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Anybody Can Have A Meltdown

Anybody Can Have A Meltdown

Image: Microsoft

If you’ve ever experienced the overwhelming stress and confusion of a meltdown you’ll understand why they’re often considered to be one of the most challenging of all autistic behaviours

But did you know that meltdowns are not unique to autism?

What are meltdowns?

Put simply, a meltdown is a state of neurological chaos where the brain and nervous system overheat and stop working properly. It’s called that because it’s the body’s equivalent to a meltdown in a nuclear power plant, in which the fuel in the reactor core becomes so hot that it melts and releases energy.

Sometimes it gets so hot that it causes an explosion, and the energy is released outside of the core. It’s this explosive reaction (crying, yelling, lashing out) that most people refer to when they talk about behavioural meltdowns, but that’s just the bit that you can see. There’s a whole lot more going on inside during a meltdown.

How are meltdowns different from tantrums?

Meltdowns and tantrums can often look the same on the outside, but that’s where the similarity ends. A tantrum is a voluntary battle of wills to try and gain control over a situation. It’s designed to draw attention for the sole purpose of satisfying a want (like refusing to leave the supermarket without candy), so once that goal has been met the outburst quickly resolves itself.

Meltdowns on the other hand are almost the complete opposite - an involuntary physical and emotional reaction to being placed in an overwhelming situation from which there is no easy escape. The person isn’t in control or trying to get attention, in fact they’re often unaware of things happening around them.

What happens during a meltdown?

When we find ourselves in a stressful situation from which we can’t easily escape, the brain becomes flooded with emotional, sensory or cognitive input which jams the circuits and kicks off the ‘fight or flight’ responses associated with panic. Executive functions like memory, planning, reasoning and decision making start to shut down, which makes it even more difficult to find a way out of the situation.

Eventually the neurological pressure builds to the point where it begins to trip internal circuits like language, or is released externally as an outburst of physical energy like yelling, hitting or running away. Although this explosive reaction often seems to come from nowhere, it's just one part of the meltdown cycle:

Why are some people prone to meltdowns?

Anybody can have a meltdown - child or adult, neurotypical or autistic - if they find themselves trapped in a situation that is difficult to cope with, especially those which involve frustration, sensory overload, pain or confusion. These situations tend to happen more frequently for people who have one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Hypersensitivity to sensory input

  • Sensory integration dysfunctions

  • Low frustration threshold

  • Low frustration tolerance

Difficulty identifying and controlling emotions 

  • Resistance to change

  • Rigid or inflexible thinking

  • Difficulty understanding cause and effect 

  • Executive functioning disruption 

  • Communication delays or challenges 

  • Difficulty with social comprehension

These characteristics are often descriptive of people with sensory processing and autism spectrum disorders, so it’s not surprising that meltdowns are common amongst these groups. In addition, children are usually more susceptible to meltdowns than adults because they have less control over their emotions and environment.

If anybody can have one, how come most people don't?

Meltdowns are about not being able to escape.

If you have the means to get yourself out of a stressful situation before it becomes overwhelming, the cognitive and emotional pressure will subside. Without these means of escape the stress will escalate and the body will begin to panic, setting you on a course towards neurological meltdown.

These escape routes are things like:

  • Language and comprehension - understanding others and making yourself understood

  • Autonomy - the freedom to make your own decisions

  • Independence - the ability to act on those decisions

  • Coping and calming mechanisms - being able to soothe yourself under stress

  • Motor and social skills - the ability to prevent or remove yourself from uncomfortable situations

Most people have probably never given much thought to how valuable these kinds of skills and circumstances are in keeping you safe from escalating stress. So let's take a look at an example.

Scenario 1

You're at the supermarket on a Saturday.

The store is crowded, people are rude and your shopping cart has a wobbly wheel. You can feel yourself starting to get crabby but you take a deep breath to calm down, just like they taught you at yoga. You're concentrating on the shopping list when someone suddenly bumps into your cart. You silently forgive him because you know it was an accident, even though he walked away without saying sorry (bastard).

The noise and frustration start to make your head pound as you scan the shelves for your favourite chocolate, the one that you love, the one which makes everything feel better... the one that is sold out. Dammit! Depending on how the rest of your day has been going, you might declare the shopping trip a bust and decide to leave before you lose it right there in the candy aisle.

Scenario 2

Now imagine that you're three years old.

You're with your dad at the scary food place, the noisy one where the bright lights hurt your eyes. Your heart starts thumping and you get that yucky feeling in your tummy... you really want to make it go away but don't know how. You jump when someone smashes into your cart... are other people going to start doing that too? Are they trying to hurt you?

Thank goodness you spot the fridge that has the chocolate milk that you love, the one that you get every time you go to the store, the one that makes everything feel better. Dad opens the fridge then says "no chocolate milk". You're confused, why aren't you allowed to have it? It's your favourite, you always get it, you need it! You don't have the words to tell him any of this so all you can do is cry.

You're confused and scared and just want to leave, but your dad tells you to sit down. There is nothing you can do to escape, and without a release the pain and frustration build towards the inevitable explosion.

Having control

The difference in this shopping experience as an adult is that you:

  • Can regulate the extra sensory input

  • Know what it feels like when you're getting upset

  • Can calm yourself

  • Understand that people don't deliberately ram you with shopping carts

  • Can communicate your needs and emotions

  • Have the freedom to leave when it becomes too much to handle

In short, you have escape routes which allow the emotional and cognitive stress to defuse.

So what's different about autistic meltdowns?

The reason why autistic kids are so vulnerable to meltdowns is because they experience more of the kinds of stressful events that trigger them. They can often find it tough to modulate their response to these events and can have less avenues for avoiding or escaping the discomfort, so the pressure can build more quickly and result in a bigger explosion.

So autistic kids tend to have meltdowns more frequently and intensely, but the underlying mechanisms of how they happen are the same for everybody.

Want to know more?

Check out these related posts:

What Does A Meltdown Feel Like?
Teach Kids About Meltdowns


This article was first published in January 2013

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