Writing Autistic – How to Write Meltdowns and Shutdowns

So, meltdowns and shutdowns.

It’s not a shock that it took me forever to recognise my meltdowns for what they were. Whenever meltdowns are discussed in the mainstream, it’s about the inconvenience to parents. They look like tantrums and are characterised by violence.

That’s not to say that meltdowns don’t sometimes look like that, but mine don’t. I just burst into tears…

But if I had known what they felt like from the Autistic point of view, this probably wouldn’t have happened.

So, if it took me forever to figure out what meltdowns felt like from the Autistic point of view, when I was actually having them, how are you supposed to know when it comes to writing Autistic characters?

Never fear, I took to my Tumblr to ask exactly how meltdowns feel to a variety of different people.

Now, bear in mind that not all of these happen to everyone. Think of this like the Emotion Thesaurus. When you’re writing a meltdown/shutdown, just visit this page and pick a thing or two to have your character experience.

Sensory Experiences/Feelings

These are usually experienced in the build-up. There’s still an opportunity here to avoid a total meltdown, but only if the character acts quickly. They will often continue, in a higher intensity, once the meltdown begins in earnest.

  • Senses feel “staticky”
  • Senses feel turned up to eleven
  • Vertigo
  • Disorientation
  • Feeling faint
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Slower processing time (trouble thinking)
  • Feeling disconnected from the world around them
  • Chest tightening
  • Shaking
  • Loss of co-ordination
  • Temperature fluctuations (feeling warm or hot and cold at the same time)
  • Fight-or-flight kicks in
  • Alexithymia
Sound
  • Noises are like nails on a chalkboard
  • It becomes harder to differentiate between different sounds
  • Might sound muffled and/or distorted, as if far away
  • Trouble processing language (people talking becomes meaningless babble)
Vision
  • Vision fills with yellow static
  • Vision turns grey around the edges
  • Vision becomes blurry (especially if the character’s eyesight isn’t perfect)
Touch
  • Skin begins to crawl
  • Character becomes hyper aware of clothing
  • More aware of small pains
Taste
  • Horrible taste in mouth
  • Craving high-energy food/drink

External Responses

It’s important to remember that these are a reactionary response to stress. The unpleasant sensory experiences will build up until they hit a critical point, at which external responses will start. Much like screaming/increased heart rate when startled, they’re reflexive. Some people, with enough disciple, can stifle certain responses or redirect them into others, but it’s extremely taxing to do so and usually reserved for situations where the reactions can put them in danger (near an abusive parent/partner or near a cop, for example) or have severe consequences for them (in front of a boss). Some people simply can’t stifle or redirect their responses on their own or without careful planning beforehand. How you portray your character is up to you, but it’s important to have an idea in place, as it will inform your character’s backstory/personality/willingness to put themselves in situations where they risk meltdowns.

Shutdown
  • Limbs freezing up
  • Going non-verbal (I’ll do a separate post on this)
  • An inability to process sensory information (you’re aware of sound/movement happening around you but your brain won’t turn it into anything useful)
  • Tensing up
Meltdown
  • Stimming (including self-harming stims, which will have their own post)
  • Bursting into tears (often alexithymia will have also kicked in, so they will feel out of place to the character)
  • Defaulting to echolalia/scripting
  • Going non-verbal
  • Running to a safe space
  • Retreating to the fetal position
  • Tensing up
  • Outward expressions of frustration (hitting, screaming, etc. – as these are the most extreme reactions, they are the most often suppressed)

The Cooldown

Eventually, whatever caused the meltdown/shutdown will go away (or the body will simply give up), but that doesn’t mean that it’s over. It can take hours, if not the rest of the day to recuperate. Whereas the build up and meltdown/shutdown themselves have a sense of panicked urgency to them (much like when you’re nauseous and you know you’re going to puke), the cooldown feels more like a hangover. Your body has already been through the worst and you know that you’re going to recover, but that doesn’t make it pleasant.

Sensory Experiences/Feelings

  • Fatigue (often requiring a nap/full night’s sleep to recover – in extreme cases they might pass out)
  • Senses remain heightened (everything feels raw)
  • Hunger
  • Dehydration
  • Trouble processing sensory input, especially detail or nuance
  • Feeling “hungover”
  • Headaches
  • Guilt – feeling like they hadn’t done enough to prevent it or feeling as if they let their family/partner/friends down or ruined their day
  • Feeling worthless/useless (this – as with guilt – is more of a reaction to the frustration of having had a meltdown/shutdown than something directly caused by the meltdown/shutdown itself)
  • Pain if muscles were tensed uncomfortably
External Responses
  • Seeking out comforting spaces (somewhere dark and quiet)
  • Stimming, though often it’s more subdued than in the lead up (probably because we’re tired) – think more playing a single song on repeat for hours than hand flapping
  • If they smoke/drink, they may turn to cigarettes/alcohol to help them through (I’m going to give alcohol/cigarettes their own post because they’re complicated topics when it comes to mental health)
  • Wearing hoods/sunglasses, etc.
  • Hugging pillows/soft toys/hot water bottles
  • Wearing weighted vests/blankets
  • Crying

Now, after reading all of this, you might be thinking “holy f*ck on a f*ck sandwich, Autistic people really go through that much?”

Again, once more, this is a list of many possible feelings/reactions to a meltdown/shutdown. Your character might experience a lot (or even most) of these, but probably not every single one.

And even if they did, the point here is not to elicit pity. It’s also not so that you can write about how terrible your character’s life is.

Meltdowns/shutdowns are irritating. They’re a nuisance. I wish I didn’t have them.

But, like, in the same way I wish I had chill periods (which I know is something only about 50% of you will understand, but I can’t think of a completely universal analogy).

I don’t like them coming around, but I deal with it and life goes on.

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