Meltdowns and the Lens of Ableism

Meltdowns – from the other side…

Many, many months back Colin Bowman and I began a conversation in the comments section of one of my posts (Yours, Mine and Ours: Autism, Self-Advocacy and Setting Limits). This interaction has been resonating with me, and this post has been inspired by that conversation.

This is such important understanding:

“Avoiding meltdowns, and everything that goes with them, has merit and yields dividends. However risk-aversion carries its own costs. Perhaps more crucially, it may be (and I think it so) that an autistically developing person cannot develop as an individual, unless and until they become able to pass through meltdowns, and perhaps routinely. I think the nub of things is how we manage meltdowns, how we pass through them, what we sift and mine from them.”                   ~ Colin Bowman

Considering current thinking around meltdowns:

What I have often read and what seems to be often put forth as a pretty readily accessible and accepted understanding is that a meltdown should be differentiated from a tantrum. Unlike a tantrum, a meltdown is not a move for power or method for an individual to try to get one’s way – rather it has been framed as something that is not a choice and that a meltdown should be viewed as communication – just as all behaviour is communication.

The logical extrapolation from this assertion is that the meltdown is the communication of a need, or something overwhelming in the environment, or it is the expression of the communication of dissent. From this then, it follows that those working to support someone who sometimes experiences a meltdown response, should be working to make the environment the best match for that person in order to minimize the likelihood of a meltdown occurrence.

This makes sense, and a big part of the work so many of us are trying to do is to build understanding so that we can undertake the transformative process to shift the world to be a more supportive and better match for those with social cognitive or sensory processing differences.

The impact of Colin’s perspective:

Since my conversation with Colin, I have been thinking that this interpretation and response to a meltdown is lacking – not wrong – but just not considering another potential dimension or possible perspective.

There is value in to questioning our assumptions to see if there is sometimes another way of looking at or framing meltdowns, as Colin suggests… because I suspect that there is an opportunity to deepen our understanding.

For the purposes of this post I would like to consider and suggest that a meltdown may not always be a behaviour communicating a need, or something lacking or overwhelming in the environment or a situation, or an act of dissent. Although this makes sense, and I am not in any way suggesting a denial of this understanding of meltdowns, there exists the possibility that seeing a meltdown solely from this perspective may be damaging to the authentic and natural development of Autistic processing.  I am wondering too, if there could be an element of othering in this common interpretation simply because it may be too narrowly defined for some circumstances.

What if, just for a moment, we didn’t view some meltdowns as a response to be avoided at all costs?

What if it was framed instead through the lens of an emotional response?

Would we understand a meltdown differently and support people differently through the melt if we saw it this way instead of as behaviour and communication?

Consider Colin’s point again:

“Avoiding meltdowns, and everything that goes with them, has merit and yields dividends. However risk-aversion carries its own costs. Perhaps more crucially, it may be (and I think it so) that an autistically developing person cannot develop as an individual, unless and until they become able to pass through meltdowns, and perhaps routinely. I think the nub of things is how we manage meltdowns, how we pass through them, what we sift and mine from them.”            

I responded to Colin that I might know a little of that feeling – the cleansing of a breakdown and the sense of a fresh start of the aftermath. I have felt that like the promise of a shaft of light breaking through after a storm… there is such clarity and the rain-soaked world feels washed clean and is transformed to sparkly beauty.

I get that this sounds a little schmaltzy – but I do feel cleansed like that after a really intense emotional release and am able to move on in a new way. I know this is not necessarily the same as I do not identify as Autistic, but I am trying to understand through my own experience so I have something to hang this on.

But what if it is the same?

What if when I am overwhelmed I am able to be cleansed by this really good cry or emotional release – but at the same time an Autistic person is denied this – because that same expression or release of emotion is labeled a meltdown, and it is seen as a [mis]behaviour or response to be avoided at all costs??

How would I feel when I released  intense emotions – if it were seen as a failure??  I am concerned that this may be the message that is given to an Autistic person when a meltdown is framed as something that is negative: a failure of the support system to effectively support and/or the failure/fault of the Autistic individual to effectively set limits or self-regulate or self-manage their emotional state.

Along with this – when emergence happens at the other side as an Autistic person works through the meltdown – if the good cry or more intense release or expression of emotion is framed solely through the lens of failure, what lies there may not be that wonderful cleansed feeling of a new start, combined with a shedding of weight and a deep hard-fought release of stress and pain – but… rather… only… shame.

When discussing her experience about The Pain of Meltdowns, Laura Nagle shared:

“…To meltdown is to be broken. The person melting knows it, feels it, feels broken. To be in meltdown is to ride an out of control aircraft plummeting to the ground and with controls not responding, aflame, reality coming up towards one at an alarming rate: and the aircraft is one’s self! To be broken does not feel good at all. To be autistic and out of control; out of your own control; when control is so important to us and so tenuous; is terrible! The melted person did not want to melt!”


“…and then you melt. And you feel awful because the melt feels awful in ways that I cannot begin to describe. and you feel awful because you know what awaits you when you return to the real world. What awaits? Bad feelings from everyone around you, and the foundation for the next melt. Then the parent blogs about how awful the meltdown was; if only that parent could know.”

Consider the contrast here…

When I breakdown emotionally, I have finally given in: my limits were reached, and I can say, “I am okay now, I just needed a good cry.” I am ready to build back up. I never feel shame after I have had a good cry – this is even evidenced in my syntax.

Look how easily I can call this a good cry.

I don’t feel judged – I feel relief.

Unwinding ableism from the meltdown…

What is emerging then is a nuanced wondering about what might be the consequences for the emotional development of an Autistic person if we only see a meltdown as negative and undesirable behaviour that is to be avoided. We may be disallowing or blocking the cleanse and processing that moves us beyond the trigger or the frustration.

Further, what if every intensely emotional response is viewed as a meltdown for an Autistic person or by an Autistic person themselves, and it is only seen as an indication of unmet need – rather than an expression of intense experience. If that is the case, we may be denying experience and a very valid expression of authentic autistic processing.

Melting, the good cry, and welcoming the emotional process…

I know when I have had an intense emotional episode – for me it is most often crying – afterward I am different – it is like the world is a little more manageable and I have been cleansed by my storm…

If I take this further,  I can see that I need to work to support H (and others) through this so that he is honoured for his process, and is able to see himself as capable of navigating his way through the storm.

So I am having these thoughts about the meltdown as a potentially important part of processing. I observe that for H his emotions appear to be very intense. If he cannot occasionally meltdown, is he then denied the full range of experience to effectively process his emotions as Autistic person?

Non Autistic people are not denied the opportunity to experience intense emotion and process it however it is best for them…

An intense emotional response (AKA the good cry) doesn’t seem to get labeled and talked about the same way…

If a meltdown is viewed as an authentic and important part of processing emotion, then it seems that we need to be closely examining the messages we send regarding this process and explore opportunities for Autistic people to feel confident in their ability and skills to navigate this intensity and emerge on the other side of the storm.

So I am suggesting we look for opportunities to slightly reframe meltdowns. Of course it is good to adapt the environment to reduce the stressors that will trigger a meltdown, but I want to consider that there may be an important function to the melt that is a part of processing. It is worth considering that there may be times when the meltdown should not necessarily be avoided – if we understand that it is an authentic part of Autistic processing. So much of the focus so often seems to be around avoiding the melt – and then too often if  it is not avoided, it is seen as misbehaviour.

Supporting an individual through a meltdown is important: to be there to support and to help them process when they come out on the other side. There is learning and development that can happen there… in the ability to handle it and move through it.

There are opportunities here.

As parents we can run risk of modelling for our children that we never lose it…

Or… we can tell them we understand and that it is hard. You melt – and sometimes I have a similar experience… (and yes – I know it is not quite the same – but it may be more the same than it is different). There is an opportunity to share after my own emotional outpouring, I can let my son know that I feel may feel badly afterward (if I was hurtful to myself or others) or that I may feel better – but that either way, it is over and done and the important thing is that there is always another chance. I can encourage him and give him the message that it is good to let all those feelings out.

I can let my son see my fallibility – and share my understanding that intense feelings can be challenging. I can model that I can work through them. I can share that there may be some very important processing that goes on in a when experiencing intense emotions.

I give my son the message that it is safe to experience that intensity – that it will not swallow him – and that there is an emergence on the other side. I can support him through it – to the other side – as process: “You are feeling a lot of things right now… those feelings can be very strong. It is okay – you will be okay… I am here for you…”

I can reassure him that there is some cleansing that happen in that state and clarity that can be found afterward.

I think we may perhaps be too quick to judge a melt-down as something to be avoided – rather than an authentic response to a situation that needs to be processed in a more organic whole body way. Supporting my child through this – and also sharing that I sometimes struggle – will only help him to see that it is okay to have difficult times and to feel things deeply and to not be perfect (whatever that might be?).

And if I can honour my son through the process of the melt and have him able to emerge on the other side without a whole shit-load of shame – then he will be more able to authentically honour his own process and learn skills within that process. A melt can be scary – but if it is not layered up with so much shame or is not encountered along with so much accompanying fear – then I believe the process might be very different indeed.

I want my son to grow into a man who can process his emotions in a healthy way. I want him to have skills of resiliency and confidence in his ability to navigate his the intensity of his emotions. I don’t think this will develop in isolation – so I hope to support him in experiencing the full range of his emotional life – in a way that is authentic for him, and to know that he is not emotionally shut down or closed – but is safe in feeling as deeply as I know he does.

A final note:  Thank you, Colin. Your comments and communication always seem to have me perched on the very edge of my understanding – but I am ever so grateful for your gentle push of my capacity to see the complexities inherent in supporting others and in honouring their natural and native autistic capacity. I very much appreciate Colin, and Laura, and the many other Autistic people who share their experiences and insights with such generosity.

Processing emotions

Related posts: (refers to shame – and Alex B in comments does as well…)


30 Days of Autism is a project designed to fight stigma, promote civil rights, and increase understanding and acceptance for those who process and experience the world differently.

© Leah Kelley, Thirty Days of Autism, (2014/15)

About Leah Kelley, Ed.D.

Leah Kelley, M.Ed, Ed.D., Writer, Consultant, Activist, Speaker, and Educator, working with Teacher Candidates at UBC. Authors blog: 30 Days of Autism. Projects support social understanding, Neurodiversity paradigm, Disability Justice, and connecting Disability Studies in Education(DSE)to Educational Practice. Twitter: @leah_kelley Facebook: 30 Days of Autism: Leah Kelley
This entry was posted in ableism, acceptance, Autism, Behaviour, Communicate, limits, Resiliency, Shame, support and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Meltdowns and the Lens of Ableism

  1. phlomis68 says:

    It’s important to live emotions and live meltdown, live and let them go because in that time you get free emotions and you can understand them and not be afraid about. Family should stay near and let live meltdown and then when it flow it could be possible to talk about .


  2. erebusetnox says:

    Thank you for this, so very much….


  3. Dr. Kathleen Levinstein says:

    My own meltdowns as a child had to do with clothes being too restricting and hair care being painful. As I have gotten older, the meltdowns are internal and take a great toll- they are related to lack of public accommodations in light and sound- at the bank- the supermarket- the movie theatre and the University where I am a Professor. I have lived my entire life minus the accommodations that I really need . I was informed this summer by a neuroscientist that Autistics will never receive light and sound accommodations because it is too expensive and there are not enough of us .. I do remember the same argument pre -wheelchair ramps (too expensive and not enough of you …)


  4. Patricia says:

    Reblogged this on Spectrum Perspectives and commented:
    I love when a new perspective shifts the world a bit 🙂
    Never easy, but worth it!


  5. alexforshaw says:

    I make a considerable effort to avoid things that trigger meltdowns because I find the experience to be so mentally and physically exhausting that it takes days to recover. Unlike the emotional release of “a good cry” or venting anger I’ve never found them to be cathartic; the loss of conscious control I feel during one frightens me when I realize that in that state I am a potential danger to myself and even others.


  6. Irma Zoulane says:

    I have good cries; I have fits of anger; and I have meltdowns; they are not the same. The first two are a release, the third a scary, blind ride that I see coming and prepare for with panicky speed – ensuring my physical and social safety before I can let go voluntarily, because I will have to let go and I’d rather it be on my terms. I do feel released after, but not better at all. Physical pain from clenched muscles and overheated skin and cramped eyes, mental and physically drained… this is not something I *need*. I’m glad it’s over, and it takes a long time before I’m recovered.
    That said, yes, it is a wonderful and much needed to *not* treat the melt as something undesirable, to avoid shame and such. But to treat it as desirable or positive… I’m not sure that’s quite right. Maybe others have different opinions. To me, the melt is. It just is.
    Certainly learning to manage it is awesome, and to ride it when it comes, and to get better at coping, so that the next time, it can perhaps be skirted, or at least less painful. And knowing there is no shame is great, because then self-love and self care are that much easier.


  7. Narinda Tim Bennett says:

    My impression of my child from the outside as an NT is that it varies and depends on context, how we respond etc. It can be a release followed by loving calm or the opposite, more pain and vulnerability….


  8. Leah says:

    From my memories of experiencing meltdowns as a kid, I remember them as anything but cathartic. They were scary bad times. The bad feeling just filled your head and clung around afterward. It was no fun for me OR my loved ones. Not like a tantrum, where you have some control over your emotions. It was awful. I think people shouldn’t be completely risk-averse in order to avoid the risk of meltdowns (since you can’t hide your entire life from triggering things without not having a life), but it’s better to learn the signs of being overloaded and then figure out healthier methods to cool yourself down like stimming or going off somewhere quiet for a sensory break.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Lei says:

    My experience with meltdowns is that they are sometimes just unavoidable. No matter how calm or accommodating the environment. As an Autistic adult, I don’t have as many as when I was a kid, but they still happen. I think the release of a meltdown when I have reached the “point of no return” is scary, it is hard, but it is also something I need to learn to work through. It can be somewhat different from a good cry, definitely more intense, but the release can be similar. I like what you are saying about finding ways to melt down that avoid the shame and the fear. Especially as they simply can’t be avoided forever. I see in my own kid that he is working through his meltdowns too when we have stopped telling him they are to be avoided or stopped at all costs, and started helping him to process and understand them.

    I especially love when you say “it is over and done and the important thing is that there is always another chance. I can encourage him and give him the message that it is good to let all those feelings out.” Because that is such an important thing for people to understand.

    I think the point is in not shaming in order to help the person understand that their feelings are valid, even when they are scary and painful. And to help them find ways to work through those feelings that are perhaps less scary and painful the next time. At least that is what I am getting from this post, which I love, by the way!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I do see the point in not labelling a meltdown as a failure. However, to me a meltdown has very little to do with having a good cry. Both as a child and now as an adult, meltdowns neither make me calm, nor do they give me a fresh start. It takes days, sometimes actually weeks, to recover from them and during that time my sensory sensitivities are so bad that I can hardly stand the sound of my partner and child. It’s possible that my meltdowns (and shutdowns) are affected by my other conditions and of course it’s possible that my meltdowns are formed from never learning to deal with them as a child, but to me it really har very little in common with a good cry.


  11. Pingback: Let’s ride the nope train {Day Three} | Un-Boxed Brain

  12. Really interesting.Thank you for a thought provoking article.Watching my son experience meltdowns and talking to him about them they are the opposite of a good cry.He tells me he feels appalling after them,he’s frightened when he feels them approaching,he’s scared of what he could do during them(he lashes out-generally he is a gentle sensitive person),and he feels upset,wrung out and tired after them.
    As a neuro typical who is being gently taught about different perspectives by a fabulous 14 year old Aspie tutor:the closest I can come to understanding them is my migraine experiences.During them I feel quite altered,and following them I feel post ictal (this describes the state people experience following an epileptic fit).
    I feel I need to help him be kind to himself when he feels a meltdown approaching and find a way to avoid the stimulus that is causing it,and hug him and love him offering no judgement and recriminations afterwards.Oh and I apologise profusely for not understanding what his “tantrums’ were earlier(his diagnosis was reasonably recent and trying to squeeze him hard into my neuro typical life model.
    We want the best for our children don’t we?And exploring and discussing these things can only be good for extending our understanding of each other.


  13. aliciafl says:

    I find this very interesting and helpful thank you. In comparing your good cry and your son’s meltdown I wad immediately taken to the difference between a woman being allowed and even expected to have a good cry and that “fact” that men don’t cry. For a man to experience intense emotions and to process them and perhaps release them by crying is seen as much less acceptable and unmanly!


  14. ettinacat says:

    Meltdowns can’t be avoided completely, but I don’t see them as having any good side. Even the ‘feeling of release’ is just not being miserable any more, and not anything truly positive. I’m all for neurodiversity, but meltdowns aren’t a part of my neurology, they’re something that happens when I’m subjected to something that is harmful to me.


  15. VisualVox says:

    Um, no. Not the same as a good cry. Not even close. I appreciate your attempt to understand, but you’re missing the biochemical experience, the utterly crushing defeat that just levels us. It happens in the whole of us, not just in our heads.


    • Caiha says:

      It depends. Been thinking about this a lot. If I manage to avoid that feeling of shame, and the crushing depression that comes with it. IF, and it’s a big IF… but if I do, I actually do feel considerably better after a melt down.


  16. foxtears says:

    I think you’re right about moving away from the stigma of meltdowns, but I don’t feel any kind of clearing of the air from them. They come with a hangover, mostly they don’t make me feel better like having a good cry. I don’t know if that’s because I’m more prone to shutdowns than melts.

    I do agree that complete avoidance is undesirable, but only because it’s impossible and learning how to self-care through and safely emerge from a meltdown is a vital skill. Vital messages would be:
    This will pass
    You haven’t failed
    This is an understandable response
    There is a process for when you come out of this

    I’m still working on this. I dread the silent anger and annoyance of people around me when I come back out of it. Seeing the devastation around me of broken projects and hurt feelings. Coming back is almost worse than going in (for me), because stopping caring about what I’m doing is less frightening than starting again after I’ve done things that hurt people.


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