This isn’t about autistic people learning how to avoid a meltdown.
This is about Autistics who don’t have to do this in the first place because they’ve never had meltdowns.
• Should you assume that the next autistic person you meet has meltdowns?
• Should you wonder if something could set them off at any moment?
I was clinically diagnosed with ASD in spring 2022 – despite having had only one meltdown in my entire life at preschool age (and possibly one at around age six, though I’m not sure that crying and covering my ears at a fireworks show constitutes an autistic meltdown).
I’ve interviewed many autistic, professional adults for my articles, and one after another has said that they experience meltdowns.
This is also common narrative in the content across the Internet written by autistic people.
- Is it a fact, then, that meltdowns necessarily come with autism?
- Or is it a myth that every single autistic individual – even in adulthood – has meltdowns from time to time?
While I was pursuing a diagnosis of autism I sometimes had doubts that I could be on the Spectrum because I’ve always been a “no-meltdown” person.
This doesn’t mean I can’t go from cool as a cucumber to raging like a rhino in 1.5 seconds. If I saw my mother getting mugged by a thug twice my size, trust me, I’d put that thug in a hospital with my bare hands.
I can get very angry at people. But neurotypicals can get very angry and fumed too. The display of anger is NOT a meltdown.
I have hissy-fits in private, but they last just moments, may include slugging or kicking a wall, slugging my thigh, stomping a foot and loud grunting, and are almost always triggered by something malfunctioning in the house.
I get frustrated over things that wouldn’t phase most NTs, while at the same time, the things that frustrate, alarm or frighten most NTs don’t phase me an inch. One example is that I don’t jump-scare.
My hissy-fits (for lack of a better term) have become far more frequent over the years, as the incidence of things that keep going wrong has markedly increased.
How much of these “mini-pseudo-meltdowns” are driven by autism vs. life experience is difficult to know.
Interestingly, I’ve reacted to a small stove fire as Mr. Spock would.
Meltdowns Are not a Criterion for an ASD Diagnosis
“According to the National Autistic Society, ‘meltdowns’ are defined as an intense response to an overwhelming situation,” says Dr. Meghan T. Lee, clinical neuropsychologist and practice owner, Horizon Neuropsychological Services in Colorado.
“However, it is important to note that not all individuals exhibit responses in the form of shouting, screaming, crying or verbal/physical aggression toward others.
“Just like neurotypical individuals, neurodivergent individuals are subject to the same fight, flight or freeze physiological response.
“For some, their response might be to fight, in which case they externalize their response.
“For others, they freeze and have a shutdown in which case they either partially or completely withdraw from the world around them.
“And for others, they flee by running away from the situation (e.g., eloping from school, hiding in a closet, etc.).
“It is also important to note that not all individuals on the spectrum respond to stress in a maladaptive way, particularly if there is not a comorbid ADHD presentation.
“Specifically, those with ADHD commonly exhibit executive functioning weaknesses, which impacts impulse control.
“When executive functioning weaknesses are not present, individuals on the spectrum are more likely to think through consequences before acting/responding, which can allow them to access adaptive replacement behaviors, such as coping skills.”
I’d be lying if I said that there was never a time when I became so frustrated and aggravated that I just wanted to start throwing things in my house.
But I only imagine it. Something stops me – likely the acknowledgement that if I were to throw things, I’d have a giant mess to clean up, damaged items and would need to hire a drywaller.
“When executive functioning weaknesses are present, however, the limbic system is more likely to drive their response to the stressor,” says Dr. Lee.
Horizon Neuropsychological Services, LLC, owned by Dr. Meghan T. Lee, conducts neuropsychological evaluations for all ages. Our doctors evaluate for many conditions including autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, anxiety, depression, OCD, psychosis and behavioral difficulties. Our doctors show how patients can build upon their strengths and work around their weaknesses to be the best version of themselves.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical and fitness topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer. In 2022 she received a diagnosis of Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder.