Towards an Ethics of Autistic Meltdown, Part 1: What Is Autistic Meltdown?


Because Autistic Spectrum Disorder varies so widely across the actually autistic in general, one must always be careful about overgeneralizing from one’s own experience either as such an actually autistic person, or with such a one, or even several. So, when I say something like I did in my previous post that autistic meltdown is not really where I lose control, but where I seize it, it’s imperative on the one hand that I as writer emphasize, and on the other that you as reader heed at least two points:

  1. I may be the only autistic person on Earth who can honestly say this about his own meltdowns.
  2. What I’m calling “autistic meltdown” might not actually be true autistic meltdown — I may be misapplying this term to something else entirely.

Be that as it may, I sincerely believe (for now, and until I encounter the sort of evidence that might change my mind) that I am applying the term autistic meltdown correctly as a label for my own experience with the phenomenon in question; and also I sincerely hope that at least some others who struggle with the meltdown issue will identify well enough with my own struggles to be able to derive some benefit from what I think I understand about meltdown in general. In any case, agree with me or otherwise, I invite you to weigh in on my pretensions to understanding, and to freely express your own thoughts on the matter, if not as a comment below or privately from my contact page, then surely in a post on your own blog (please feel free to share the link here in a comment).

What Is Autistic Meltdown?

So, again, without trying to speak on behalf of all autistic people, I will say that for me autistic meltdown is something that mostly happens between my ears. And although what actually happens between my ears during a meltdown episode can in one very important sense be described as “out of control” (explanation to follow), for the most part this loss of control occurs almost entirely up in my head and has almost no immediate impact on my observable gross motor behavior. During such an episode I definitely do not feel any particular or irresistible urges, say, to scream, cry, flap my arms, bang my head against a wall, bite myself or in fact perform any kind of noisy, spectacular, or disruptive behaviors that may be traditionally associated with autistic meltdown, and especially which make true autistic meltdowns hard for laypersons to distinguish from infantile tantrums.


Does this guy seem calm? Like he’s lost in thought? That’s how I can look sometimes when I’m having an episode of autistic meltdown. Image Credit: Pixabay

Again, I cannot speak for all autists in saying this, but for me at least, I could be in full-blast meltdown mode right in front of you and the only thing you might notice is that I seem a bit lost in thought. You might even see me muttering to myself. But don’t be fooled by these outward appearances, because during moments like these, churning energetically up in my skull is a neurological maelstrom.

I often use the image of a “thought-furnace” to describe what this feels like for me. Such intracranial incandescence begins whenever I perceive myself to be trapped in some high-stakes, eye-wateringly frustrating predicament — an impossible, dilemmatic, “no-win” situation. “Damned if I do or don’t”; “between a rock and a hard place”; “screwed six ways from Sunday” are all apposite colloquialisms for describing the prickly sort of pickle that turns the key on my insight-engine and blows my mindmeat into maximum roasterdrive. To capture all of that in a single (too) simple image, I think this does the trick:


Image Credit: Shutterstock

But that picture is actually too simple, because it really only conveys the “furnace” part of my thought-furnace. The “thought” part is also important, and here I should clarify that the turbulent blazing chaos of the above image is not at all meant to make you think of the kinds of chaotic and disorganized thought disturbances that can plague those suffering from psychosis (e.g. schizophrenia, bipolar mania, etc.). Quite on the contrary, when my thought-furnace is ablaze, my actual thinking becomes highly organized, intensely focused, coherent, precise and quite fiercely analytical. Really to convey the complete idea of my thought-furnace a better image to use would be that of a shuttle launch, thus:


This picture of a shuttle launch gives a more complete description of what I mean when I talk about my “thought furnace”. Image Credit: Pixabay

in which the space shuttle represents my “thought”, and the exhaust blaze represents my “furnace”. The idea expressed here is that during a meltdown episode my thinking (the shuttle) has a specific, clearly defined purpose, and my commitment to that purpose (the exhaust blaze) is utterly utter. When I am in meltdown mode my whole being, everything about me, commits to doing one thing and one thing only: solve the problem of the particular, high-stakes, eye-wateringly frustrating predicament that ignited my furnace to begin with.

And this is what I mean when I say that I seize control, rather than lose it during meltdown, because when I meltdown in this way almost nothing can stop me from thinking and thinking and thinking some more about how to solve the problem of that predicament. When I get in that frame of mind, that predicament becomes my whole life. Everything takes a back seat to that particular problem. If you think about a shuttle launch, once ignition starts, a critical line has been crossed — a point of no-return has been reached. Once that happens, the whole machine, everybody on board it, and anybody else with a stake in the overall project has quite thoroughly lost control over the outcome. One thing and one thing only is going to happen in the foreseeable future: that sucker is going up. And for me, autistic meltdown is a lot like that: once my thought-furnace ignites, the predicament that ignited it is going to be my whole world until either a solution has been found or the problem has somehow become irrelevant. But after blast off and before the destination has been reached, I am no more able to stop myself from searching for solutions to that predicament than I can stop my own hair from growing.

But this is all just what happens up in my head. And once again, please pretty please do not overgeneralize from my experience to any other autistic person when I tell you that I personally retain a great deal of control over my overt, observable behavior during my meltdowns. From what I’ve read about how others experience it, it really does appear that some if not most autists indeed lose control even over their own external behavior in a way that I do not. Keep in mind that autism is highly idiosyncratic in how it manifests in individuals. Hoping otherwise as I do, I may very well be the only autistic person on Earth who can honestly describe meltdown as I’m doing so here. As the saying goes, “if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.”[1]

On the other hand, however much control I do retain over my gross motor abilities during meltdown, the exact opposite is true for what’s going on up in my head. Up in my head, although as explained above my thinking is highly focused, organized and coherent, it is only so with respect to one particular topic, which is that of the predicament that ignited my thought-furnace in the first place, and in particular what to do about it. With respect to any other possible object of attention, all bets are off. I can no more easily redirect my attention to another topic than an archer can change the course of his arrow once he has released it from his bow.


Once my thought-furnace starts cooking up solutions to a particular problem, I can no more change problems than an archer can change the direction of the arrow he just shot from his bow. Image Credit: Pixabay

Once released, that archer’s arrow is going to land where ever he actually aimed it, regardless of where he was trying to aim it. Similarly, if I am to have any reasonable hope of controlling my own meltdown events, then that control effort will have to take must place prior to the meltdown event (the arrow’s release, the shuttle’s launch, etc.).

Meltdown Ethics

Given this shuttle-launch model of autistic meltdown, a number of questions become apparent. For example, what can be done, if anything, to control the course and trajectory of a meltdown event? Also, given that something could be done, what should be done to control the course and trajectory of a meltdown event? In addition, given that my autistic neurology has been imposed on me by blind chance, just how much if any personal responsibility should I accept for my own vulnerability to autistic meltdown? And how much if any accountability should I charge back to others? Is it reasonable for me to expect others to shoulder some of the burden of my meltdowns? Is it reasonable for others to expect me to shoulder all of the burden?

That list of questions is meant to be suggestive, not exhaustive; and I will explore and attempt to answer some of these questions in Parts 2 and 3.

Continue with Part 2

[1] Attributed to Stephen Shore, but I’m still looking for the original source.

Image Credit (lake surface): Shutterstock

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