Imagine……..please try……a dark underwater stormy world. Winds whip up the water to a dark murkiness with zero visibility. Currents so strong they drag your body like a dishevelled rag doll tumbling into the black hole beneath, whilst your senses pick up every splash, hum and drip like it was electric.

Pain surges through your body but you have no idea what hurts and why? In the vague distance you can hear voices but the noise of the water and the Tsunami’s approaching you can’t make them out, and anyway they sound so distant they couldn’t help anyway. You scream but you can’t be heard, you feel what you think are arms to help you but it is just the water pushing them away at such force you stand no chance.

Helpless you finally spin out of control and fall into the depths of the chasm unaware of anything around you. It is like an inner peace but torture at the same time. Darkness, oblivion…. nothing. By then it could be too late?

Imagine this happening every day, perhaps more than once? Imagine it could happen anywhere? Any time? Without apparent warning? As we come to the end of ‘imagining’ please just double, treble those intense feelings you perhaps feel now?

How did that feel to you? Desperate? Scared? Frightened? Surreal? Painful? Terrifying? Lonely? Desolate? Different? Weird? Ridiculous? Unbelievable? Sad? Shocked? Speechless?

That Ladies, Gentleman and children is a meltdown in our language. To those that suffer it is all of the above emotions plus a few more. To those who have to witness them it is the same. Good to know we share something in common.

Meltdowns are severe, scary and potentially life threatening. Meltdowns are not Psychotic episodes that require the Serious Shrink Squad complete with white coats. Neither are they acts of aggression that warrant handcuffs and heavy handed hostile interventions from people in authority.

Many people with autism suffer meltdowns in one form or another. No one meltdown is the same however it does follow a pattern if you look hard enough. Meltdowns can be triggered for all sorts of reasons. Let’s look at some of them

  • Frustration
  • Sense of Injustice
  • Lack of understanding
  • Sensory
  • Stress
  • Impatience
  • Sudden change in environment or circumstances
  • Individual triggers (brown envelopes, phone calls, unexpected events)

All of the above or simply just one layered onto another can be enough to cause a major meltdown. Don’t be tricked into thinking that everything has to happen at once, oh no, it ain’t that easy. A frustration that happened last week could be weighing heavy on an already stressed brain and waiting to explode. On top of that a sudden injustice may just be enough to light the touch paper.

So how do they present? What can you do? Can you see an invisible Tsunami heading your way and get prepared or out of the way? Yes to both.

Meltdowns usually follow a physical pattern. Red faces, pale faces, sweaty or clammy skin, shimming to excess, fidgeting, increased respiration, increased motor control, non verbal or very verbal with increase in volume, refusal to listen, attempts to self harm, threatens/argues with others.


If you see a meltdown coming you can choose to do one of two things.

Act  or Ignore and remove yourself from the arena

If you choose to act and we hope you do, please be assured that however bad it looks the person experiencing it is in an ‘altered state of consciousness’ and whilst they may be aware of your presence they are often unaware of their actions or how they look to others.

Please be calm, shouting and raising your voice only exacerbates things. Take on a Shhhh instead of a shout. Approach gently and NEVER touch someone else without their permission. Often touch during a meltdown is like 1000v surging through an over-sensitive body in crisis. Move the person to somewhere quiet and calm gently. Lower the tone of your voice and gently reassure them that you understand and know they are in trouble. You will help them not blame them.

Meltdowns can be stopped provided you catch them early. If they have already gathered pace and the wave is going to suddenly tumble let it safely without risking anyone’s life.

People in a meltdown often just want to be left alone to meltdown. They are scared so need someone they trust with them, sadly often that is not always possible. Provide plenty of soft furnishings and perhaps a duvet. Soft lighting or maybe curtains closed would be best. The wave will subside, it is so violent it takes up every ounce of energy and often leaves us exhausted and sobbing into a pillow. Boys and girls. But of course that’s great if you are at home! But meltdowns show no discrimination and quite as easily happen in the middle of a busy shopping precinct and often do. What then? At Work? Driving?

Knee jerk reactions and sudden movements only go to make matters worse. Blaming someone when they are in a meltdown and trying to ‘threaten’ or ‘punish’ them is counter productive. Trying to restrain them or shout at them is even worse.

Imagine… the blur of the water with all the sensations of falling into a black hole you see some arms outstretched …..coming towards you…..rescuing you…..relief……actually turns to more carnage as those hands just reach in and push you even further down? It’s like the world is against you.

Is a meltdown an act of aggression or violence? Is it an illness? Is is a ‘behaviour’? Is it a reaction to hyper/hypo sensitive differences? Is it a reaction to ‘society’? Is it an act of a mad person? Is it the act of a bad person?

Whatever your perception is and that is your choice. My perception is that a meltdown is a reaction to an action. The actions can be many and for every person they are different. The secret is to understand that person as an individual. Be aware that ‘meltdowns’ will probably feature in their lives forever, we can’t ‘cure’ them but we can ‘help’ them and prevention is better than cure after all.

Understanding ‘triggers’. Lifestyle adaptations. Awareness of sensory differences.

Let’s take a couple of examples:

Wake up find there is no milk for your favourite cornflakes (part of a very strict routine). Can’t find bag with keys. Now late for school appointment. Find keys, car low on fuel. Phone call from husband needs picking up from hospital. ………meltdown ……meltdown…… Change routine/Change plans


Neighbours keep playing loud music late at night, rubbish left all over doorstep, phone ringing, doorbell going…..meltdown meltdown Environment/Sensory


Going out shopping, traffic bad, can’t find parking space, can’t find supermarket trolley, someone pushes you in the back with their trolley, favourite pasta sauce out of stock……meltdown, meltdown Environment/Sensory


Shouted at by teachers for playing on phone, thrown out of class, got into trouble at lunchtime for swearing, walked out of school …..meltdown meltdown ….. Volcanic layers


Sitting in 100minute lesson that you can’t understand, starts to fidget, told off by teacher, embarrassed in front of other pupils, humiliated,………..sent out class …….meltdown meltdown Sense of injustice


Looking forward to a favourite theme park visit in the holidays. Can’t sleep the night before too excited. Car breaks down, no visit …meltdown. Sudden change broken promise.


Trying over and over and over again to remember what was said in class and to write down what you heard but can’t? Whatever you write is wrong and all that happens is you get made to feel stupid. Frustration.


Trying to access a human on the end of a telephone. For many who hate telephones even to the point they are phobic of them, hanging on, pushing buttons and gasping ‘yes’ and ‘no’ is enough to send many into meltdown on it’s own merit.


Angry at being referred to ‘Anger Management’ my son belligerently went along to his appointment as he had been asked. He was kept waiting for 45minutes and got so angry he walked out and had a …..meltdown …

So you see there are plenty of reasons why someone can ‘meltdown’. But there is plenty you can do to prevent them and to help when it becomes unavoidable. Awareness is the key issue followed closely by the ability to stay calm.

One day people will be able to avoid the very knee jerk reactions that see so many people who simply need a friend and a duvet to dive into, arrested and Sectioned by people who simply don’t know or understand them.

Let’s hope one day meltdowns will be viewed with empathy and kindness. For those of us that suffer with them thank you and to those who watch and care, I beg pass the message. Don’t blame us, help us. Please.

Categories: Debi

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