Hurricanes and Jet Planes: Inside an Autism Meltdown

Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempest.


I’m sure you’ve been in a grocery store or restaurant or ballpark before, minding your own bloody business, when all of a sudden you hear a sound. It’s not a pleasant sound, like  bird chirping or even a Muzak version of Ray Charles’ greatest hits. No, this is another kind of sound. If it could be spelled out, it might sound like AAAAAIIIIGGGGGGGhhhhjjjjjjUUUUUUUEEEEEEE (note this is only an approximation.)In any case, you become convinced that Zombie Apocalypse has begun and/or a razorback is being slaughtered somewhere in the vicinity. Needless to say, you’re alarmed.

Before you’re quick to cast judgment or demand who it is shattering your perfectly constructed Inner Peace, look and see. Sure, it might just be some kid throwing a hissy because he can’t have a lollipop or one of those damn toys every store stages next to the checkout lanes. But it might also be an autism meltdown in progress.

What is a meltdown? To the untrained eye it does look a lot like the garden-variety child being bratty. But there’s a lot more to it than that.

At the core of autism meltdowns (and I can only speak from an Asperger’s perspective here) is the feeling of helplessness. I feel helpless and vulnerable that the world is closing in around me and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. Because my senses are compromised, I can’t speak my needs. So I cry. I shake all over, rock back and forth, chew on things that aren’t meant to be chewed. For that few minutes I feel less than human. I feel like the coyote must feel whose leg is caught in a trap. The pain must end or I will surely die.

I know all of this sounds terribly melodramatic to someone without autism. Like I’m being some drama queen causing a scene because she can’t get what she wants right then and there. Take yesterday, for example. I was forced to go to a mobile phone outlet because mine was stolen. This kind of place is anathema for an Aspie. Too much noise, bright fluorescent lights, too many people talking all at once. Not to mention the fact that I was pissed and frustrated to begin with.

After an hour of dealing with X Mobile Company and their gross incompetence, the meltdown began. It started, like many storms do, with light winds on the perimeter. Before I realized it it was a full-on, snapped power lines, downed trees, category 5 monster. Honestly I don’t remember much of what transpired in that ten minutes or so, only that I felt that my world was dying a slow death. I did feel helpless and overwhelmed. And all I wanted was to crawl under a fuzzy flannel blanket and drink hot tea. Then, much like the hurricane, it was over before I knew it. I can’t say I really felt better after the meltdown, just relieved that I was no longer melting down.

It had been a while since I’d experienced one and I’d started to forget how terrifying it could be. Autism, unlike childhood allergies or fear of monsters under the bed, is not something we outgrow. There is no cure, no prescription medication, and certainly no vaccine. And it, like the hurricane or tornado, can be a capricious bastard. One day we feel as if we’re in complete control. Hell, some days we feel almost like NTs. The next thing we know, our subconscious is howling with 150-mph winds and knocking down all the nice virtual palm trees we planted just last week. Alas, there’s no help for it.

I can make all the suggestions I want…meditation, quiet, safe places, alcoholic beverages…but the truth is meltdowns do happen. They happen to adults and they happen to kids, who aren’t old enough to understand what’s happening. Remember how scared you, as an NT child, were at the dentist’s office a long time ago? Magnify that by about a power of 10, and you have an inkling what a meltdown is like for an autie or Aspie kid. The root of every meltdown is a feeling of terror. For auties and Aspies the world is a terrifying place.

The nice thing is all storms pass. The kid screaming his or her head off in the middle of the store/park/restaurant? He/she won’t be screaming forever. If they have the support and love of their family and friends, it’ll always make things easier too.

So, if you happen across one of those kids, or even an adult with their eyes closed and their teeth clenched and their nostrils flaring, don’t always jump to conclusions. They might be in the eye of the storm. Be compassionate. That is the greatest gift you can give to someone on the autism spectrum. And, if you’re lucky, you might even spot a rainbow after that terrible storm.

This is (sorta) how I feel today

Note to my readers: Just to let you know, I did survive my meltdown and the crisis was averted without me ripping off anyone else’s limbs. That being said, here’s my predictions for this week’s NFL divisional playoff games and a not-so-subtle reminded for everyone to enter my Super Bowl contest to win a prize!
Saturday’s Games:
Saints 32, 49ers 23
Denver 29, New England 27
Sunday’s Games:
Baltimore 28, Houston 14
Green Bay 30, New York Giants 24
As always…don’t forget to click “Like,” subscribe to P&Q if you haven’t already, and tell all your friends!

~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on January 14, 2012.

13 Responses to “Hurricanes and Jet Planes: Inside an Autism Meltdown”

  1. Meltdowns aren’t fun. I’ve watched my dad go through a couple of nervous breakdowns and they’re scary.

  2. When I managed a retail store, I had a regular customer who would come in with his pre-teen daughter. He’d often seek me out and say, “Excuse me. I’d really like to come in and have a look around. My daughter has Autism, and the lights and noise in here is a bit overwhelming today. I wonder if you’d mind turning the music off for a bit to make it a bit easier on her.”

    Of course, I did. It wasn’t every time they came in — just when she was having a rough day. Many of the stores in the shopping centre refused, considering the request rude: “This is a public place. If she can’t hack the shopping centre, leave her at home.”

    I thought he was a good father, more concerned with the wellbeing of his young daughter than the opinions/prejudices of so-called “normal” society.


    I love that you’re courageous enough to share how you feel.

    • That is a good father indeed! I think a lot of society’s problems stem from the fact that many people, whether NT or AS, are afraid to speak up or even politely ask for what they need.

      Thanks for the compliment and thanks for stopping in!

  3. Thank you for all the insight.
    I hope that the rest of your day is full of rainbows.

  4. The world is hard enough when you don’t have added gifts/challenges. Thanks for doing what Atticus Finch said was good for me—making me put on your skin and walk around in it for awhile. Very eye-opening post.

  5. I don’t think it sounds melodramatic, I think it sounds like a nightmare. I may be NT but I find places like that overwhelming and oppressive and I avoid them. I have had a stress condition for a year and your meltdown sounds like an exponentially worse panic attack.

    What would your advice be if I were to happen across someone in that state? Compassion could be to give comfort, or it could be to leave the person in peace so as to not overwhelm them with another thing to deal with (an annoying stranger). I wouldn’t know what to do for the best.

    • It’s really hard to say what the best thing to do is. Most of the time the storm needs to run its course. I’ve found when dealing with others’ meltdowns, just being there and speaking in a low, calm voice is best. It’s almost like trying to calm a nervous horse. Usually, if the parent is there, he or she can help calm the child down. As for adults, well, you can never go wrong with some malt-based beverages (that’s a joke.) 😉

  6. People who think they are immune to meltdowns are just in denial. It happens to everyone, and unfortunately, many people tend to jump to conclusions when they see it happening instead of being compassionate and trying to help. So sorry you had to deal with it(and that you had to deal with the attitude the employees in the store were dishing out), but it sounds like you are bouncing back. I love that you blogged about it. And I hope that maybe someone will stumble upon your blog and realize that perhaps they can be more compassionate (like Jo the Manager who turned off the music upon request) and remember that we are all human.

  7. My six-year-old stepson-to-be is autistic, and I’ve obviously seen him get stressed, It’s impossible to know how he’s feeling, but this post has helped me to appreciate it more. Thank you.

  8. My mom generally disliked taking me on shopping trips when I was younger because of meltdowns. I used to sit down, clench my teeth, cover my ears, close my eyes, and scream, “BE QUIET! BE QUIET! BE QUIET!” I just couldn’t handle all that was going on. I have to admit that, though I’ve gotten older and better at dealing with the sensory overload that is shopping, I can only take just so much. I irritates me to no end that something as simple as shopping makes me feel like such a little kid.

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abandonen toda esperanza aquellos que entren aqui


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