One of the most understood aspects of autism are the meltdowns experienced by those who live with the disorder. These are often confused by others as behavioral, rather than what they really are, releases of emotional overload. Often, they’re punished rather than comforted, mistreated, rather than understood.

An autistic child or adult is hypersensitive to the emotions of others, as well as themselves, or to stimuli in their environment. The mind and body of the autistic is flooded to the breaking point, with information, and pressure points that affect the ability to think, react or behave in a manner acceptable to that individual. The overload causes the individual to ‘overload’.

An autism meltdown

If you’ve ever made popcorn, and poured it into a bowl until the bowl overflows, that is a meltdown. Too much in one container. The volume of stimuli exceeds the capacity of the individual to withstand it.

Stimuli can come from a myriad of sources. Noise, the presence of strangers; the behavior of family members or caregivers; words spoken or sounds heard; things seen or felt physically; touch or even the activity of the mind. All these can overload the capacity of the autistic individual until a meltdown releases.

What They’re Not

People seeing autism meltdowns ignorantly believe these to be behavioral tantrums. This is a serious error, often with horrific results, including arrests, and even murder.

A tantrum is something children experience until about age five and are invariably objective based, while the meltdown has no objective. In other words, a three or four year old may see something in the store they want, and not getting it, may have a tantrum, thinking the parent will concede – hence the objective is to get what the child desires.

A meltdown, on the other hand, will occur without objective, and may appear out of the clear blue sky. The autistic will never outgrow meltdowns, nor learn how to control them. The experiences are tormenting and incredibly painful – like a thousand knives stabbing the body all at once, repeated over and over.

The individual has no control over when the meltdown will occur, or how. Self-control is impossible, and many behavioral therapies cause more damage than good. The best thing to do is let the meltdown exhaust itself. They may last minutes, and less commonly, for days.


Most often during the meltdown, the individual will cry, scream, moan, and flail the arms and legs, uncontrollably. However, it is equally common for them to hit themselves, all too often in the head. This hitting may involve more than hands, often using objects nearby to enhance the self-harm. They will sometimes hit their head against a solid object like a wall or a board.

Concussions can result from such headbanging. Parents and caregivers sadly make the mistake of expecting a helmet to prevent concussion. Helmets only protect from direct contact, not from concussion.

The inevitably repeated concussions may add an undetectable level of traumatic brain injury that will add many additional problems for the individual and their family or caregivers, including increased risk of suicide or erratic, dangerous behavior (without meltdown).

Understanding Meltdowns

When others observe meltdowns, their reaction is usually horror or disbelief. They think the individual is simply behaving badly out of choice. In public settings, the police are called, often resulting in arrests and occasionally shootings. People mock the autistic, taunting or harassing them during the meltdown event. This only worsens the condition, and makes the autistic person feel they are unloved, unwanted, and sub-human.

It is the highest form of man’s inhumanity to man to taunt or harass anyone experiencing a meltdown short of murder. The individual is suffering during the event, and as much as they want the event to end, have no ability to control or stop it.

Some retailers have created meltdown rooms intended to provide a quiet, soothing space for the individual to get beyond the event. Unfortunately, many have been badly advised and designed these rooms with child-sized furniture and bright colors cheerful to children but tormenting to the autistic of any age. A fully grown individual experiencing a meltdown cannot cope with a toddler-sized seat or table.

For autistics, blue is a good, safe color. Yellow is neutral, as is green or brown, but red and orange pose a threat and danger. Blinking lights, particularly red ones, exacerbate the risk of triggering these events.

Reducing The Meltdown

One of the things that helps reduce the effect of meltdowns is weight placed upon the body of the individual. Heavy blankets have a similar effect to autism-trained dogs which, when detecting a meltdown, will put their body on top of the individual providing warmth and weight to reduce the event’s impact.

Calming music, soft, low-level lighting and patience are helpful. If necessary, lacking the blanket or the dark space, a human should lay across the individual, covering the autistic with both weight and human warmth, and blocking without restraining the arms of the individual. This can take only a few minutes to result in a calming of the event. The weight of several heavy blankets can reduce the impact also in a matter of minutes.

The combination of warmth and weight causes the replacement of emotional overload with a sensation of comfort and security, and while it doesn’t end the meltdown, it does enable the individual to get to a safe place or express themselves in different ways to relieve it.

Sedatives don’t always work for these events. Medical attention can also make things worse as medical technicians, nurses and doctors will try to touch the individual adding to sensory overload. Injecting medications will cause pain, and they won’t be able to swallow pills during the event.

So, if you see someone having a meltdown, remember, weight and warmth work best to control them and reduce the impact of these horrific events suffered by those on the autism spectrum.