How Meltdowns Affect Autistic People

After an autistic meltdown, things can take a while to get back to normal.

Firstly you’ve got the physical ramifications. For me, meltdowns are exhausting because it feels like every muscle tenses up, often accompanied by stimming that can be a bit more… intense than usual. The stimming, I guess, is a desperate attempt to recalibrate but I find its usually overwhelmed. After the meltdown eases, my muscles feel like I’ve run for miles whilst fighting an ostrich or something. This deep exhaustion can last for a few days. On top of this you have other physical issues. As I’m prone to migraines anyway, I can more or less guarantee I’ll have a migraine the next day, probably as a result of the exhaustion and tense muscles. This means the misery drags on.

Then there’s the emotional side. As you may expect, exhaustion spreads to emotion too, and I’ll often feel lacklustre and unable to focus or do much for a day or so afterwards. And the embarrassment and shame can be intense. If a meltdown is in public, then it can be a nightmare to deal with these feelings afterwards. Trouble is, you know that everyone will assume you’re just weird or tantruming because, let’s face it, no one knows enough about autism.

Even if the meltdown is private, these feelings can persist, usually as a result of internalised ableism where we have absorbed this judgemental attitude and thus apply it to ourselves. This can manifest in feelings of uselessness, anger towards your own ‘feebleness’, destruction of self esteem snd a feeling it would be impossible to ever truly achieve anything. It’s no wonder so many autistic people get depressed. It takes time to unpick this ableism directed at myself, but it can be done if there is increased acceptance of my own disability. I’m in the process of this.

So what can be done to avoid all of this?

Well the best thing would always be a general population who understood autism and therefore accepted meltdowns for what they are: a person hitting their stress ceiling. Everyone has a stress ceiling, even neurotypicals. They meltdown too when they hit it. It’s just we autistic people exist always just below our ceiling, so it doesn’t take as much to smash into it.

Another thing would be for those around to allow the autistic person space, to let them go cool down and be alone to work through it, rather than get in their face and exacerbate everything. You see this often in schools where an autistic child in meltdown is continually attacked by their teacher or other staff. Just leave them alone!

Meltdowns are very frequently the end result of an autistic person being pushed beyond their capacity for stress. This is common in environments that are not set up (at all) for neurodivergent people. So, logic suggests that any effort to make an environment (school, home, work, public places) will have a knock-on positive effect on the frequency of meltdown. This can only be a good thing.

So learn about how to make spaces safer for autistic people, and improve our quality of life.

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