“Autistic meltdowns may be frightening to observers, but at their most intense, they are nothing less than pure psychological torture for the person experiencing them. I feel as if I am caught in a war zone, terrified for my very life. My senses are on fire and I have very little control over myself.”
Schools are overwhelming places for autistic children–full of blinding lights, unexpected loud noises, bullies, and constant social, physical, and intellectual demands. It is hardly surprising, then, that these children sometimes have meltdowns in school settings. These may be relatively quiet affairs, in which the child rocks back and forth, covering his or her face or ears to shut out overwhelming sensory stimuli—some autistic people refer to this type of experience as a “shutdown,” as opposed to a “meltdown,” which is generally much more dramatic, involving screaming or uncontrollable crying, kicking, biting, punching, throwing various items, or self-harming. Other autistic people use the term “meltdown” for both types of reaction, because the internal experience is roughly the same in each.
Despite the fact that they occur frequently in school, many educators do not understand meltdowns or know how to deal with them. The most common misperception—shared by far too many ill-informed scientists as well as by many school personnel—is that an autistic meltdown is just an extreme form of temper tantrum. Meltdowns and tantrums may look somewhat similar—both involve screaming, crying, kicking, biting, etc. However, the two phenomena arise from different causes, run very different courses, and can be distinguished through careful observation. The conflation of meltdowns with tantrums far too often leads educators to characterize autistic children pejoratively, as “cunning” or “manipulative,” with all the negative consequences these labels entail.
Now temper tantrums really are manipulative behaviors, designed to gain attention, avoid unwanted demands, or obtain material rewards. Neurotypical children acting out in these ways will—even as they scream or kick–keep an eye on the people around them, to see whether the desired outcome is forthcoming, and will often adjust their behavior if one strategy is not effective. They are careful not to hurt themselves even as they flail around. Once their goal is achieved, the tantrum will stop. Autistic children seldom have genuine temper tantrums, for the simple reason that they lack the social skills needed to analyze and manipulate those around them. Most of the time, their disruptive behaviors fall into the meltdown category.
In contrast to a tantrum, a meltdown is an instinctive “fight or flight” reaction to an intolerably stressful situation. Unlike tantrums, meltdowns are unplanned and have no goal. As Geoff Colvin and Martin Sheehan have noted in their excellent book on preventing meltdowns in schools, “One of the defining characteristics of a meltdown is that the student is basically oblivious of anyone and anything in the environment.” The child suffering a meltdown never keeps an eye on the people around them to see how they react, cannot adjust his or her behavior to achieve a particular purpose, and cannot bring the meltdown to an end until it has run its course. Older children and adults may eventually learn to recognize the signs of impending meltdowns, and—if they are lucky—they may sometimes be able to head them off. Most schoolchildren, however, do not have this level of self-perception, and are generally unable to either recognize the signs of an approaching meltdown or take action to prevent it from happening.
It is extremely important to remember that autistic children (and their adult counterparts) do not enjoy having meltdowns—on the contrary, they find the experience frightening and painful. While autistic children do write about having meltdowns on various online fora, they seldom describe the experience itself, so I have relied here on what autistic adults have to say on the subject.
“I couldn’t stop the headache that built until my eyes wouldn’t focus properly; The thudding pressure between my eyes and at my temples. My thoughts started swirling like a Jackson Pollock, and I kept finding myself stuck in loops of fragments of sentences. I started unconsciously tapping my forehead with the knuckles of my right hand, whilst my left firmly held the back of my neck. I felt overwhelmed, and ashamed by that feeling. I felt lost and embarrassed. Thoughts were reduced to feelings (despite feelings being thoughts) I found it hard to do anything beyond feel pain. . . .
“There is a tipping point. A mental red zone. Once I cross into that zone, there’s no going back. . . . Panic. Helplessness. Fear. . . . There is emotion at the starting line, but a meltdown is a physical phenomenon: The racing heart. The shivering. The uncontrollable sobs. The urge to curl up and disappear. The headbanging. The need to hide. The craving for deep pressure. The feeling of paralysis in my tongue and throat. The cold sweat. . . . “
Autistic children experience meltdowns as a complete loss of control over their minds and bodies. Here are some children describing their experiences:
“We had a fire drill but nobody told me like i was told people where [were] going to do. I freaked out and started crying and pushing my hands against my ears. When we got outside i just sat down and rocked. I couldnt move. I think it was more of a shutdown. . . . The super loud noise is what made me have a meltdown.”
“When I was a kid my meltdowns were very violent, I would scream and hit things, crying and all sorts, scratch myself, hit my head against the wall, if anyone touched me it got worse. I would blank out and not remember anything, then finally fall asleep after crying so much I got a headache.”
“i was EXTREMELY passive [in school]. Every few years I would sort of snap and beat the piss out of someone that had been bullying me for too long. The first incident I don’t remember. All I remember is her . . . shoving my face in the dirt…and then I am in the car and my mom is saying “are you ok? why would you do that? are you OK???” over and over and over. The story is that I broke her arm. I did not believe them until I got back from my suspension and saw her in a cast. . . . I still feel really bad knowing I broke her arm. Who knows if it healed up properly, you know? It may still cause her grief.”
When the meltdown is over, autistic children (and adults) often have no memory of what happened. If they do remember, they usually feel deeply embarrassed about being so “out of control.”
“The reason why I feel so disappointed with myself after meltdowns is firstly because of the misery I cause others, and secondly because I can hardly believe how little control I have over my emotions…”
“I wish AS [autism spectrum] never involved having meltdowns. Why do they involve meltdowns? I feel so embarrassed of them all the time, but when I get in a mood and a panic about something, I can’t always help myself. They just happen on the spur of the moment.”
“It gets to the point that when I know [a meltdown] is coming, I start to feel ashamed preemptively. I’ve been told off for constantly apologizing, partly because I can’t figure out what to say (communication is conking out) and partly because I’m so ashamed.”
Despite what some scientists and teachers may think, it is obvious that no one would choose to have such frightening, often physically painful, and embarrassing experiences. The bottom line is that autistic children who melt down in school need help—not criticism or punishment.
 Tambourine-Man, in the “What Not to Do During a Meltdown—From an Autistic Adult” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:
 E.g., The Encyclopedia of Autism, edited by Fred Volkmar of Yale University, incudes an article by Aaron Stabel on “Temper Tantrums” full of the usual negative stereotypes of children who have “tantrums.” The Encyclopedia contains no article on meltdowns. See also Rachel Goldin, et al., A Comparison of Tantrum Behavior Profiles in Children with ASD, ADHD, and Comorbid ASD and ADHD,” Research in Developmental Disabilities 34 (2013), 2669-2675; Abigail Issarraras and Johnny Matson, “Treatment Approaches to Aggression and Tantrums in Children with Developmental Disabilities,” in Johnny Matson, ed., Handbook of Child Psychopathology and Developmental Disabilities Treatment (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2017), pp. 257-68.
 Dr. Clarissa Kripke, clinical professor of family and community medicine at the University of California San Francisco, “Understanding Autism, Aggression, and Self-Injury: Medical Approaches and Best Support Practices,” on The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism website:
 Geoff Colvin and Martin Sheehan, Managing the Cycle of Meltdowns for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2012), p. 145.
 Sofisol612, in the “What Does a Meltdown Look Like in an Adult Woman” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=337317.
 Rhi, “Meltdown,” in the “Autism and Expectations” blog: https://autistrhi.com/2018/11/24/meltdown/.
 Cynthia Kim, “Anatomy of a Meltdown,” on the “Musings of an Aspie” blog, December 13, 2012:
 Pokelover14, in the “Did You Ever Have a Meltdown at School” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:
 Antisocial Butterfly, in the “Meltdowns? Fall Asleep/Tired Or Biting Meltdowns?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=63131&start=15.
 blackcat, in the “Female Aspies Were You Violent As A Child?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:
 crouton, in the “Anyone Else Feel Embarrassed/ashamed After A Meltdown?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=140790.
 Joe90, in the “Anyone Else Feel Embarrassed/ashamed After A Meltdown?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=140790.
 Callista, , in the “Anyone Else Feel Embarrassed/ashamed After A Meltdown?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=140790.