What Triggers Autism Meltdowns?

Guest post by Yolande Loftus, BA, LLB

If you are familiar with autism, you might be aware that many people on the autism spectrum (especially children) have meltdowns. But what does this really mean, and what is the trigger behind this behavior?

Meltdown is a word with a powerful meaning. Unfortunately, pop-psychology has made it part of everyday descriptive language: “My daughter will have an absolute meltdown if you take her favorite toy away!” But, when consulting the dictionary, the word turns out to have little to do with toy-related frustration, and it’s clear many are too quick to use the term to describe a generic tantrum or difficult moment.

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According to Merriam-Webster, a meltdown could mean:

  • the accidental melting of the core of a nuclear reactor (which brings up the obvious question of what it would be called if you melted it on purpose?)
  • a swift or disastrous decline or collapse
  • most importantly for our purposes, a break-down of self-control from overstimulation

All three definitions describe an almost disastrous occurrence of nuclear proportion. So, for a moment, let’s try to picture ourselves in the shoes of a person on the autism spectrum for whom meltdowns might be a very real and regular occurrence.

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What triggers autism meltdowns?

The stimuli or circumstances that trigger a meltdown differ according to the individual and the environment. For those not on the spectrum, a meltdown and the level of overwhelm it entails may be hard to comprehend. We don’t need a complete biological understanding of autism and sensory overload, but we do need to educate ourselves about triggers of a meltdown so we can help and stand by our neurodiverse friends and family.

Parents with autistic children speak about doing everything in their power to comfort their child in the midst of a total body and mind crisis, and then someone says: “You should really discipline that child…” This is a common occurrence, but a difficult one for families with a child on the spectrum. Having an educated public that understands autism and meltdowns may mean that judgemental people and embarrassing situations are a rarer occurrence for these families.

The best thing we can do is educate ourselves on autism and meltdowns. So what are some of the more common triggers of autistic meltdowns?

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Sensory, emotional, and information overload

The more we learn about autism, the more definite the connection between its symptoms and sensory difficulties becomes. Imagine being hypersensitive in a crowded mall around Christmastime. The smell from the food court: yesterday’s recooked chicken competing with roasting nuts from Santa’s stand. Jingle bells from the general sound system trying to overpower the rap music from the cool kid kiosk, and crowds stampeding to get a gift mediocre enough to regift.

This may sound like a familiar annual nightmare, but to an autistic person this scenario is overly familiar, not just during the holiday season; every time they step into the world this (and more) may be their reality.

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The autistic brain may be wired differently in ways that scientists are still learning about. The way sensory stimuli are processed in someone with autism may differ in fundamental ways to the neurotypical brain.

Perhaps the pandemic allowed us a glimpse into a different way of experiencing sensory stimuli. Remember the first time you stepped into a crowded space after living la vida lockdown? For most of us, everything was too much. A few uncertain steps outside our sanitized comfort zone left us wondering whether the world had always been so disturbingly loud and big. Neurodivergent minds may feel this post-pandemic panic every time they step outside.

The world was made for neurotypical minds. The amount of sensory, emotional, and informational stimuli may be too much for a detail-focused neurodivergent mind. It is little wonder that such a mind will become overwhelmed and shut down (or meltdown) to reboot every now and then.

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“Faulty” Filtering

“Wouldn’t it be helpful to practice some meditating or mindful practices to filter out excess stimuli?” our inner pop-psychologist wants to ask the neurodivergent community. This may be problematic, as the autistic mind may not filter like a neurotypical one.

Habituation, the tendency to grow used to certain stimuli over time, allows us to filter out unimportant stimuli. In the above example, you’d be able to ignore the holiday jingles and iffy food smells after a while. Instead, more important stimuli will be prioritized as you focused on your holiday shopping tasks. But for someone on the spectrum, this could be impossible if they have deficits in habituation. A study by Green et al. (2019) found a particular deficit in sensory habituation in children and adolescents on the spectrum with high sensory over-responsivity.

A hypervigilant brain paying attention to every little detail, with a (for want of a better word) faulty filtering system, may eventually meltdown as the information overload becomes overwhelming.

Photo: Adobe Stock/Катя Козлова

Changes in routine

Parents of autistic children often comment about their kids’ rigid adherence to routine and their difficulty with transitions. The more you research overstimulation and sensory processing differences in autism, the more you see value in creating a calm and predictable life.

Unfortunately, life is anything but predictable, and children on the spectrum are expected to roll with it—with neurotypical nonchalance. When things are crazy and time is of the essence, we want our kids to cooperate, be flexible, and adjust to the ever-changing demands of daily living. But individuals on the spectrum are not being difficult when they insist on sameness; it may be the only way in which they can feel in control.

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Summing up

Of course, autism is a spectrum, and the above are just three examples of why a meltdown might occur in an individual.

Many autistic adults go to extreme lengths to adapt to their world in a way that minimizes the risk of meltdowns. Kids on the spectrum, however, rely on parents and caregivers to help them understand and manage meltdowns. The least we can do is to react empathetically when someone is experiencing a meltdown.

When someone breaks their leg, sympathy follows naturally. When someone experiences a breakdown in self-regulation—keeping in mind that autistic people often find expressing or communicating such distress difficult—let’s not withhold sympathy because we lack understanding.

Did you enjoy this article? Learn more from Autism Parenting Magazine, the leading international publication for autism families.

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