Writing Autistic

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
  • 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 fills with yellow static
  • Vision turns grey around the edges
  • Vision becomes blurry (especially if the character’s eyesight isn’t perfect)
  • Skin begins to crawl
  • Character becomes hyper aware of clothing
  • More aware of small pains
  • 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.

  • 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
  • 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.

Writing Autistic

Writing Autistic – The Innocent and the Damned

You know, this wasn’t even going to be the post today. I was going to write about the technical aspects of meltdowns and shutdowns.

But The Accountant is coming out and there have been social media rumblings, so I thought I would instead wade into the waters of Good, Bad, and Morally Grey characters.

This is gonna be an issue with any minority group. You’re going to be coming up against positive and negative stereotypes that you don’t want your work to contribute to. And yes, positive stereotypes can be harmful as well.

Bad Guys

This is where The Accountant comes in. I see a lot of people rail against autistic bad guys in fiction because of the stereotype that autistic people are violent/dangerous, but I think that’s an overgeneralisation.

The stereotype isn’t just that we’re killers (autism seems to be the new hotness when it comes to explaining violent crimes, such as mass shootings), but that we’re capable of such acts of violence because we lack empathy.

I’ve been meaning to write a revised empathy post, but for now let’s simply say that autism =/= lack of empathy, and lack of empathy =/= tendencies towards violence.

In all honesty, using a lack of empathy to explain why bad guys are bad is just lazy writing.

Bad guys aren’t just “bad”. Evil is not a thing people are born into. But this Key Stage One Reading Level style of writing remains. Lazy writers have just replaced “evil” with “psychopath” (doesn’t exist), “sociopath” (also doesn’t exist), and “autistic”.

Even if someone didn’t care about other people and had no empathy towards them, why would they turn to evil/crime? Why risk prison or getting involved with criminals?

“Because I don’t feel bad about it” isn’t a good enough reason to have a character commit crimes. It lacks motive.

Motive is important. Your bad guys should have it.

What do they want and how desperate are they?

Have they been indoctrinated into thinking that their targets aren’t real people?

“Because I grew up in a society where X type of person wasn’t valued” is a better reason for why they felt it was okay to kill someone than “Just because.”

Or “I was simply desperate enough and they were standing in my way.”

Your bad guys can be autistic, but being autistic can’t be the reason they’re bad guys.

Good Guys

Now, your counterpoint to the previous section may be “Fine, then I’ll just write about pure and innocent autistic characters who never do any wrong.”

Yeah, no, that’s too far in the other direction.

Specifically, there’s a line of thinking about a lot of developmentally disabled people that they have no ability to be consciously bad (if they are bad it’s all the autism – much like the devil possessing a child in a horror film – and isn’t actually anything to do with the autistic person making a choice) because they don’t understand right and wrong/are eternal children and therefore innocent.

If you write a character who is good and pure and who has never had a bad thought in their life… Well, that’s just not very realistic. So, instead of demonising your character, you’ve dehumanised them by denying them human thoughts/feelings.

Even Superman – the best of the good guys – has bad days.

Morally Grey Guys

The stereotype that is probably most likely to fall into the morally grey archetype is the manipulator. The character who, for either good or their own gain depending on their mood, will lie to their friends with no qualms simply because they can.

And I don’t know with this one. It’s definitely not an “avoid with all costs” scenario, because I’ve seen it done well (Sherlock in Elementary springs to mind).

But I also think that it comes back to the autism =/= lack of emapthy and lack of empathy =/= being evil/a dick/having a complete lack of any emotion problem.

This is done well when the reason behind the manipulation is explained. It doesn’t have to be romanticed or brushed aside, but it can’t just be for the lulz. It has to be a reaction to something. An emotion/situation that the character doesn’t otherwise know how to deal with.

This is best done in Elementary when Watson calls Sherlock on his crap and he is remorseful and apologises. It works because it’s a flaw of his character, not an unchanging constant that can never be addressed. It’s not just “the way he is”, it’s a maladaptive coping mechanism.

So yeah, I guess the part to avoid here is simply the “with no qualms” part. At least, in the long run. If your autistic character grows and changes then you’re already ahead of, like, 95% of writers.

Alright, well, I guess that’s it for now…

I might think of more points and do a follow up post, but I think this will do for this one.

I will get to working on that post about shutdowns/meltdowns, and I’m also going to put together a masterpost, including all of the links to my posts and to any other resources I know of.

Freya Snow Lady Ruth The Phoenix Saga

A Quick Overview of Books Gone By and Books Yet to Come…

I thought, what with there being so many now, that I would do a quick overview of all of the books I have out, as well as the books I have planned for 2017.


Aspects is a YA sci-fi series following a group of alien-blooded warriors who are responsible for keeping the cities of humanity safe from the genetically engineered monsters that roam what remains of the Earth.

The first three books are currently available in ebook on Amazon, in Kindle Unlimited, and in paperback.

There is also a prequel novella available for free.


The Snowverse is my urban fantasy universe, including all of the books following the Snow family, as well as their friends and enemies.

Freya Snow

Freya Snow is a YA/NA series following an Autistic, bisexual Angel who fights Demons and gets drawn into saving the world every so often. The first nine books, as well as a short story collection, are available now.

The tenth book, PRINCESS, will be released January 2018.

Other Snowverse Titles

DISGRACED is a novella following the character of Lady Caroline from Freya Snow. It acts as a prequel to both Freya Snow and the series following Lady Caroline, The Royal Cleaner, and follows Caroline in her teenage years as she struggles against the darker side of Demonic politics.

TARGET is the first book in The Royal Cleaner series and is an f/f romance novel following Caroline between the sixth and eighth Freya Snow book as she tries to keep magic a secret, even from meddling human police.

REBEL is the first book in the Engineered Rebel series, which delves into the more sci-fi end of the Snowverse and follows a group of soldiers who were genetically engineered and trained since birth to fight magic as they start to question their purpose and whether magical beings are really the bad guys. It's recommended that this series is read after the first eight Freya Snow books for spoilers.

TRAPPED is a novella following Lily Snow, Freya's mother. It's a prequel to the Freya Snow series, though there's no real reading order for it. I wrote it about the same time as WINGS, so that's probably about as good a place as any to read it, but it doesn't really matter.

FATE is a collection of short stories following Alice, Freya's adoptive sister, and is available for free to people who join my newsletter. A new story is added with every new Freya Snow book.

CASTAWAY HEART is a trilogy of mermaid romance novels set around the time of TRAPPED. It's separate enough from the main plot of FREYA SNOW that it's not necessary to read the other to understand one. The entire trilogy is available now!

THE ALMOSTS is a trilogy of paranormal heist novellas which are best described as Saints Row III meets Breaking Bad meets Charmed. The trilogy will be released all at once in August 2017 and the first book is available now from instaFreebie.

The Lady Ruth Constance Chapelstone Chronicles

Anyone who has followed me for any length of time will know the saga of Lady Ruth. A trilogy of steampunk novellas that took me far too long to finish and that were in editing hell for months. But now the entire trilogy is officially out!


Giveaway of the First Three Freya Snow Books


Want to read the first three Freya Snow books for free?

I’m currently doing a giveaway of the Pup Trilogy (the first three books, including the short stories) on Goodreads. Just follow this link to enter.

Unfortunately, due to shipping costs, the Goodreads paperback giveaway is only available to people in the US, UK or Canada.

But if you live elsewhere, or just prefer ebooks, you can get the ebook version for free by following this link.

Both of these giveaways will end on the 14th of October 2016, but if you missed them, you can always get the first book for free here, and you can get access to review copies of my books here.