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5 Ways to Deal with Adult Autistic Meltdowns

Many autistic adults have meltdowns. Having strategies in place can help.

Key points

  • Adults with autism often experience meltdowns.
  • Meltdowns are different from temper tantrums, and are most often linked to sensory processing and emotional regulation issues.
  • Having strategies in place ahead of time can help adults with autism deal with their meltdowns when they arise.
  • Letting go of shame, and accepting that meltdowns can be a part of autism, can also help autistic adults better navigate them.

Meltdown is a word often associated with autism. Many people may think of meltdowns as something that happens exclusively to children—but individuals with autism may well experience meltdowns as adults. Even those with Level 1 autism spectrum disorder (sometimes referred to as “high functioning” autism and previously diagnosed as Asperger’s syndrome) may still experience extreme meltdowns.

What Does a Meltdown Look Like?

Meltdowns tend to be triggered by sensory overload, communication issues, and/or social situations. People who experience meltdowns tend to describe them as a complete loss of control which, once they're able to reflect, was found to be triggered by a relatively minor stimulus.

Christopher Ott, Unsplash
Source: Christopher Ott, Unsplash

Some people become uncontrollably angry and may scream, shout, and harm themselves. Some may have crying fits. Others completely shut down.

Meltdowns differ from temper tantrums, which are driven by a desire to achieve a particular outcome—for instance, someone might have a temper tantrum because they’re not getting their way and hope, by getting angry, that the other person might change their mind. Meltdowns, on the other hand, do not occur with a specific motivation or goal in mind; they just happen.

Meltdowns are often frustrating for the person experiencing them, but they can also be disturbing for people who are around when they happen. It can be very upsetting to see somebody uncontrollably upset and angry. It might also be scary to be around someone who is breaking things, hurting themselves, or causing harm in some other way.

How Can Adults with Autism Deal with Meltdowns?

These five strategies can help autistic adults better cope with meltdowns.

1. Identify triggers.

I have written before about considering emotional regulation as a timeline. Autistic adults are advised to develop strategies to notice where they are on that timeline in order to get a sense of how easily triggered they might be at a particular moment. They should pay attention to their mood, as well as notice how tired or stressed they already are.

Ask: Is there a potential for me to be more easily triggered? Is the type of situation I'm going into the same type of situation that has triggered a meltdown in the past? Can I avoid putting myself into that situation until a time when I feel more rested and less stressed?

2, Get the right support.

No one likes losing control. If our actions have affected someone else, we’re probably going to feel bad about it. However, it’s important for autistic adults to explain to those people close to them what’s happening when a meltdown occurs to ensure they’re supportive and understanding.

Several of my clients have shared the criticism they receive from relatives, friends, and partners when they have meltdowns. Elaine, for example, told me, “I recently went into total meltdown after being grabbed unexpectedly by a friend. I managed to get out of the situation and ended up outside, banging my head until it bled. My husband was so embarrassed and critical of me afterward.”

I feel very saddened when I hear these types of stories, as some people with autism are constantly berated for having meltdowns that are out of their control. Every adult with autism deserves the right kind of support; hopefully, when they explain to their loved ones why this happens to them, they can begin to get it.

3. Let go of shame.

The shame that follows a meltdown can be devastating. Another client, Shona, told me, “Getting over the meltdown is worse than actually having it. I feel so ashamed that I’ve ended up crying or yelling in public. I hate that I’m this way.”

Having meltdowns is, for many, part of having autism. Although someone can make an effort to avoid triggers and manage emotional regulation, they should also recognize that it’s not their fault that a relatively slight upset, or simply being in a place where their senses are overloaded, can lead to a meltdown.

4. Deal with the comedown.

Meltdowns are exhausting and troubling. Some people deal with them best by simply being alone. Adults with autism benefit by recognising in advance what makes it easiest for them to recover from a meltdown and having a strategy in place for the next time they have one.

5. Have coping strategies in place.

Sometimes, it's not possible to avoid being in situations that are potentially going to trigger a meltdown. Perhaps someone has to deal with a barrage of emails, or be in a busy city centre, even though they're already feeling burnt out. Instead of continuing to push themselves and hope for the best, it's important to have strategies on hand for coping with sensory overload or emotional overwhelm.

Another client, Sarah, described how she used headphones whenever she was in crowded places. “If I listen to music, I can shut off better from what’s happening around me. It gives me something to focus on.”

Personally, most of my meltdowns come on when I have too much information to deal with. I’ve become very good at telling people that I simply cannot deal with whatever it is they want me to sort out at this current time. I also write lists and flow charts to help me prioritise what needs to be prioritised, so I’m less likely to lose control.

Having a plan in place isn’t going to stop the meltdowns, but it can help mitigate the fallout and help autistic adults, and others, normalise those meltdowns that are a part of their autistic experience.

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