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Breaking Down the Autism Meltdown

What Is a Meltdown and What Is It Like to Have One?

A meltdown, for people with autism, can simply be explained as a reaction to the overload of sensory stimuli. People on the spectrum, like me, experience meltdowns differently depending on the type of personality they exhibit. The only way to truly know how one specific person with autism experiences a meltdown is to ask them.


If you've met one person with autism...'ve met one person with autism.

Like the individual, a meltdown is a unique experience. What you're about to read is just my personal experience, it might be entirely different for others on the spectrum.

“Melting Down The Meltdown” a Creative Writing

When I have a meltdown, it’s like I'm trapped. I want to stop crying, but I just can’t. And the more I think about wanting to stop, the more I cry. And the more I cry, the more I think about wanting to stop. It’s a vicious cycle. Eventually, I’ll get so tired that I just can’t cry anymore. But once I’ve gained back enough strength to cry, I usually start again. Now, my cry isn’t a little sob, sniffle and wipe. It’s more like a terrible whaling scream... especially when I’m having a major meltdown.

Sometimes I wish I could remember (or rather have the cognition) to record myself during one of these episodes. Then maybe people would understand how bad things can get. But maybe it might have the opposite effect, they could think I was faking it, that I just want attention. No, I just want to be understood to the fullest. Make no mistake though, I am quite competent and very intelligent. If people would only realize the immense manual effort it takes me just to function each day. A meltdown is oftentimes the result of wearing my mask too long.

In public, I usually don’t let myself explode in tears, therefore building up the pressure inside. After an entire day of shoving it all away though, when I'm ready to pop, I let the air out. Or sometimes I get popped before I get a chance to depressurize, which means having a dreaded meltdown. On the rare occasion I have one outside the comfort of my own home is usually the worst thing ever. I feel like almost everybody that sees it happen thinks I’m strange, weird, insane or simply faking it. But I’m not… I have autism. I’m trying my best to fit in, at least somewhat. Why don’t people understand? And when they don’t understand, why won’t they listen so they can? When I don’t know something, I always ask so I’ll know for next time.

It isn’t fair… why should I work so hard for acceptance when everybody else barely lifts a finger? I shouldn't have to wear a girdle four sizes too small for my entire life–it’s bound to tear someday. And before it does, it will have surly disformed my figure to be unrecognizable, or it might have even broken my ribs. Is that what you want? For me to be so changed that it hurts? For me to be so changed that I’m no longer who I truly am?

What if I asked you to change the shape of your head because it “bothers me”? Or if I told you to eat something you’re allergic to that gives you hives because “everyone likes it”? You’d probably call me mean or selfish, right? Well that’s how I feel. I know you don’t intend to be mean, though. You don’t have full knowledge of the situation. That’s the reason I’m writing this, so you can learn.

So, please be kind to the next person you see crying or having a difficult time. Don’t think them weird or crazy. Understand they may just have autism and can’t hold up their mask anymore. Be a compassion in their life that they probably haven’t received from a stranger in a long while.

Thank you for reading this and allowing me to give voice to the issues that I and many others on the autism spectrum struggle with.

God bless you and have an awesome day!

*This piece was written during and inspired by a horrible meltdown I had months prior to writing the rest of this article in an attempt to calm myself and to finally articulate my experience fully. I intentionally left it in its original and messy state in order to express how messy meltdowns are. Read on to learn more.

It isn’t fair… why should I work so hard for acceptance when everybody else barely lifts a finger? I shouldn't have to wear a girdle four sizes too small for my entire life–it’s bound to tear someday.

Meltdowns Explained

Usually, meltdowns don't and won't just happen without a specific cause. They're typically a reaction to excessive stimuli introduced to the person with autism, whether it be emotional or physical.

Commonly, when one has a meltdown, they might cry, scream, and/or wish to be alone. They may not be able to stop themselves and could continue to have a crying meltdown for hours. And most often, when they do finally stop having it, they become extremely exhausted and fatigued. This fatigue can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days, depending on the severity of the meltdown.

One way to help someone who is having a meltdown is to make them feel safe and ask if they need something. If the person has become unable to answer due to their intense emotional distress, have them nod when asked if they want some space.

Sometimes the nod can be very subtle and greatly delayed because the person might be struggling with the decision, so you'll have to pay close attention to their movements after asking them.

An important thing to remember about a meltdown is that they are not the same as a tantrum. A tantrum is when someone wants something and is trying to manipulate the person or persons around them into giving it to them.

A meltdown is an overflow of emotions that the person cannot control. Occasionally though, a tantrum can trigger a meltdown if the person gets too hysterical with not receiving what they wanted, but by then, they are no longer trying to manipulate anyone and have no more control over their reactions.

Little girl having a tantrum

Little girl having a tantrum

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The Difference Between Meltdowns and Tantrums

It may be difficult to decipher whether someone with autism is having a meltdown or is just attempting to get their way.

The first thing to do is to observe their behavior. If it's a tantrum, usually the person will check to see if it's working and will glance occasionally at whoever they're trying to manipulate. Be careful not to misinterpret this one though, as people with autism may look at the person like that if they're trying to communicate or to see if that person will help them out. It's almost definitely a meltdown if they never look at anyone.

One other way to tell is whether they're asking for something they want or need. If they keep asking for something they need, then it's probably not a tantrum. But if they are begging for something they want, then it could be a tantrum.

Another way to tell the difference is to review what the person did that day to see if anything could have been a factor for a meltdown. If they had a particularly busy and tiring day, that could indicate a meltdown. If it's just the beginning of the day, consider the day or night before. Was that day or night very busy? If yes, then it's... you guessed it, a meltdown. But if they've had a nice calm week and nothing has happened that you know of, it might be a tantrum.

What you need to also consider when deciding if it's a tantrum or a meltdown is to see if they've used the restroom and had enough food and drink. People with autism can often forget to eat or drink or even use the toilet for extended periods of time. If they have forgotten, that can be a huge trigger for a meltdown.

Lastly, determine if they've been sleeping properly. Any person, on the spectrum or not, will have a boatload of issues if they don't have a good sleep schedule or if it's been interrupted. See whether they've slept the night before or if they've been sleeping plenty the last few days. If they haven't, more than likely it's a meltdown. If they have slept properly, then it could be a tantrum.

In conclusion, the only way to really tell the difference is if you actually know the person in question. If you didn't notice the point I tried to make in this article, the only thing you can confirm for sure is a meltdown. Since a tantrum can be almost identical to them, it’s vital that you handle the situation gently in case it’s not a tantrum.

All in all, if it's just a simple tantrum and it doesn't trigger a meltdown, it will stop after a short time.

Autism and Masking

Sometimes people with autism (like me) wear a metaphorical mask to hide their extremely odd selves from those who might judge them because of their oddness. Usually, this is done subconsciously and it's not really a choice.

That's absolutely the case for me. It tends to appear when I'm meeting new people or when I'm in the public eye without me hardly even noticing. The sad thing is, the mask does not come effortlessly to me or anyone who wears one. In fact, it's the most draining part of my life (and many others’ lives) by far. It may go on easy, but it’s keeping it up that's difficult.

Aspies, as we lovingly call ourselves, have their limit to how much time they can spend around people they don't know well. After too long of holding our mask up, it starts to get dropped occasionally. Sometimes these blunders are fine and go unnoticed, but sometimes they're devastating and can scare away potential friends. We deal with this kind of loss and rejection frequently... I wish we didn't.

Rejection is the reason we wear the mask. It is formed over many, many years of being rejected by people.

We are constantly tweaking our masks, attempting to make them perfect.

Now, there are some aspies who never formed a mask. These people tend to be unaware of how their actions affect how others view them. They don't realize that people are rejecting them. . . those lucky ducks!

What I wouldn't give to be blissfully ignorant of how people see me. I'm sure plenty of other aspies feel the same way I do.

And to sum things up all plain and simple,


The aspie’s almost perfect mask

The aspie’s almost perfect mask

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Miriam Hill


Jodi Lynn Hill from Arizona on September 17, 2020:

Awesome article! Very informative and honest. Thank you for sharing your experience and helping others to understand the issues of autism.

Blair Hill on September 16, 2020:

This is so incitful understanding of autism. I also have autism and Miriam hits the nail on the head. thanks for helping others understand autism!

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