Understanding and Coping with Autistic Meltdowns: A Guide for Allies 🧩

Understanding and Coping with Autistic Meltdowns: A Guide for Allies 🧩

I want to share a personal moment with you all.

I sometimes cause myself harm due to the overwhelm I can experience when I have no outlet for my emotions.

The last instance of this happened not too many moons ago. A sleepless week, an abrupt interruption to my flow and a stomach absent of any nourishment for probably 14+ hours — my mind went racing inside a relentless vacuum filled with thoughts, replies, acknowledgements, abstractions, and failures.

My internal furnace had been overfilled, and the pressure inside me was unbearable. In a moment of sheer desperation, I took a running-kick into a brick wall using my right foot. The result? I shattered the bones in my middle toe. (Yes, the irony isn't lost on me; I should've gone Left Foot Forward.) It was a wakeup call and one of the more painful meltdowns I've had to experience.

I grew up in a household filled with meltdowns, overwhelm, frustration but also tremendous amounts of love. Mum's career as a foster carer had flooded our home with an abundance of character and our home was haven to over 65 of my foster brothers and sisters, the majority of whom which dealt with the purported lemons that life had forced upon them, without an awareness of their sour taste.


Photo by Charlotte May

Given those experiences early in my life, I feel well equipped to deal with the trauma of human emotions in those with neurodivergencies, but the triggers and prompts for my own overwhelm, until my recent diagnoses were often left unresolved and instead of tackling my own tribulations head-on. I would seek the solace of poorly defined and even more harmful coping mechanisms instead.

Through research, compassion and the support of others, I've become much better at talking myself down from a game of global thermonuclear war and instead now find myself asking others to play a nice game of chess.

So, what is an Autistic Meltdown? 🤔

A meltdown is an intense response to overwhelming situations. It happens when someone becomes completely overwhelmed by their current environment and temporarily loses behavioral control. This loss of control can manifest as crying, screaming, shouting, or other forms of emotional release.

How Can I Support Someone During a Meltdown? 🤗

  1. Create a Safe Space: Often, a person is overwhelmed by their environment. Move away from loud noises or crowds and find a quiet space. If you're already in a safe space, read #3.
  2. Do Not Judge: This is not the time for a teaching moment. Reserve your judgments and focus on the immediate needs of the person.
  3. Use Minimal Language: Sometimes, speaking too much can worsen the situation. Use clear and concise language to communicate. Silence can also be the catalyst to see you both through.
  4. Allow Time: Once the person is in a safe space and the immediate concerns are dealt with, they will need time to recover. This isn't an instant process.

Additional Strategies to Support Someone During a Meltdown 🌟

  1. Deep Pressure: Some individuals find that deep pressure can be calming. A firm but gentle hug, if consensual, or weighted blankets can sometimes help. Always ask or know the person's preferences before attempting this method.
  2. Avoid Touch: Paradoxically, some people may find touch to be too stimulating during a meltdown. It's crucial to understand the person's specific needs and preferences. When in doubt, ask or refrain from physical contact.
  3. Use Predictable Phrases: Using simple and predictable phrases can offer a sense of stability and predictability. Phrases like "You're safe," or "I'm here," can sometimes help.
  4. Be Patient and Stay Calm: Your own emotional state can influence the situation. Staying calm and collected can help the person feel safer and less anxious.
  5. Follow Up: After the meltdown has passed, offer to talk it through. Sometimes understanding the triggers can help avoid future meltdowns, but remember this is not the time for blame or judgement.
  6. Seek Professional Advice: If meltdowns become frequent or increasingly difficult to manage, it might be helpful to consult with healthcare providers or therapists who specialise in autism or behavioral issues.

Everyone is different. What works for one person may not work for another, so adaptability and a keen sense of observation are crucial.

With the proper support and a little patience, a meltdown can transform from a moment of overwhelming struggle into an opportunity for growth and deeper connection.

Every shared experience, good and bad, can light the way for others. If you have any of your own to share, I would encourage you to do so. Light appears brighter if you give it more power.


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