5 Reasons Why We Should Be Talking About Autism Meltdowns

Please raise your hand if you’ve ever experienced autism meltdowns.

autism meltdowns talk about it

You may be a parent whose child has “melted down”.
You may be a teacher or therapist who works with clients in the midst of meltdowns.
Or, you may be the person who experiences meltdowns.

I’m not autistic. So I’ve read some accounts told firsthand.

You get overloaded. And then your system “blows” You may swear and scream uncontrollably. You lose perspective of what’s going on with others and what’s going on with you. You may run out of the house. In extreme situations you may run into the road, risking being run over. It’s worse if it happens in a public place. People stare. People judge.

When it’s over, you’re dazed and confused, spent. And self-loathing sets in.

If you’re a parent or a loved one, you may dread the meltdowns. You never know when it’s coming. It could be the seemingly smallest thing. And the meltdown seems to have a life of it’s own. It’s scary, unsettling, and traumatic, both to you and to your loved one.

Since meltdowns can be so intense and severe, it’s important that you be talking about them to loved ones and to other people you know.


1. Talk About Autism Meltdowns To Increase Awareness.

We fear what we do not know.

Years ago, I was coming out of a grocery store with my wife. We saw a man sitting on the curb, staring out to space, and sweating profusely.

We knew something was wrong, but we had no idea what exactly was wrong.

Fortunately, there was a nurse standing nearby who recognized the signs and symptoms of a stroke. She immediately called 911, thereby perhaps saving his life!

In the same way, educating ourselves, our loved ones, and others about autism meltdowns increases awareness of what they are and what can be done to neutralize the situation.

2. Talk About Autism Meltdowns to Break Stereotypes and Challenge Prejudice

People judge what they don’t understand.

It’s unfortunate, but true.

For example, years ago, before I had ever heard of autism, if I had seen an autistic child “melting down” in a grocery store, I would have been pretty judgmental.

“Can’t that parent control their kid?” or “What a spoiled kid!”

Number one, years ago I was not a parent, and had no clue what it’s like to deal with any kind of child, autistic or non-autistic.

Number two, I didn’t know what sensory overload is like.

After years of studying and reading about autism, and having a son on the spectrum, I know a lot more and I would never make the same judgment about an autistic child having a meltdown in a grocery store.

But it takes lots of education.

So please continue to talk about autism meltdowns and educate yourself and your loved ones.

Here’s an easy way to explain autism meltdowns to others, courtesy of Judy Endow.

The following images are courtesy of Judy Endow — http://ollibean.com/2015/01/13/autistic-meltdown-or-temper-tantrum/

Judy Endow autism meltdowns

autism meltdowns explained

3. Talk About Autism Meltdowns To Dispel Fear, Guilt, and Shame

When Kanner first studied autism, he coined the term “refrigerator mother” as his theory for what “causes” autism.

He thought that mothers were not showing enough emotional care and warmth to their child, and thus “creating” autism in their child.

Can you imagine the fear, guilt, and shame mothers must have felt in the 1940’s.

Autism was seen as a disease to be cured. So both parents and kids were victims of this theory.

In the same way, unless we talk about autism meltdowns: what they are, what they look like, and the causes, as part of sensory overload, and not the fault of the child or parent, people may judge autistics without compunction.

4. Talk About Autism Meltdowns To Decrease Abuse

Parents need to understand meltdowns, so that they don’t punish their kids inappropriately.

Check out this extensive article from Mark Hutten of My Aspergers Child, called Autism Meltdown-Management 101: Key Points for Parents and Teachers 

In this article, Mark covers common triggers for meltdowns, and prevention strategies.

It’s equally important to train our children to understand what meltdowns are, and how to take control of them.

When autistic children and adults don’t understand their meltdowns, and coping skills to deal with them, a cycle of violence can occur in homes and with partners.

This article, from theneurotypical.com, talks about the cycle of rage that can develop in a family.

I’m not quite sure what to think about this article. On the one hand, the rage seems very real. On the other hand, I’ve heard accounts from both autistics and non-autistics of anger and violence coming from both parents and children.

The key point is that, unless we talk about and educate ourselves about meltdowns, we can’t learn to prevent (as much as possible) and cope with them.

5. Talking About Autism Meltdowns Increases Coping Skills

The more you, as a parent, learn about autism meltdowns, the better you’ll be able to manage your child’s unexpected meltdowns and prevent future ones.

The more you, as an adult, talk and learn about autism meltdowns, the better you’ll be able to navigate sensory difficulties, environmental challenges, and your own emotional landscape.

Growth begins with self-awareness.


We need to be talking about autism meltdowns:

To increase awareness;

To break wrong autism stereotypes;

To dispel fear, guilt, and shame;

To decrease abuse;

And to increase coping skills.

I’d like to hear from you: why do you think we need to be talking about autism meltdowns?

Articles cited:

Meltdowns in Adults with Aspergers and High Functioning Autism http://www.adultaspergerschat.com/2012/09/meltdowns-in-adults-with-aspergers-high.html

Autistic Meltdown Or Temper Tantrum?, by Judy Endow

Autism Meltdown-Management 101: Key Points For Parents And Teachers 

When Autism and Mental Health Issues Collide

Cycle of Rage and Family Violence of Adults with High Functioning Autism 

Recommended Books:
No More Meltdowns:  Positive Strategies for Managing and Preventing Out-Of-Control Behavior, by Dr. Jed E. Baker.


Managing Meltdowns Using the S.C.A.R.E.D. Calming Technique with Children and Adults with Autism, by Deborah Lipsky.

photo credit: Walter Lim

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 I'm Steve Borgman.  I'm a licensed clinical professional counselor and blogger committed to bringing you hope, understanding, and solutions that you can apply to your life immediately.

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Rod

    Hello Steve,
    When people talk about melt downs they often refer to what many interpret as tantrums. But melt downs happen in other forms as well and not all lead to the tantrum like behaviour. What is different about a melt down in many cases, the child or person has either built anxiety to a level of breaking or an event which creates frustration and confusion can be another trigger and so on. An example is walking into a shop and seeing hanging from the ceiling a child’s bike as a method of display. The shop owner may have used clear nylon fishing line to tie it to the ceiling , but with lighting maybe invisible to an Aspergers child.It looks to the child that it is just hanging there in mid air. This can trigger a melt down in some kids. Some Aspergers children of which I am an example when I was a child wrap and spin. If Mum is wearing a skirt in a spinning motion you wrap yourself up in it, sending Mum in a panic as she desperately try s to keep her balance and her skirt on. It’s a big subject. I in my experience though have never seen a melt down which is intended to do harm, unless the person has violent tendencies. It’s blowing off steam.as a result of a build up , sudden burst of the illogical or change generally., and people anxieties.That’s my experience anyway.

  • Ron, thanks so much for describing the other forms that meltdowns can take. I’m making my way through a very interesting book initiated by Philip Wylie, called the Nine Degrees of Autism. In it, Tony Attwood talks about how autistic people and Aspies, like any other person, when depressed either internalize or externalize. I wonder if internalizer Aspies might “meltdown” toward themselves, resulting in self injurious behavior? Or if an externalizer might be more likely to act out toward others when in a meltdown? Of course, then there are those meltdowns that don’t get directed at self or others, like you are describing. Your thoughts?

  • Rod

    Hi Again,
    I think Steve that there is often a misconception between a meltdown and a tantrum as well. They are quite different. One of the things which many people over look completely for example is with communication. It is true that this person may lack certain skills and ways of expressing himself to other people. But this also applies to this persons own self talk and self reasoning EG not being able to find closure ,creating what I call icebergs . Ice bergs get suppressed but over a period of time returns back to the surface. The more icebergs the closer the melt downs and what you find as well a melt down can occur because of something which happened days , weeks or months ago. Some of these issues may seem unimportant to some people , so they don’t know to detect them going back in time as well. Lack of comprehension and so on also contribute to skills lacking in self communication. Can’t explain how you feel so there are no options and so on.
    I’m at work but will talk to you more, hopefully tonight or tomorrow

  • Full Spectrum Mama

    I blog and talk about them because I was destroying myself INSIDE before I knew what was happening (my meltdowns are entirely directed at myself and internal – but no less powerful).

  • Full Spectrum Mama, thanks so much for sharing your experience. Yes, internalizing meltdowns can be SO stressful, from what I’ve read.