All About Autistic Meltdowns: A Guide For Allies

Reframing Autism All About Meltdowns A Guide For Allies

An Autistic meltdown, also sometimes referred to as an autonomic storm, is a reaction to feelings of intense overwhelm, distress, or dysregulation.

Although some may see an Autistic meltdown as a tantrum, or worse – as someone being manipulative to get their way – that is not the case.

A meltdown is not a conscious behaviour that can be changed, but rather an uncontrollable response to overwhelming feelings; a physical reaction to an overwhelmed brain. Too much information from sensory or cognitive stimuli triggers the automatic nervous system, which then signals to the brain that the person is in danger. This results in behaviours of distress, which can manifest in a variety of ways.

What does an Autistic meltdown look like?

Studies have revealed that Autistic individuals possess neurons that exhibit a higher level of connectivity compared to non-Autistic people. This sheds light on the reason why Autistic individuals are more susceptible to being overwhelmed by their surroundings. The sensory systems of Autistic individuals function in a distinct manner, and when faced with overwhelming stimuli, it can lead to a complete meltdown of their emotional and cognitive state.

A meltdown may look like:

  • Crying, wailing, sobbing
  • Screaming
  • Throwing objects, breaking objects
  • Flapping or pacing
  • Withdrawing or shutting down
  • Clenching or grinding teeth
  • Zoning out or dissociating
  • Running away (eloping)
  • Hitting, punching, biting, kicking or pushing (objects, oneself, or others)
  • Intense stimming (e.g. rocking, vocal stims, muscle tensing, joint cracking)

Autistic meltdowns can last from ten minutes to an hour or longer, but often last at least 20-30 minutes past the removal of the initial trigger (potentially longer if the trigger is not removed or resolved).

It’s important to note that a meltdown is never a contrived or pre-meditated act, and an individual often has little to no control over the behaviours that may manifest during the height of a meltdown.

Once a person becomes aware that they are melting down, with support and strategies in place, they are then more able to de-escalate themselves.

Meltdowns are common for Autistic individuals of all ages and levels of support needs, and can often be triggered by rejection sensitivity, distress intolerance and emotional regulation issues.

Sensory meltdowns can also occur, when there is too much external stimuli for the brain to process at once (for example: bright lights, loud music, noises that trigger pain or distress, too many people talking at once, or poor temperature control).

After a meltdown, it can take a while for an Autistic person to recover, and they’ll most likely need time and space to regain emotional regulation. In the aftermath of a meltdown, many Autistic people report that they are unable to recall the details of what happened. This memory lapse, in itself, can be distressing and may contribute to subsequent anxiety.

Autistic meltdown triggers

Some specific triggers for a meltdown in an Autistic person – child or adult – may be:

  • Sensory triggers
  • Stress
  • Unmet needs that the person is unable to communicate
  • A disruptive work, school or home environment
  • Inconsistency or change in routine
  • Lack of sleep
  • Life changes such as marriage, births, moving house, changing jobs etc.
  • Co-occurring mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression
  • Hormone changes
  • Chronic pain, illness or other disability
  • Reactions to new medications
  • Lack of control over an element of life

Sensory stimuli (meaning any kind of sound, touch, taste, sight or smell) is one of the most common meltdown triggers. Some more specific examples of sensory triggers that could cause or contribute to an Autistic meltdown are:

  • Auditory input (sounds) such as machines, animals, voices, or music

  • Tactile input (touch) such as the different textures of clothing, or being touched by people, or touching/stepping in an unwanted texture

  • Visual input such as patterns, busy places, or lights that are too bright

  • Olfactory input (smell) such as the smell of food, perfume, people, or animals

  • Gustatory input (taste) such as the flavor of foods, drinks, and medicines

  • Input from movement, such as travel or exercise, that is too much or too fast

Cognitive stimuli is another common Autistic meltdown contributor. When the brain becomes overwhelmed with too much information at once to process, anxiety during an activity (or in anticipation of an activity), or being subject to too many forms of information at once (e.g. multiple people talking, or talking while showing diagrams and images), sensory distress leads to dysregulation, which then gives way to a meltdown.

Research suggests that this may be because Autistic brains, unlike neurotypical brains, do not acclimatise or “get used to” some stimuli, so the feeling of threat/anxiety/distress remains at a high, rather than a downward gradient as we might see in a neurotypical brain.

The warning signs of an Autistic meltdown

An Autistic meltdown can be triggered by a number of factors, and there are generally “pre warning” signs that an Autistic person is heading towards a meltdown.

Some common signs to look for:

  • Increased anxiety, such as fidgeting, rocking or pacing
  • Difficulty communicating or expressing themselves clearly
  • Heightened sensitivity to sensory input
  • Becoming easily frustrated or irritated
  • Withdrawing from activities that they normally enjoy
  • Engaging in repetitive behaviour more frequently than usual

Not everyone, however, will display pre warning signs of a meltdown.

Autistic meltdowns in children

Many people conflate Autistic meltdowns with a tantrum, especially in children. Meltdowns and tantrums may look similar, but are not the same.

Tantrums are used to control or manipulate an outcome via displaying extreme behaviours – they have an end goal and employ behaviours as a tactic to get what the child wants, whereas meltdowns do not have a goal or objective.

Example 1: A child wants a toy in a toy store, the parent says ‘no’. The child has learned that if they start screaming and making a scene in public, the parent will cave and give the child what they want. The more times this cycle is repeated, the more the tantrum becomes a learned behaviour that the child may employ to get what they want. This is an example of a tantrum.

Example 2: A child is in the toy store with their parent. The child is feeling dizzy from the fluorescent lights and the loud beeping sounds of some musical toys. The parent notices the child displaying increasingly anxious behaviours. The parent tries to distract the child by showing them a toy, but the stressful stimuli persists, and so the child becomes dysregulated. The child begins involuntarily flapping, crying and fidgeting and is having trouble expressing themselves. Their behaviour becomes increasingly panicked and distressing. This is an example of a meltdown.

Meltdowns don’t have an end goal. There’s no strategy or greater purpose, and certainly no attempt to manipulate – they are purely reactive and a sign of great distress.

Further reading:
Learn how to navigate meltdowns as the parent of an Autistic child – Parenting an Autistic Child: A Practical Guide

Autistic meltdowns in adults

While meltdowns are commonly associated with children, it is important to recognise that Autistic adults can also experience them. This includes Autistic individuals who may otherwise be seen to have “low support needs”.  Meltdowns can occur at any stage of life, and may become more frequent during times of increased stress or anxiety. The misconception that only children experience meltdowns can lead to Autistic adults feeling overlooked, misunderstood and ashamed.

Phung et al. (2022) conducted a study that revealed the experiences of autistic adults, who expressed a profound sense of being overwhelmed and lacking control. These individuals described this sensation as something that permeates their entire body. They reported experiencing symptoms such as blurred vision, heightened muscle temperature, flushed cheeks, and tense shoulders.

Additionally, they mentioned struggling with cognitive processes, including difficulties with thinking, finding words, and recalling simple information. Autistic adults conveyed a pervasive feeling of complete disarray, as if their surroundings were enveloped in a haze of uncertainty.

The same study also discuss a phase known as burnout, which occurs prior to a meltdown in individuals with autism. During this stage, the autistic individual experiences fatigue, feelings of being overwhelmed, slowed cognitive processing, and struggles with cognition. It is during this period that the constant pressure and intense sensory and emotional stress start to deteriorate the autistic person’s capacity to carry out daily tasks. It is crucial to support and encourage autistic individuals to reduce emotional and sensory pressures during this phase in order to prevent meltdowns from occurring.

Further reading:
An Autistic adult recounts their lived experience with meltdowns – Menopausal and Melting Down: An Autistic Tale of Sensory Survival

Helping an Autistic person during a meltdown

If an Autistic person is having a meltdown, the best thing you can do is to be there to offer support in a calming manner – importantly, without judgement. Help the person relax and feel safe.

When an Autistic person is having a meltdown, it’s helpful to stay calm. Their behaviours may be distressing to witness, but try to remember that the behaviours are not deliberate, and are coming from a place of the person’s severe feelings of distress.

Try to respond by:

  • Staying calm
  • Staying quiet/not talking over them to avoid contributing to auditory overload
  • Moving slowly and calmly (sudden movements may make them feel as though they are in danger, or about to be “punished” for melting down)
  • Giving them space
  • Not touching them without their permission

In short – be calming, reassuring and patient. Don’t try to talk them out of it, or scold or punish them.

It’s not their fault, and it’s not deliberate or calculated. It’s overwhelming, scary and awful to experience a meltdown, and a person experiencing a meltdown will most benefit from genuine support and non-judgement.

Show the person kindness, care and compassion, and know that they desperately want the meltdown to end just as much as you do.

Be curious about what the experience of meltdowns is like for them as a unique individual, without making assumptions or judgements. Never shame them for having a meltdown, and never attempt to punish or scold them.

Some ideas to help calm a person experiencing a meltdown:

  • A drink of water
  • Soft toys or cushions to hold
  • Something to rock on
  • Noise-cancelling headphones
  • Comforting smells
  • Calm music (or upbeat music that they enjoy, if that is their preference)
  • Singing, humming
  • A weighted blanket or vest
  • Space
  • Peace and quiet
  • Turning the lights off
  • A cool compress for the head

It may take trial and error to find the strategies that work, and meltdown triggers may vary with time and context – what triggered a meltdown two months ago might be fine today, and vice versa.

Safety is imperative – for both the Autistic person, and anyone in the area. Some meltdown behaviours can be frightening and sometimes dangerous. If this is the case, try to help the person get to a safe, quiet room until the meltdown is over.

Eventually, the meltdown will subside. The Autistic person may experience remorse, guilt or shame, and engage in self-criticism. When calm, the person may be able to describe what happened – but it’s not uncommon for a person to have limited to zero memory of what happened.

Immediately after a meltdown, the person may feel exhausted. You can help them to regroup by:

  • Giving them time and space
  • Providing a calm or familiar activity, such as reading a book or touching a sensory object
  • Playing their favourite music or movie to give them something pleasant to focus on
  • Ensuring not to use shaming, punishing or judgmental language or tone about the meltdown – encourage them to discuss their feeling with you when they’re ready, without pushing them
  • Try to determine if there were new triggers or a combination of triggers
  • Ask them how you can best support them next time

Further reading:
Learn how to respond to the aftermath of a meltdown – How to Respond Empathetically to a Meltdown

Preventing an Autistic person from experiencing a meltdown

“Preventing” a meltdown isn’t always possible, but you may be able to help an Autistic person better avoid meltdowns by understanding their unique triggers, and making appropriate accommodations.

For example:

  • Taking sensory regulation items to activities/times where distress is likely (such as parties, loud venues, venues with bright lights) to help the Autistic person self-regulate
  • Providing consistent routine, and giving advance notice to upcoming changes in routines
  • Acknowledging the person’s emotions without judgement, and giving them space and opportunity to tell you if they think a situation is likely to contribute to them melting down
  • Deciding on a code word between you, that the Autistic person can use to quickly let you know they’re in distress

Other co-regulation strategies will depend on the age of the Autistic person, their support needs, and your relationship to them. However, every method of helping an Autistic person stave-off a meltdown is generally centered around care and compassion.

Like any other coping strategy, preventing a meltdown is only possible when the exacerbating triggers/stimuli are recognised early enough, and the person is able to be removed from the trigger or given a strategy to cope.

Example: an Autistic person in a grocery store is getting overwhelmed by the food smells, bright lights, loud beeping from the checkouts. They start to become agitated and start fidgeting and pacing. Their anxiety is increasing the longer they’re exposed to the trigger. If given the option to leave the store, or to put on some sunglasses and noise cancelling headphones, they may be able to take the edge off the dysregulation, and bring themselves down from that heightened nervous system state. However, if they’re left without coping tools and are required to simply sit in the increasing feelings of distress, a meltdown is much more likely.

Be curious and ask the Autistic individual (in age appropriate terms, for children) how they’re feeling. Understand if they’re feeling distressed, anxious or overwhelmed, and find ways to either eliminate the cause or help them break down the cause into manageable steps.

Ultimately, helping an Autistic person prevent (where possible) and navigate meltdowns starts with you demonstrating to them from the start that you’re a safe, trustworthy and caring person. 
Whether you’re their parent, spouse, friend, family member or a support professional, trust is the cornerstone of safe relationships. When an Autistic person feels safe and comfortable with you, the more easily they will be able to communicate distress, anxiety and incoming meltdowns – and this will best place you to help them navigate it as gently and painlessly as possible.


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The Reframing Autism team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we have the privilege to learn, work, and grow. Whilst we gather on many different parts of this Country, the RA team walk on the land of the Birpai, Awabakal, Wattamattagal, Whadjak, Amangu, Bunurong and Kaurna Yarta peoples.

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