Stephen Borgman

Stephen Borgman

Spectrum Solutions


Managing Meltdowns on the Autism Spectrum

Are you ready to tame your meltdowns?

Posted Nov 18, 2010

Let's not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it. ~Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

Little emotions are not so little on the autism spectrum, or for many individuals who are not even on the autism spectrum. Recently, I was listening in on a discussion forum for persons on the autism spectrum. Several individuals shared their struggles with emotional meltdowns. All of us struggle with emotions, and all of us "lose it" from time to time (yours truly included :). However, it's helpful to understand why individuals on the autism spectrum may be susceptible to being driven along by emotions, rather than being the captains of their emotions.


Possible Causes

Sensory Overload

Some individuals are affected by noise.  Others are affected by smells. Or textures. Or lights.  It  can be any number of things, but if too many inputs can lead to meltdowns or shutdowns.  Screaming, rage, yelling in public.  It can all happen when the senses get into a traffic jam.

Social Challenges

I was once a tourist in Venezuela.  The streets did not have signs.  I didn't understand what people were saying.  When people were lauighing, I had no idea about why.  Needless to say, it was stressful.  Yet this is what individuals on the autism spectrum go through on a regular basis.  Of course, each person is unique, so they may experience more or less of this social confusion, but the stress can take it's toll over the course of the day.  Too much stress, and the boiling point can be reached.


Long Term Stress

Combine long term stressors of sensory overload and social challenges, along with all the regular hassles that make up daily living, it's not surprising that individuals on the spectrum may "lose it" over seemingly small situations.  And a spouse or parent of this individual, you may feel bewildered at the intensity of the meltdown.

Counting the Costs


I've read many posts on discussions regarding this topic.  Individuals feel embarrassed, ashamed, and sad/discouraged after a meltdown.  In fact, they themselves feel bewildered or puzzled as to what happened.  Almost as if they had a blackout.

Loss of Relationships

Over time, some individuals have shared that they have alienated friends and peers because of the intensity of their emotions.

More Stress

If, over time, a person feels that meltdowns are inevitable, random, and uncontrollable, they can feel somewhat stressed out!  Imagine not knowing when you will lose it next, or what the consequences may be.

Toward Solutions

I'm going to recommend two different workbooks that I share with my clients, whether they are on the spectrum or not.  Each of us can benefit from learning strategies to better understand and direct our emotions.  And as we learn more about the nature of emotions and how to control them, we will feel less helpless.  This can lead to lowered embarrasment, less stress, and continued relationship.  It's worth it to build new skills!

Emotions Expert Dr. Marsha Linehan

Enter Dr. Marsha Linehan.  Dr. Linehan worked with severely depressed people who were not responding to typical psychotherapy treatments.  These people had been through numerous traumas over the course of a lifetime.  Trauma has an impact on the brain, such that emotions become overly magnified.  In the course of time, the person going through the trauma experiences emotions as extremely painful.

If you would like a PhD in the area of understanding and dealing with emotions effectively, I'm going to recommend that you go out and pick up Dr. Linehan's videos, books, and DVD's on the subject of Borderline Personality Disorder

Or, if you'd like to learn some strategies quickly, pick up her Skills Training Manual for Treating Personality Disorder.  These strategies are, I believe, helpful for every single person alive.  Not just for "borderline personality disorder."

Her modules, toward the end of the workbook, teach skills such as core mindfulness,interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation, and distress tolerance.

Learn and Practice the Exercises

I'm going to share just one of the exercises from Dr. Linehan's workbook, so that you can see how simple but strategic and helpful these exercises can be.

This exercise is under the distress tolerance skills: It's called Self-Soothe.

What I like about this exercise is that it uses the five senses to self-soothe.  Just as the senses can be bombarded, now you can use them to self-soothe.

With Vision

Buy a beautiful painting or flower.  Design your own beautiful space in a room.  Light a candle, and watch it quietly.  Go out in the middle of the night and watch the stars.  Be creative: you know best what sights you most enjoy.  Notice them, take them in slowly, and let their beauty calm you.

With Hearing:

Listen to some beautiful and soothing music.  Consider going on or to your local bookstore to purchase some meditation CD's.  Consider buying CD's with sounds of nature.  You can sing.  Savor the sounds, and let them calm you.

With Smell:

Buy some potpourri and put it in a bowl in your room.  Or buy a scented candle and enjoy the smell.  Inhale the smells of nature at a local park or forest preserve.  Enjoy the smells, savor them, and let them calm you.

With Taste:

Notice what your favorite foods are.  Keep some of your favorite foods on hand in small portions.  You might want to keep some of your favorite flavors of tea or coffee on hand.  Fix yourself a cup of tea or coffee to savor. Really savor the taste, and let it soothe you.

With Touch:

This sense makes me think of Dr. Temple Grandin.  In her books about growing up, she tells of how she invented a 'hug' machine.  When feeling very stressed out, she would put herself in this contraption and it would give her deep body pressure.  Very relieving. Invest in a massage.  Or go for a walk.  I find that running gives me quite a bit of stress relief.  Or lifting weights.  Or martial arts.  Or a warm bath.  Or soft clothes.  Let the touch soothe you and take away your stress.

Reach Out

Consider finding support groups in your area to meet up with other individuals on the autism spectrum.  Or go online to forums that enable you to connect with others.  Wrong Planet is one example of an online community of over 40,000 individuals: you don't have to be alone!

You may also want to consider finding a counselor or psychologist who can help you work on these skills.  Not all counselors are bad guys/gals!  (I know that there is some distrust of us counselors and psychologists out there, but give us a chance.  Don't judge all counselors or psychologists by one bad experience--keep trying until you find someone you click with).  Having a coach is like having a personal trainer when you are serious about getting into physical shape: it can yield great results.

Think of your emotions as wild horses. Untamed, they can wreak havoc.  But, once understood and worked with, they can be of great service and power to you.  I wish you the best as you move forward with your personal growth! 

Let me know what you think!  I look forward to your comments!