Towards an Ethics of Autistic Meltdown, Part 3: Whose Meltdown Is It?


If you haven’t already done so, please read at least the disclaimer from Part 1. Here I will add that the following is intended for educational/conversational purposes only, and should absolutely not be misconstrued as any kind of serious advice or counsel — medical, psychological, legal, or otherwise. If you require any sort of serious advice or counsel, please find and work with a suitable expert.

Autistic Meltdown As External Cost

[Continued from Part 2]…I think the remarks made in Part 2 apply to any sort of disability, but here I wish to focus on the specific issue of autistic meltdown, mainly because I am most familiar with it as a disability. Meltdown has always been a debilitating and destructive force in my life, mostly for me, but also in no small measure for anybody who cares about me — anyone who matters to me.


Image Credit: Pixabay

Meltdown is not the only symptom of my autism, but it’s really the only one I see as a serious problem. The others make me seem quirky, eccentric, possibly interesting (I hope), but meltdown makes me impossible — really not worth the effort. Over the course of my life, meltdown has destroyed countless relationships and job opportunities. Meltdown has made my life quite an uncomfortable place, and more times than I can count. I would very much like to solve my meltdown problem, or at least mitigate its impact on the people in my life, myself included.

But it’s not as though I have never tried to solve this problem. In fact, my whole life can be plausibly interpreted as one long, drawn-out, and so-far mostly failed attempt to solve the problem of my own autistic meltdowns — as much (if not more so) between meltdown events as during them, in a (so far) mostly futile effort to prevent the next meltdown.

I’ve come to suspect that a major obstacle to my solving this problem may be that I have been taking my meltdowns far too personally. Over the course of my life, I’ve tended to interpret my autistic meltdowns through a personal model of disability, rather than an environmental one. I have tended to think of them as being wholly “my” meltdowns, as being caused by something that was wrong with “me”, some broken feature of “my” personality or neurology that was “my” responsibility to fix or to get under control.


Is this young woman having an autistic meltdown? Many might say “no way, she looks too calm”, but I know I can also look quite calm when I’m in full meltdown mode. For me, meltdown is mostly something that happens up inside my head. Image Credit: Pixabay

But more and more I am finding increasingly nonsensical this perspective on autistic meltdown — my own, in particular, but in general those of other autistic people. How on Earth can I blame myself for this idiosyncratic feature of my own phenotypical neuroanatomy? It’s not like I ever had a choice in the matter. It was thrust on me by the blind forces of chance! Furthermore, it is clear to me that my meltdowns are highly context dependent. I have never had a meltdown that wasn’t a direct response to certain wholly adjustable features of certain kinds of environments. Put me in certain different kinds of environments, and I simply will not have a meltdown. Furthermore, I have a very good handle on which kinds of environmental features will and won’t flick the ignition switch on my thought-furnace, and to the extent that I can control those features I will always avoid the ones that flick it to the “on” position.

The bottom line here is that if I have a meltdown, it is becoming less and less plausible to me that it’s my fault — no more so than it’s my fault that I was born, or that I was born a male, or that I was born a white male, or that I was born a white autistic male, etc. At most I might say that I may have accidentally contributed to causing the meltdown in some mostly insignificant way, but almost certainly the principal cause was some feature(s) of an environment that I was powerless to change, most likely because I’m not the environment’s owner, or because I was coerced into entering that environment and something blocked me from leaving it. To the extent that my reasoning here is correct, I find I am feeling increasingly drawn toward the conclusion that my meltdowns are most reasonably viewed as someone else’s externalized costs — costs that I find I am increasingly unwilling to pay.

A Bit of An Ethical Quandary


This image represents how that shuttle-launch shown above might look to an outside observer. Although this is not a picture of me having a meltdown, it does show how I might look during one — sitting quietly, lost in thought. But don’t be fooled! Going on up between my ears is a mini-maelstrom of neural activity. Image Credit: Pixabay

On the other hand, and as I have explained elsewhere, even though I cannot control the actual meltdown event going on up in my head, I find I absolutely can exert a great deal of choice and control over my gross motor behavior — what people observe me doing during the meltdown. Aside from the stubborn and mostly invisible obsession-storm rocking and rolling between my ears, it’s quite possible that a given meltdown episode might seem to be a real non-event to an outside observer, although at the very least I might seem quite lost in thought, and it’s also likely that I will do enormous amounts of writing.

For me these meltdowns are always something of a paradox. On the one hand, I feel I must take action in order to cope with the dilemma that has provoked the meltdown, but on the other, there is no action I feel I absolutely must take. Indeed the meltdown itself is really just a very intense and obsessive consideration of the various actions I might take, along with an evaluation of their various costs and benefits, all toward the goal of eventually doing something about the dilemma.

Furthermore, the fact that I have so much executive control over my gross motor behavior implies that I am ultimately responsible and really could and should be held accountable for the consequences of any decisions I eventually make and act on in order to cope with the meltdown event itself. But the fact that I have so little control over the maelstrom in my head implies (to me at least) that I am ultimately not responsible nor should I be held accountable for the fact that I must find some way to respond to it — even if all I do is sit quietly on a rock muttering to myself.

An additional complication arises from the fact that I’m really the only direct witness to the fiery tumult of my thought-furnace. Especially if I’ve been sitting there quietly lost in thought, any overt action I may eventually take might seem like a real non-sequitur to any witnesses. If instead I had been surrounded by bystanders who personally witnessed me get punched in the head for no obvious reason, my subsequent response to that punch would make a great deal more sense. But the environmental triggers of meltdown can be difficult for anyone but me to detect.

Please understand that all of this is very much a work-in-progress for me, and so whatever I’ve written or will write on this subject should not be taken as any sort of last word. In any case, with respect to all that I’ve written so far in Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series, for now I find it reasonable to recognize a need for two basic kinds of strategy:

  1. A strategy for meltdown prevention.
  2. A strategy for meltdown damage control.

In Part 4 I will sketch out what I see as a first and hopefully useful approximation to both of these kinds of strategy.

To be continued…

[When I publish Part 4 I will post a link to it here.]


Image Credit (industrial water pollution): Shutterstock

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