So, Is Meltdown When I Lose Control, or When I Seize It?


In a previous post I confessed that autistic meltdown is not really where I lose control, but where I seize it, in the same way that I might seize control of a steering wheel from a driver who has unilaterally decided to plow us both head-on into an onrushing truck. But I have also compared meltdown to the launch of a space shuttle, asserting that in response to certain kinds of contextual triggers I lose control over my own mind in the same way that NASA loses control over a space shuttle once lift off has begun (or an archer loses control over her arrow once she’s released it from her bow).

So which is it? Is autistic meltdown when I lose control or when I seize it?

Although this may appear to be a serious contradiction, it’s really not because it’s just an example of how we can switch back and forth conceptually between a personal view of disability and an environmental one. So, when I say on the one hand that for me meltdown is when I seize control, I’m adopting an environmental view of my meltdown disability, which is to say I’m choosing to view my meltdowns as an otherwise normal response to some serious design flaw in the environment (the driver is a lunatic). And when I say that meltdown is when I lose control, I’m adopting the view that my meltdowns are caused by some weakness or vulnerability on the part of my neurology (I’m the lunatic). With the environmental view it’s the environment that needs fixing — the car must be steered back into safety; with the personal view it’s me that needs fixing — some way must be found to shut down the space shuttle engines after ignition has begun.

Of course, that raises the question of why I would choose to view myself rather than the environment as the one who needs to be fixed. This is an excellent question, but alas it falls outside the scope of this particular blog post.

Image Credit: Shutterstock. Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Although which view we adopt changes nothing about the actual facts of the matter — the water contains the same amount of water regardless — it does have an impact on how we think, feel, and behave towards the glass and its contents. Similarly, choosing to view a disability as an environmental rather than a personal attribute also changes nothing about the facts of the matter — one way or another the person remains disabled with respect to the environment in question — but the shift in perspective can have an important impact on how we think, feel, and behave towards the problem of the disability, and especially how we approach solving that problem.

Welcome To My Own Little World: Autism And Delusions of Priority

Priority Delusions and Autistic Meltdown


This picture represents what autistic meltdown is like for me — what I call my “thought-furnace”: the shuttle represents my thought(s), and the exhaust blast represents the furnace. The gist of the idea is that my thinking becomes intensely focused and goal directed, where the goal is to resolve the crisis that provoked the meltdown. Image Credit: Pixabay

As I’ve explained elsewhere, and again without pretending to speak for all autistic people, (for me, at least) autistic meltdown always begins when I perceive myself to be trapped in some sort of hopeless jam — a true, high-stakes, predicament or “rock-and-hard-place” kind of scenario; damned if I do, damned if I don’t; where all available options clearly lead to failure; when there appears to be absolutely nothing, nothing, I can do to avert some sort of disaster; where it really seems to me as though I am simply doomed sooner or later to endure some manner or other of harsh punishment. For me, that general kind of scenario is the ignition-switch to what I call my thought-furnace. The moment I perceive myself to be in that kind of situation, that’s when meltdown’s countdown ends and blast-off begins.

Colorful imagery aside, what happens next is that I begin to ruminate relentlessly about how to resolve the crisis at hand. In a sense I become quite delusional, actually. Not in the traditional sense like I believe I’m Napoleon or that random coincidences are messages from extraterrestrials — but with respect to my beliefs about what’s important. We might call these priority beliefs — beliefs about what takes priority over what, about what matters and what doesn’t. Basically, whenever I’m undergoing meltdown it’s like I believe with all my being that the absolutely most important thing I can do is find a workable solution to the predicament that provoked the meltdown. Nothing matters to me more than that. My whole world — the very meaning of my life — becomes about solving that and only that problem.


For me at least, autistic meltdown happens mainly up in my head, where I become intensely fixated on figuring out what to do with some high-stakes, rock-and-hard-place dilemma. Image Credit: Pixabay

I say this is like being delusional because when it happens I seem to be the only person in the galaxy who really gets that the crisis at hand is in fact a genuine crisis, and especially to the point that I believe it to be a crisis. And I also seem to be the only person who believes that resolving the crisis is the most important use of my time and resources, and everyone else’s too. Furthermore, I am never able to persuade anybody else that I’m right about the significance of the crisis, and believe me I always try with great exuberance.

But my utter failure to convince anyone in no way changes my mind about the crisis or how important I think it is. I am definitely not one to just believe things because everybody else does. In that sense I’m a true “free thinker”, but with the result that my priority beliefs during meltdown appear to be quite stubbornly impervious to all evidence and argument, which is to say that they appear to be wholly unreasonable.


This picture of a donkey standing alone in a field captures something of how I feel during meltdown, when my priorities become stubbornly rigid and incompatible with those of everyone else in my life. Image Credit: Pixabay.

I should clarify this: to my view these priority beliefs are absolutely not delusional in any sense. During meltdown, I definitely do not see myself as being out of touch with reality in any way. From my own perspective during these episodes, these beliefs actually do seem totally reasonable. Not only do they make perfect sense to me, but I am quite sure they would change in response to evidence. The problem is that the people who disagree with me and who try so hard to change my mind are simply unable to provide that evidence. They just seem to want me to believe them arbitrarily. But that makes me think they’re the crazy ones. How can they expect me to do that? Would they? But judging by their reactions to the kinds of decisions I might make during meltdown, it is quite clear to me that to them I seem like I’m the nutcase.

Priority Delusions and Autism-in-General

Another thing about meltdown for me is that it’s really just an especially extreme version of how I am even when I’m not having a meltdown. That is, autistic meltdown (for me) is not some extra way of being during which I am somehow “not myself”. Rather, for me meltdown is just an especially intense way of being how I am all the time. During meltdown I become very intensely fixated on one particular idea: how to cope with the particular rock-and-hard place crisis that provoked the meltdown. But the fact is that I am always more or less obsessed with something. It’s just that when I’m not having a meltdown, my faculties of attention become a lot more like binoculars that I can control and redirect at will.


Even when I’m not having a meltdown, I am always more or less obsessed with something, but I have much more executive control over my attention. It becomes much more like binoculars that I can redirect as I wish. Image Credit: Pixabay

However, an actual meltdown episode is so very, very extreme for me, and so very much more problematic, that in my opinion it just makes sense to parse it out and talk about it as if it actually were some totally different way for me to be. And although I hope it’s useful to do that, in the end, during an episode of meltdown, I am still just me — me in crisis mode.

And even when I’m totally calm and comfortable with my world, my priority beliefs still seem quite delusional, in the sense described above. Even during these periods most of what I wrote above remains true, although in a far less intense and problematic way. Even when I’m not having meltdowns my judgments of what matters and what doesn’t are largely out of whack with what everybody else in my life seems to think. Although during these times in my life I might not seem like a total nutcase, nevertheless I am clearly still living in my own little world.


Image Credit (solitary man looking at mountains): Pixabay

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

Towards an Ethics of Autistic Meltdown, Part 2: Whose Disability 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.

Disability As External Cost

“…[W]e have analyzed the gains from trade that accrue to voluntary participants in transactions. However, many transactions involve involuntary participants as well. The neighbors who breathe the smoke from a polluting factory, the naturalist who deplores the “harvesting” of whales, the shoppers who enjoy the spectacle of department store Christmas displays — all are incurring costs or benefits from transactions in which they had no part. Such costs and benefits are said to be external and are collectively referred to as externalities. External costs (like the annoyance of breathing factory smoke) are called negative externalities, and external benefits (like the pleasure from seeing Christmas decorations) are called positive externalities.” — Steven E. Landsburg[1]

[Continued from Part 1]…I’ve argued elsewhere that instead of always seeing disability as a personal attribute, we are free to view it as characteristic of an environment (context, situation, etc.). For example, rather than view someone’s crawling as being due to “missing legs” (an attribute of the crawling person), we can view it as being due to a missing wheelchair (an environmental attribute). Similarly, rather than blaming a given misunderstanding on so-and-so’s “poor hearing”, we might explain it by a lack of a suitable hearing-aid. And instead of describing someone as “vulnerable to depression”, we might say rather that their current infosphere lacks adequate information about mood regulation — e.g. the efficacy and availability of psychotherapy and/or anti-depressant medication. In general, rather than view a given disabled person as the sole proprietor of the disability in question, we can rather view certain environments as being selectively disabling (those that lack a suitable wheelchair, a hearing aid, or information about mood regulation). In other words, instead of blaming features of a disabled person for their disabilities, we are free to blame features of the disabled person’s immediate environment.

L0037165 Artificial left arm

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Perspectives aside, as a matter of practicality, the fact that we can make this sort of shift has almost always been accepted implicitly, as evidenced by the profusion of gadgets, widgets, devices, apparatuses, thingamajigs (or -mabobs), doohickeys, and whatchamacallits (e.g. crutches, eyeglasses, false teeth, prosthetic limbs, etc.) that human beings have designed, built and used for millennia[2] in order to help the disabled to function more or less independently. Aside from scientists who do cloning research and the most religiously faithful, and really as a matter of practical necessity, almost nobody wastes time on the fantasy, for example, that a paraplegic, diabetic, intellectually challenged child might simply grow a new spinal chord, pancreas, and neocortical tissue. By default we almost always attempt to make some environmental adjustment — build them a ramp, give them insulin shots, specialized education, etc.


The “Cairo Toe” is currently the oldest example found of a functional prosthetic device. Discovered on an Egyptian mummy, it has been dated to almost 3000 years ago. Image Credit: The University of Manchester.

And yet, why does this shift from a personal toward an environmental model of disability seem so unusual? If it is already our default strategy for coping with a disability in the first place, then how come it’s so normal to think and talk about disabilities as if they were strictly personal attributes? Why on Earth would anybody feel it necessary to point out the obvious: that these kinds of environmental adjustments imply that it’s the particular environment that’s broken, not the person?

A complete analysis of that question is probably beyond the scope of a single blog post, but here I can suggest that a key ponderable might be found in the economist’s idea of an external cost. A basic problem is that disabilities can be costly — not just financially, but also in terms of time, stress, etc. — and it seems intuitively obvious that these costs should be billed to and paid by the owner of the disability in question, whoever that may turn out to be. But each of these perspectives on disability implies potentially very different owners. On the one hand, the personal model suggests that these costs belong entirely to, and should be paid by the disabled person. In essence, it holds the disabled person accountable for having the wrong features and effectively tells that person “it’s your problem, so deal with it!” But the environmental model suggests that these costs should be paid by the owner or owners of the disabling environment. To the extent that the environment isn’t owned by the disabled person, then whoever does own the environment should pay to have the environment fixed. In effect, the environmental model holds to account the environment’s owners for causing disabilities in certain kinds of people and says to them “it’s your problem, so deal with it!”

Given that nobody chooses a disability, we can rightly wonder how any of us would dare to blame a disabled person for being disabled. Clearly we can’t hold people accountable for the whims of blind chance? Furthermore, given that environments are vastly more fixable than are the kinds of neurological and/or anatomical features that have been traditionally viewed as disabilities, why on Earth would we reject the more hopeful and optimistic environmental model of disability over the pessimistic and hopeless victim-blaming personal model?

Again, without trying to pronounce the last word on what is surely too complicated a problem to address in a single blog post, I hereby propose that this notion of external cost merits serious consideration. The upshot here, unfortunately, is the unflattering suggestion that we incline towards the personal model to the extent that we wish to avoid paying the costs of the disability. To the extent this is true, then adopting the personal model is in no small measure a strategy for externalizing onto disabled people costs that the rest of us ought to pay.

Continue with Part 3

Before you leave, you may wish to enjoy this YouTube video that debunks the myth that George Washington had wooden teeth:

[1] from Landsburg, Steven E., Price Theory and Applications, 9th edition, 2014, 2011, Cengage Learning, Stamford, CT., page 413

[2] The history of functional prosthetic devices (in contrast to the merely cosmetic) has been dated by archaeologists to roughly 3000 years ago. For a fascinating overview, see A Brief History of Prosthetic Limbs, JSTOR Daily, July 21, 2017, last accessed Feb. 3, 2018.

Image Credit (sprinter with prosthetic legs): Pixabay

Birds of A Feather: Stephen, Adam, Me and ASD


Image Credit: Pixabay

As I see it, being autistic is something like being a bird.[1] The idea here is that despite the many striking differences between hawks, chickens, finches, etc., the various species, sub-species and varieties have enough in common to warrant grouping them all together into a single category: birds.

Furthermore, because of what they have in common, it’s entirely reasonable to study, say, parrots if you want to learn about turkeys, or maybe starlings if you want to learn about ducks; provided you remember that big differences exist between these various kinds of birds – only some don’t fly, only some eat meat, only some have long necks, and only some can mimic human speech.


Many birds can fly, but not all; and some critters that can fly aren’t birds. Analogously, many autistic people are good at mathematics, but not all; and some people who are good at mathematics aren’t autistic. Image Credit: Pixabay

I’d like to know what you actually think of this analogy, but for now I’ll consider it useful. In any case, the idea here is that much like birds, those of us with Autism Spectrum Disorder (“ASD”, “autism”) have enough in common to make it useful to think of us as a particular group; but if you pick any two of us for a closer look, you shouldn’t be surprised to see significant differences in the way ASD manifests symptomatically. For example, my own ASD seems to manifest in a great deal of writing (philography);

a fascination with foreign languages (especially Spanish, these days); and a personal arsenal of knee-jerk defense mechanisms wired into my nervous system from decades of David-vs-Goliath-style showdowns, and which can make me quite unlikable under some conditions.[2]

I don’t imagine that philography is an especially common ASD symptom (although Isaac Asimov, believed by some to have had ASD, published over 300 books in his lifetime), but I’m somewhat relieved to know that I didn’t invent “autistic irritability”. Also, I don’t seem to have the sorts of sensory issues that many with ASD have to struggle with; nor do I instantiate the stereotype that those with ASD are humorless and blind to sarcasm, as debunked by the many posts I have in my jokes category.

Like anything, ASD must have its norms and outliers – white swans and black. A famous example of an outlier is London artist Stephen Wiltshire, who can draw an entire city from memory after having observed it during a 20 minute helicopter ride.


Image Credit: Pixabay

Now, I find that astonishing. I know I could never do that or really anything quite like it. That sort of behavior is just so far out on whatever measuring scale you want to use to measure it. I have gone through a drawing phase, even achieved a few minor successes, but eventually abandoned it. But even if you could normalize the scale to make it content independent – calculate the standard deviation, so to speak – I really don’t think I’ve ever done, nor ever could do anything that approaches his media-worthy, black-swan sort of deviance. You’ll never see an article about me in National Geographic, is what I’m trying to say here.

And yet Wiltshire and I are both “birds”, right? — that is to say, we both have ASD. Perhaps he is a macaw and I am an egret, but we’re both birds. And as a matter of fact, as different as he and I appear to be, I can actually recognize something of myself in his behavior. “It takes one to know one”, perhaps. I’m not saying I could ever quite do what he does; even if I logged the so-called 10,000 hours of deliberate practice it supposedly[3] takes to achieve world-class expertise in anything. But I absolutely recognize and live on a daily basis the same kind of fanatical commitment I know he must have to his art. I too am relentless in this way, as I’m sure he is, “like a locomotive” is how I sometimes describe it to others, and in a way that really most people are not, no matter how passionate they may otherwise be.


Image Credit: Pixabay

My own routines and rituals (reading, language study, exercise, eating, etc.) are for the most part daily activities, and rigidly so, regardless of the day, including vacations, holidays and birthdays, and regardless of what else is going on in my life, who died or happens to be visiting. To illustrate: on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, after learning about the atrocities in New York (I was living in Montreal at that time), I warded off an anxiety attack by getting back to my rigorous actuarial exam preparations. “Stay the course” I told myself, “can’t get distracted”. While the rest of the world wept and grieved, I deliberately practiced calculating probabilities and summing infinite series.I think the sensationalist appeal of cases such as Wiltshire’s can be misleading however, and may explain much about how my own diagnosis could have been missed for decades.


Who couldn’t love this face? Doesn’t he look like a great guy?Image Credit: Stephen Wiltshire

It would appear that Wiltshire’s own story is a happy one. He has a warm, friendly face and a huggable good-guy weirdness that appeals to the general public – a redeeming genius, or “claim to fame”. He’s the sort of autistic person we can all love and be proud of. People (even doctors, apparently) look at him and think “oh, so that’s autism…”, and then they look at me and think “…and that’s just some ordinary a**hole who can’t hold down a full-time job; goes bankrupt, destroys his credit rating; who burns social bridges and ultimately alienates every woman who tries to love him; who will go jogging through the streets of Montreal during a blizzard; and who wakes up at 5 AM on Christmas morning to memorize the principal parts of German irregular verbs, or perhaps the entire German text of the Grimm brothers’ Snow White.”

Yeah, because that’s so what ordinary a**holes do, if you can pardon my sarcasm.

Gosh, how much of Civilization do we owe to the world’s Steven Wiltshires, these heroically autistic, black-swan good-guy weirdos? According to the Internet, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein had ASD. I think I read somewhere that John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham had ASD. These observations are pregnant with generalization: autism is a good thing, useful even.

But other, less cheerful scenarios are possible. As a horrifically different type of deviance, recall that back in 2012 a 20-year-old autistic man (Adam Lanza) shot and killed 20 children and 6 adults up in an elementary school in Connecticut.


Some autistic people can do some pretty nasty things, but the overwhelming majority do not. Also, most people who do nasty things are not autistic. Image Credit: Pixabay

Like Wiltshire’s case, Lanza’s is also astonishing, in a heart-breaking way. And of course, that is also something I could never do. Especially as a father of two young children, the whole affair is a monstrosity to me. I abhor violence and guns and the last time I was in anything like a physical altercation I was 16 years old and some random hooligan accosted me on a crowded street and punched me twice in the side of the head, to which I responded by blushing and weeping.

And yet, Wiltshire, Lanza and I, we’re all birds, aren’t we? We all have Autistic Spectrum Disorder (or had, in Lanza’s case – he is dead). And in the same way that I can see something of myself in Wiltshire’s case, when I am honest with myself (and you), I have to admit, and with no small discomfort, that I can see something of myself in Lanza’s case too. Let me be clear: I do not identify with the cruelty and violence. I’m much, much more likely to draw an entire city from memory than I am to commit some schoolhouse massacre. And yet…when I try to imagine what Lanza might have been thinking and feeling as he raged and blazed his way through that kindergarten…I’d be lying if I said (like I believe most would say) that I found Lanza’s actions utterly incomprehensible, because I don’t.

Yeah, Lanza and I are both “birds”, like Stephen Wiltshire; and I think I can see that fairly clearly. Yup, much like vultures, ostriches, and peacocks, we all have a lot in common, remarkable differences notwithstanding.

[1] This is just an analogy, of course, but I think it’s a good one, at least for now, and until I encounter the sort of evidence that could change my mind. That’s not just lip-service, by the way. If you disagree with me about the usefulness of this analogy, I invite you to explain why in a comment below.

[2] I always see myself as David in these scenarios, but I don’t think my Goliaths always agree.

[3] The so-called 10,000 rule, is quite controversial. For example: The ‘10,000-hour rule’ about becoming an expert is wrong — here’s why.

Seal of the EEOC

An Open Letter to A Certain EEOC Deputy District Director

This letter has 9 parts which are difficult to navigate in either my Home page or my Open Letters category archive, which lists every post I’ve written on this blog in reverse chronological order. To make it easier to navigate, I’m creating this post in order to list a link to each part in reading order. Although I’m addressing this letter to a particular individual, I’m posting it as an open letter for educational purposes. Your feedback on any part of the letter would be greatly appreciated.

An Open Letter to A Certain EEOC Deputy District Director

  • Part 1 “A Primer on Autism”
  • Part 2 “A Plea for Help”
  • Part 3 “Please, Do Not Join the Conspiracy!”
  • Part 4 “It Took Batman 7 Months to Write 1 Page of Text”
  • Part 5 “Batman And His Justice League Gang Stole My Right To Due Process”
  • Part 6 “Please, Fire Andromeda before She Can Hurt Anymore Autistic People!”
  • Part 7 “Please, Fire Wonder Woman and Batgirl Too, before They Can Hurt Anymore Autistic People!”
  • Part 8 “Please Don’t Mistake Skepticism for Knowledge”
  • Part 9 “My Allegedly “Inappropriate” Email Had Actually Been Approved By My Management”

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