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  • Writer's pictureAshlea McKay

Quirk Monster #5: Autistic meltdowns

Fireworks exploding in a wheelbarrow
Fireworks exploding in a wheelbarrow.

A meltdown isn’t a word to describe a bad day, it’s not a tantrum and it isn’t something a child does — unless of course that child is autistic.

A meltdown is a word used by many autistic people to describe what happens when we lose complete emotional control. 

It happens to me when I become too overwhelmed or when too much stress builds before I have a chance to relieve the pressure by resting, recharging or talking it out with someone I trust. Masking for long periods of time can also lead to a meltdown because it wears down my energy reserves faster.  

When I’m experiencing a meltdown my brain just kind of breaks. It’s usually the result of a number of factors and it can happen at any time — including in the workplace. 

Every autistic person is different and for me a meltdown manifests in a fairly uncomfortable and largely socially unacceptable way. I cry. A lot. I also speak rather loudly and incoherently and will often spill my deepest anxieties out onto the table — all of these things can have consequences of their own. A meltdown is a consequence of not enough rest and care and then the act of having a meltdown piles even more consequences on top resulting in even more stress. It can feel like a never ending pit that I’m constantly sinking deeper into. 

Crying at work is often taken as a sign of immaturity or a lack of resilience. It’s disruptive and not fun for anyone. Meltdowns can make it hard to build relationships at work because people don’t always know what to do or understand what’s really going on. Negative perceptions of autistic meltdowns can also have serious career tanking potential. Before my autism diagnosis, I missed out on many career opportunities (confirmed through feedback) because of what I now know to be a meltdown.

Once a meltdown starts, it’s nearly impossible to stop it. I kind of have to ride it out and hope I don’t cause too much damage in the process. Meltdowns are exhausting, embarrassing and sometimes require considerable rest to recover from — it depends how intense it is.

In my current workplace, I’m really lucky. Yep, I’ve had a few meltdowns at work and you know what? My colleagues have been absolutely amazing. People right across the organisation have unconditionally and genuinely looked after me. They have treated me with care, dignity and kindness. They don’t judge me, they don’t repeat the word vomit that spills out and they don’t hold it against me long term. They see me as a person and not some loud creature that’s crying again. They understand me.

They take me for walks, tell me I’m safe and then they talk to me to find the root cause of the meltdown so that together, we might be able to solve the problem, get me back to my day and as I’ve found with time, prevent the next meltdown. I’m finding that I’m experiencing meltdowns less often and of less intensity thanks to the empathy and support I receive from my firm-wide colleagues.

Meltdowns are a fact of autistic life but they can be avoided. With the right support, I can head them off through rest and self care and experience them less often. With the right people, I can live through meltdowns and keep going forward.

Author’s note

This short article is a lived experience example shared from my life to help you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be autistic. I am just one autistic person in a really big world. No two of us are exactly alike. I can only speak for myself and to my own experiences. If you want to know what other autistic people think — and you should — look them up, talk to them and read their work too. We all have our own voices and this is only mine. This article is part of a mini content series I publish to LinkedIn when I can. You can view the other articles in this series via my LinkedIn profile.


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