Not to be confused with childhood tantrums, “autism meltdowns” can happen at any age. Here’s how to cope when they occur.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition affecting a person’s language, behavior, and communication.
Because autism exists on a spectrum, autistic people may experience a range in their symptoms.
The way that autistic people respond to different sensory inputs may vary greatly — from music volume to the tactile touch of objects or feel of clothes.
Autistic people are neurodivergent, which means they exhibit atypical behaviors compared to neurotypical folks.
One such example is what’s known as an “autism meltdown,” which is an emotional response to sensory overload. While a meltdown can be upsetting and overwhelming for autistic people, there are ways to cope.
A note on neurodivergent people
There’s no cure for autism, and many people in the autistic community don’t feel the need for one. Instead, they recognize autism as a neurotype rather than a disability or condition that needs to be cured.
Neurodivergent folks, including autistic people, may communicate in different ways. For instance, avoiding eye contact and fidgeting may help them concentrate better or feel more comfortable in conversation — it doesn’t always mean disinterest.
Neurodivergent individuals may also respond to sensory stimuli differently than neurotypical people. These responses may include “autism meltdowns,” which are usually out of the autistic person’s control.
The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network recognizes meltdowns as a common externalized behavior, particularly among autistic children and adolescents. Although older autistic individuals may also experience meltdowns, not all autistic people have them.
According to Sonny Jane, a lived-experience educator and consultant on Kaurna Land in Australia, an autism meltdown is an extreme response to something that is upsetting. They say the lack of control regarding the situation can trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response, making the meltdowns difficult to regulate.
“Meltdowns are a common occurrence for autistic individuals since we have differences in our sensory and emotional processing as well as the extra demands we experience often pile up and take up our resources,” they say.
While meltdowns are a common occurrence for autistic folks due to being overwhelmed, overstimulated, or both, Jane says that meltdowns aren’t inherently an autistic trait.
Some aspects of a meltdown could include:
- feeling more annoyed by a situation than you generally would
- finding that small sensory things cause more discomfort than normal
- having less patience and control over tone and facial expressions
- wanting to escape
Some signs that a loved one is having or nearing a meltdown may include:
- being irritable, which can include shouting or physical aggression
- fidgeting or stimming more (repetitive movements or noises)
- getting frustrated over small things
- having difficulty focusing
- covering eyes or ears from sensory input
How meltdowns differ from tantrums
Because meltdowns and childhood tantrums share similar qualities, the phrases “autism tantrum” and “autism meltdown” have been used interchangeably. Still, there’s a key difference between the two.
Though neurotypical adults may experience emotional outbursts similar to temper tantrums, generally speaking, “tantrums” are far more common in children.
On the other hand, autism meltdowns aren’t limited to children — anyone with autism can become overstimulated and experience a meltdown.
Additionally, tantrums are generally goal-oriented.
“Tantrums are often related to a ‘want,’ while meltdowns are related to a trigger,” Jane explains.
“It’s really important to understand the difference because meltdowns are never a voluntary choice within our control, and how you respond to a meltdown versus a tantrum is very different.”
While the symptoms of an autism meltdown can be soothed or lessened with medication, once it has begun, it can’t really be stopped.
The best thing to do during a meltdown is to attempt to separate yourself or your loved one from the trigger or environment as quickly as possible — whether you physically leave an event or escape to a quieter space.
Jane suggests that trying to reduce your sensory input if leaving or ridding yourself of the trigger altogether isn’t possible. Here are a few examples:
- Dim any lights.
- Turn off the TV.
- Use sensory tools, such as a weighted blanket.
It’s understandable that you’d want to support someone when they’re visibly upset.
While an autism meltdown can’t really be controlled, there are strategies that may help diffuse the emotional response.
“You can only try to manage and regulate it in the moment and support us during the recovery afterward,” says Jane. “It’s an emotional response that you have to ride out.”
When it comes to supporting autistic individuals, Jane says that it’s important to remember that there’s no one singular trigger for a meltdown.
“It’s not usually one event, even though it might seem like there’s a triggering event from the outside,” they explain.
“Meltdowns are always a combination of factors and often happen when we become dysregulated or overstimulated by stress, sensory input, sudden changes to our emotions, and more because our body and brain are communicating to us that we have reached (and surpassed) a limit.”
During a meltdown, focusing on sensory and emotional support should be prioritized. Rather than using reason, try the following instead:
- Stay calm.
- Keep your anger or frustration in check.
- Reduce verbal communication by using visual representations and “yes” or “no” questions.
- Decrease sensory stimulation by reducing sensory input in the environment (e.g., close the blinds, turn off excess noise, dim the lighting).
Meltdowns can be draining to those who experience them, so Jane suggests maintaining your patience even after it’s over.
Allow autistic people time to recover by considering their sensitivity to sensory input. Give them some space and quiet to work through the meltdown at their own pace.
The heightened emotional state of an autism meltdown is out of an individual’s control. According to a 2016 study, it’s common for autistic individuals to feel embarrassed after a meltdown has subsided.
Both during and following a meltdown, it can be helpful to ensure your loved one that you’re there to support them and that it isn’t their fault.
An autism meltdown is a common occurrence for autistic folks with autism due to sensitivity to sensory input.
While meltdowns are more common among younger autistic individuals, they’re not the same as a childhood tantrum. Unlike tantrums, meltdowns aren’t connected to a goal and may occur at any age.
For those who need support managing their meltdowns, Jane suggests keeping sensory items handy.
Autistic individuals are valuable members of society and can lead fulfilling lives. If you’re interested in long-term intervention or medication, you may wish to connect with a clinician for additional guidance and support.