may accidentally harm others if people are too close

These are some general guidelines for helping someone through a meltdown. Again, keep in mind that the best way to help an autistic person is to ask that person what helps them.

Meltdowns are a widely misunderstood part of autism. When broken down simply, a meltdown is just the fight part of a fight or flight response to some kind of overwhelming input whether sensory, emotional, or other. While unpleasant, meltdowns are a very real part of the autistic experience and are something that need more acceptance and understanding from the general public. We are not trying to hurt anyone when we are having meltdowns. We are not trying to just get our way or throw a tantrum. Meltdowns are an uncontrollable reaction to a brain that can no longer cope.