Autistic Meltdowns: How our Difficulties in Dealing with Emotions Causes an Outburst

One of the negative aspects of autism/Aspergers is our inability to deal with emotions.  We struggle to identify how we’re feeling and often get our emotions mixed up.

Different Types of Emotions

Our main emotions are:

  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Surprise
  • Disgust

There are a range of other emotions too, such as:

  • Embarrassment
  • Shame
  • Contempt
  • Contentment
  • Guilt
  • Envy
  • Boredom

In fact it is now believed that we have twenty seven different emotions.

As autistics/Aspies I’m sure we’ve felt these emotions at one stage in our lives.  Maybe, if the circumstances were right, we could also recognise and correctly identify the emotion we were feeling in real time.  But most of the time we don’t understand the emotions we’re going through, and at best can only identify them after a lot of hard thought.  Well after our emotions changed.

Recognising Other People’s Emotions

As well as finding it tough to understand our own emotions, being autistic/Aspie means we also find it challenging to tell how other people are  feeling.  Also, we cannot relate to other people who are experiencing different emotions, as we don’t even understand our own feelings.  So often make mistakes around communication and social interactions where emotions are concerned.  To avoid these mistakes we might decide it’s better not to comment or show sympathy, which is often mistaken for a lack of empathy.


Meltdowns are a very autistic/Aspie reaction to a build-up of emotions.  Our emotions are our strongest feelings.  Because we cannot identify them correctly, and have this inner confusion, the strength of these emotions intensifies.  Non autistics deal with their emotions in a range of ways such as talking to others or letting out their frustrations at the time (through methods such as shouting or crying).  We hold these emotions in.

Everything can be falling apart around us, and we seem to be non-reacting and placid.  Perhaps we cannot fully process everything that is happening.  Plus we may be trying to deal with the onslaught to our senses. We may even be blocking everything out intentionally, because we can’t deal with that situation at the current moment.  But it’s mostly our inability to interpret our emotions that prevents us from dealing with them immediately.

We get through some of the most difficult situations without reacting, but this comes at a price.  We have felt something, but not released our frustration or anger.

In a way our emotions work like blowing up a party balloon until it bursts.  Each emotion that’s not been deal with, puts a bit of air into the balloon.  Sometimes it’s a big puff, other times a small.  Then it can be the last tinniest blew of air that causes the balloon to explode.

Similarly we can completely meltdown over the smallest event or mishap as our emotions have built up over days or even weeks.  People around us are dumbfounded by our reaction to such a small occurrence.  As they have a perfect way of dealing with all their feelings, so cannot truly empathise or understand a person who cannot.

A meltdown can come in many forms such as an outburst of tears, shouting, screaming, breaking something or complete withdrawal.

How to Prevent or Reduce the Effects of a Meltdown

  • Although we lose a great deal of control, most of us still have some control. Even in my worst meltdowns, as a child, I had the self-control to never hurt another person.
  • We, or others, can sometimes recognise a meltdown is building up. It may be enough time to warn others to leave us alone, or walk away from the situation.
  • Writing a diary/journal helps us to identify our emotions by thinking about what has upset us and how we feel about it. It’s probably the only way we can realise just how many emotions we are holding in at any one time.
  • If something is going wrong, having a laugh or a smile to ourselves really does help to calm us. Seeing the amusing side, the humour and the irony (that so many things seem to be going wrong at once) can help us to stop a meltdown.
  • Which means having a heart to heart with a trusted person about all the troubles and difficulties we’re facing.  Having a person to listen and offer some useful advice helps to ease some of our emotionally difficulties.
  • Realising that crying is good. If we’re feeling sad having a cry to ourselves will always make us feel better afterwards.
  • Try to understand what triggers our emotions and ways to stop this from happening. It might be something as simple as missing a meal, so having a backup ready meal in the freezer just in case.

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