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Meltdowns in Adults with Aspergers & High-Functioning Autism

Can an adult with Aspergers or High Functioning Autism have a meltdown just like a child with the same disorder? 

The answer is ‘yes’ – but the adult’s meltdown-behavior looks a bit different than a child’s. Under severe enough stress, any normally calm and collected individual may become “out-of-control” – even to the point of violence. But some individuals experience repeated meltdowns in which tension mounts until there is an explosive release.

The adult version of a meltdown may include any of the following (just to name a few):
  • aggressive behavior in which the individual reacts grossly out of proportion to the circumstance
  • angry outbursts that involve throwing or breaking objects 
  • banging your head
  • crying
  • domestic abuse
  • pacing back and forth
  • quitting your job
  • road rage
  • talking to yourself
  • threatening others
  • walking out on your spouse or partner
  • yelling and screaming

On the mild end of the continuum, the adult in meltdown may simply say some things that are overly critical and disrespectful, thus ultimately destroying the relationship with the other party (or parties) in many cases. On the more extreme end of the continuum, the adult in meltdown may attack others and their possessions, causing bodily injury and property damage. In both examples, the adult often later feels remorse, regret or embarrassment.

Meltdowns, usually lasting 5 to 20 minutes, may occur in clusters or be separated by weeks or months in which the Aspergers adult maintains his/her composure. Meltdown episodes may be preceded or accompanied by:
  • Chest tightness
  • Headache or a feeling of pressure in the head
  • Increased energy
  • Irritability
  • Palpitations
  • Paranoia
  • Rage
  • Tingling
  • Tremors

A number of factors increase the likelihood of experiencing a meltdown:
  • A history of physical abuse or bullying: “Aspies” who were abused as kids have an increased risk for frequent meltdowns as adults.
  • A history of substance abuse: Aspies who abuse drugs or alcohol have an increased risk for frequent meltdowns.
  • Age: Meltdowns are most common in Aspies in their late teens to mid 20s.
  • Being male: Aspergers men are far more likely to meltdown than women.
  • Having another mental health problem: Aspies with other mental illnesses (e.g., depression, anxiety disorders) are more likely to have meltdowns.

The meltdown is not always directed at others. Aspergers adults who experience meltdowns are also at significantly increased risk of harming themselves, either with intentional injuries or suicide attempts. Those who are also addicted to drugs or alcohol have a greatest risk of harming themselves.

Aspergers adults who experience meltdowns are often perceived by others as “always being angry.” Other complications may include job loss, school suspension, divorce, auto accidents, and even incarceration.

If you're concerned because you're having repeated meltdowns, talk with your doctor or make an appointment with someone who specializes in treating adults on the spectrum (e.g., a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, etc.).

Here's how to prepare for an appointment with a professional:
  1. Make a list of all medications as well as any vitamins or supplements that you're taking.
  2. Write down any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
  3. Write down key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life changes.
  4. Write down questions to ask your doctor. Preparing a list of questions can help you make sure you cover everything that's important to you. 
  5. Don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time that you don't understand something.

There's no one treatment that's best for Aspergers adults who experience meltdowns. Treatment generally includes medication and individual or group therapy. Individual or group therapy sessions can be very helpful. A commonly used type of therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, helps Aspergers adults identify which situations or behaviors may trigger a meltdown. In addition, this type of therapy teaches Aspies how to manage their anger and control their typically inappropriate response using relaxation techniques. Cognitive behavioral therapy that combines cognitive restructuring, coping skills training, and relaxation training has the most promising results.

Unfortunately, many Aspergers adults who experience meltdowns don't seek treatment. If you're involved in a relationship with an Aspie, it's important that you take steps to protect yourself and your kids. Any emotional and/or physical abuse that may be occurring is not your fault.  If you see that a situation is escalating, and you suspect your partner may be on the verge of a meltdown, try to safely remove yourself and your kids from the area. 

Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples

38 comments:

  1. Yup! It may look different to the observer, but a meltdown is a meltdown.

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  2. I really appreciate this post. Many of us adult aspies as children were not understood and became survivors, figuring out how we personally tick hiding from a system we don't quite fit. It's nice there is a lot more understanding and help.

    When I was a child I had intense firery tantrums. As an adult I'm defiantly more composed and am discovering healthier coping outlets to place my frustrations and recognizing when it's building up.

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  3. totally...and often without warning, in my case

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  4. I had a few meltdowns, and my last one led to my walking out on my job and apartment, and never returned, since then I had myself assessed and am now offcially an Aspie.

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  5. What if you're pushed to the breaking point over and over, and it makes no difference to anyone that you're breaking inside? I tell people to leave me alone when I am getting stressed, and they all of the sudden follow me around and ask questions, bother me, and harrass me. I say two more times to please leave me alone, I need a break. I make it to my quiet place, but they follow me there.

    And it's somehow MY fault if I cannot control any possible violence to myself, someone else, or property? When all they have todo is respect me? Bullshit. I am the one being abused, and I have nowhere to go. I have been suicidal for YEARS, but I live with it, containing it always.

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    1. I used to feel that way but now I am 35 years old with a wife and 2 kids and i can not blame any one else for my meltdowns but my self im trying out meds i don't want to hurt my kids and my wife i love them

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    2. I'm 47. What if meds and everything you ever tried doesn't work? What's next? Suicide. I just don't know.

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  6. I had one Saturday.. :-( and after reading this I think what happened Tuesday was one as well.

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  7. I recall a particular meltdown after reading the article , which was distressing for my then partner and emotionally distressing and physically exhausting for me . It also sadly played a part in ringing the death knell for that relationship .
    It is a painful memory I also thought of them as somewhat like a non physical tornado from out of nowhere and chaos inducing .

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  8. I am dating an aspie, and his melt downs are not usually violent, just frustrating because I can never figure out how to handle his meltdowns. I have difficulty reading him, and the last melt down he had i broke down and started crying myself. I eventually realized what was happening and regained control of myself so I could calm him down, but this is the person I am hoping to spend the rest of my life with. I love him and want us to work, but if that's going to happen I need to learn how to handle the meltdowns better. Any suggestions?

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    1. Just give him space don't nag him or keep asking questions just give him space and time to process his thoughts.

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    2. RUN!!!!! IT WILL NEVER CHANGE!!! RUN!!!

      This is from a 47 year old man who hurts his family constantly.

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    3. I know answer a 2 years old question is a bit too late, but if anyone is having the same problem, you should have a "red code". Idk if other Aspies are the same but I usually know when I'm about to meltdown. Like the article said: irritability and tight chest, hard to breath... I know it's building up but still have enough will power to control myself. At that time I only want to be left alone. If your partner can feel it too, then you should have a code for "I want to be alone for a while. It's not because of you. I just feel under pressure and I need a break." Texting or any kind of writing communicate is much more welcome than any kind of verbal communication at that time. Let him know that you understand what's happening to him and will wait untill he's ready to talk again, and then leave him alone.

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  9. pure embarrassment and shame. I ruined almost every relationship I had with these very rare but very remembered and forever used against me meltdowns. can't say I really blame them just wish I remembered what I said. iq's are over-rated when it comes to this- mine and especially theirs- the professionals.

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  10. I learned later in life (like three years ago) I was diagnosed with autism and I just blew up at my roommate. My caregiver tried to contain me but the roommate insisted that I wasn't the person to talk to concerning Photoshop, Illustrator, Indesign, and such. When he works on audio stuff he goes all like "I went to school for this." When in fact I went to school for art... He openingly devalued my opinion (after many little scuffs before hand) and I just blew it. Normally I'm really quiet and skiddish (I'm five seven in a world of six footers) and I speak slowly and at reasonable volume. I may be seen as a tool but I just like being nice.
    Anyways... I blew up and shouted (I never shout) the word "F*** YOU!" to my roommate for like a minute straight and then took 20 Ativan and two trazadone. My boyfriend stopped me. I feel like the most horrible thing to ever live, and I'm including viruses in this, I just so awful and I'm still recovering. I'm still shaking. :-(

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  11. Hi, I live with my (maybe ex) partner who is an aspie. We are currently having serious difficulties in our relationship in regards to them have meltdowns and their aggressiveness towards me as a result (they will not accept that it feels like this is aimed towards me even if it isn't- even though they get upset/angry if I shout around them). I seriously need some help/guidance in regards to this as I seriously think this could be the end of our relationship if we cannot find a (permanent) solution. I love them more than anything in the world but sometimes I cannot cope with these issues due to personal difficulties with other people being aggressive/hurtful towards me.

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    1. I feel you'll need to have support from others in relationships with aspies. I feel for you as it can feel very lonely without enough hugs coming your way.

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  12. My Daughter is the one with the meltdowns, although some are just angry outbursts. She is 21 and has had these outbursts/meltdowns her whole life. Now that she is an adult, it is more difficult for me to "take" these attacks, and keep my own self respect. I actually called a suicide hotline myself yesterday and am desperately working to understand her better so I don't push her buttons. She lashes out when she feels I am not respecting her. She has good friends and can hold a job, just can't drive yet. The bad days are really bad and it is amazing I live through the tough moments, especially the ones in public like the two in stores today. Trying to get her to see a Psychiatric place that specializes in Autism...waiting for them to approve her. I feel like she hates me much of the time, and I feel like a prisoner in my own house. She doesn't like me to be away because she gets lonely. I need to reach out to others who either understand her or me.

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    1. Hi there H MB, I feel like your post here just read my mind. My daughter is twenty next week. Her meltdowns that she's had all her life are fewer and far between and way more intense. She holds down a job but does not drive. She is very reliant on me in spite of my efforts to build her self-sufficiency. When I travel she can "hold it together" at job but does nothing at home to pull her weight. I come home to complete distress - her patient sister has done all the housework, her room is a mess, and within twenty four hours she melts down. Last night was the worst. They are becoming so much more intense and almost violent in her physicality as she is taller and heavier than me now. She repeats phrases, flaps her arms and begs for me to hug her and when I do, she physically pushes me away. If I do manage to cover her with the weighted blanket or calm her down, anything could trigger her again. She gets angry and tells me "I have an angry look on my face" and if I try to leave her alone to give her space, she flies into a rage and repeats "mommy mommy mommy mommy mommy" until I cannot get her out of the cycle. If I offer to sit with her until she calms (which she insists) she cries about me being angry at her (I am not, but I'm scared/tired/frustrated) or she spews hateful things about me not loving her or that I must wish she'd never been born, or clearly I love her sister more. All of these things are not true but she manages to come up with the most cruel and hurtful things to say, no matter what I say or don't say to her. Last night it went on for over three hours and the household was in complete chaos. I felt so trapped. She was at one point running in circles and crashing into walls, I felt so sorry for her. By the time it was over, my head felt like a tight vice was squeezing it and I had to throw up to release the pressure. I am at the end of my rope, nothing I do is right. Her psychiatrist gives us suggestions and things are better after an appointment but now she refuses to go or twists the psychiatrist's words or advice later. I am struggling to discern whether this is just her Aspergers sometimes and not a bigger disorder developing? Is she bipolar or depressed? She refuses to take part in diagnostic tools with the therapist. I am struggling with the fact that she can basically function at school and work and then directs these meltdowns at me for mostly innocuous reasons. As a parent, I now can't ask for basic things like picking up her room or helping with minor chores because she might melt down... I feel she is using them as a constant threat or manipulative tool to avoid talking responsibility for daily life. She also always blames me afterward: I didn't hug her enough (even if she pushed me away), I talk too much (even though she won't let me leave), I looked at her funny or meanly given though I may have just been intensely watching a show on TV and not even interacting with her). God forbid she falls or trips, then all hell breaks loose. I'm at the end of my rope. I love her intensely but the meltdowns are taking a toll on me. I am the one taking anti-anxiety meds. It's like having a three year old sometimes.

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  13. yeah... my problem is my parents never thought I had asperger's, only dhd, and I have such a cognitive deficit and executive function problem, PLUS my natural personality traits of being a libra sun, virgo moon, scorp rising, that I just... I was in terror most of my life, and felt alone, becuase whenever I tried ot tell ANY ADULT AUTHORITY FIGURE something was wrongf wiht me, in the best way I could, they didn't pay attention. I was alone, and very angry, even though i had parents and school and a doctor. ;my dad, who has asperger's, can get SO LOUD and scary when he yells... I'm 30, and still live at home. I had to take ritalin for my adhd... but it made my nerves ten billion times worse,so bad I licked my lips as a child till they were raw and bleeding. ;( He msut hve scorpio rising too, though, because he is so scary. he thnks I'm worthless when my meltdowns and his conjoin... it's not pretty. one day, somebody's gonna die of nobody helps us. And it won't be anyone's fault. that's the sad thing. my mo mchased me into my closet once after a fight, screaming that I should stop acting autistic. :O My dad SCREAMED at me once (scorpios look scarier than they think they do, hence my abject fear) becaues I couldn't understand my homework one night in elementary school. I'm no picnic either. we need help, not being treated like retards by EVERYOne we've ever tried to get help from. ;( sad right now. Anybody would feel paranoid after all that and ritalin and being bullied in school and your parents not understanding or helping and making fun of you and yelling, saying all the while thatthey love oyu. My mom sat on the couch once and plotted against the neighbors suddenly, one day, when was ten I think... i suddenly looked at her and was very afraid. I didn;t recognize her... after year ten, I realized I was completely alone in the entire world. nothing much has changed. but I'm still here god damn it. I trained MSELF to think around my issues... and STILL it isn;t enough. But I'm here. god damn it I'm HERE. Be well my friends... be well, and know that I love you, even if no one else in your life does. Can't do much about it becuae I need to be alone, but can't be due ot other needs.. but I DO love oyu. It won't always be like this for us. Take heart. ;)

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    1. You are 30 years old! Go and take action and get some help! Parents do the best they can,sometimes they don't make the right decisions,like Ritalin,but you need to be an adult and get help!

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    2. It can be very very difficult being parented by Aspies.....I have found adult children of (usually undiagnosed) Aspies often have separation anxiety and emotional insecurity , ADD, bit like complex developmental trauma.....because of problems with recognising the distress and emotional needs of the baby and child.....some good kind informed therapy and some letting go of blame would be helpful...animals are good Pets are very healing and give the unconditional love without words....

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  14. I have meltdowns. I just had one about 20 min ago. It was embarrassing actually and brought on by the fact that I misplaced a vacuum part. :/ I always knew growing up that I was different from my peers...just didn't understand why. Sometimes now, I wonder if I am an aspie. Is there a way for me to find out? I am 31 years old and mother of one child(a daughter years) I would like to know what is going on with me.

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  15. I have a number of patients who are high functioning aspies diagnosed late in life. Their meltdowns frighten others and are very distressing for them.. It is pure unfettered emotion expressed with incredible intensity through whole body, expression and voice.......each person has a different characteristic meltdown signature.

    Once it is over, (and I have not found it responds to medication) the pertson feels "rebooted" like clean slate....I think they go back to left brain functioning without the emotional buildup and can be entirely logical.
    This makes it look like its under their control but its not. At the same time they dont realise how it affects others. They do have physical exhaustion...aches and pains from muscle tension and become incredibly flushed with an autonomic outpouring.
    Just my observations.. I was wondering if clonidine helps....any experience here from Aspies?

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    1. My Aspie friend would benefit greatly from some cognitive therapy, but he apparently doesn't know he has Asperger's and is very anti-diagnosis or categorising of anything health-related. One of his verbal meltdowns with me subsequently proved to be about his definition of "health issues", while I thought I was having a philosophical discussion of how interesting it is that we all have our own shades of meanings for words! As I had a childhood history of abuse, I found his 2 meltdowns quite frightening and upsetting but now I know they weren't really directed at me as a person, just the content of the argument, I don't think he's psychologically dangerous for me. However, if he knew his triggers [now I know, I can avoid them or steer around them], he might be able to divert himself, leave the situation or warn others. How can I ever get him to a stage where he might seek some assistance?

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    2. PurpleVases - You have described my 26 y.o. son very well. Just went through another meltdown with him and decided to try Google to see if this is typical of adults with ASD, so feeling a little better. What's most difficult is my son has NO CONCEPT of how these meltdowns hurt. He says hurtful things OR everything that comes out of his mouth has tension and/or anger behind it. When it's over he seems absolutely clueless about the damage he's done and then expects everyone to just go about their business unaffected.

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    3. My daughter as well - it's like the buildup releases and she can wake up the next day and generally mumble an apology to nobody in particular and then expect us all to be light and breezy in spite of the hateful things she has said (which I think she might not even remember or she pretends not to). She just goes about her business and its like she has rebooted her brain, but without realizing the toll it has taken on everyone, especially me because I'm in the thick of it while it's happening. She also has NO CONCEPT as to what this is doing to the rest of us. I worry that these are signs of being so completely self centred that she will never have a healthy adult relationship.

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  16. I have recently realised that the friend I "diagnosed" as having Asperger's has classic "meltdowns". I didn't understand why small things were leading to gigantic arguments and then him not speaking to me for (up to 6) months! I thought, from my own experiences with many children and teens on the autism spectrum, that HFAs no longer had meltdowns, but I just hadn't seen any. It's taken 2 arguments over the personal meaning of common words for me to realise what happened. However, it's been 5 weeks and he still won't speak to me or answer emails- and I haven't pestered him either. I wish there was some way of discovering if any progress is being made as it's quite depressing for me. I suppose he may have "rebooted" and be perfectly happy with the situation but there is no way for me to find out as all his friends have cut me off as well. Difficult times.

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  17. Can anyone offer me advice? I was recently on the receiving end of an Autistic outburst at my place of employment. The man had what I can only describe as an "Incredible Hulk" moment, clenching fists, shaking all over and screaming at me. I filed an HR incident report and was told " disciplinary action will be taken. I have to work in the same area as this person and I am terrified that it will happen again as he has a history of outbursts, 10-15, previously. I was trying to help him, giving him information that he needed in his new position, a highly stressful one, and everyone who was around us are just waiting for it to happen again. What am I/can I do to protect myself from a future outburst ?

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    1. There are a lot of places to get help as an NT, please go there!

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    2. I went to Human Resources and they were of no help, I need help as I am afraid that the person I work with who has Aspergers will have another outburst in the workplace as he has already had 10+. Where do I turn to next?

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    3. Keep a diary. And of what they are about. They shouldn't be in a position of human authority.

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  18. I am an aspie and my partner is not able to handle my melt downs and kicked me out. She claims they don't exist as her friend says they don't.

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  19. There are forty minutes left of my Thanksgiving, and I get to spend them the same way I've spent the last six hours of it: knowing that I ruined it with what I now, after reading this entry and the comments here, recognize as a full-on adult aspie meltdown. I am 31 years old, and today I called my father whom I love a "son of a bitch" in the car on the way home from the restaurant where we were going to have our holiday dinner together.

    I've only known about having autism for less than a year now, and I've held the mistaken assumption that since I have only lost control fully and screamed in public one time (back in high school), I just wasn't the sort prone to meltdowns. I was proud of this. But then I read... this...

    Now I understand. I've had dozens and dozens of meltdowns. Maybe a hundred, over three decades. I am not better. I am not -lucky-. I am not immune to the worst of it, despite having what I still consider to be a pretty mild (or "extremely high-functioning", if you prefer the looking-to-the-positive perception angle) case of autism.

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    1. I really feel for you. You're still young though and can try to train yourself to avoid behaviour that makes your relationships difficult. Or maybe work out what your limits are.

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  20. I have meltdowns from time to time and being blind adds to the stress.
    I am told that the outsider sees it as my attitude as in their mind autism does not exist and they tell me it is me. I should grow out of the meltdowns.

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  21. I become very stresses out. I have high functioning autism and become very frustrated. I have many autism meltdows I become really stressed out and anxious and confused and I may shout words that are not nice. I have to express my anger by shouting at the top of my voice to be able to calm down and this can take a few hours. My mum would ask me why did I shout a d argue I would say I don't know why and I say I can't remember. I forget why I started arguing and shouting after it has happened.

    I become anxious and paronoid over very small things.

    I become really panicky and frustrated and worry when I get in a state when arguing and screaming. I sweat exec ivy my clothes become drenched in sweat and I become really confused and unable to listen to anyone. And say you don't understand and care to the other person I am arguing or shouting at.


    I feel very panicky and fearful of what I could say or do when I am angry and become very would up easily and my fists clench and all I want to do is keep on hitting the person I am arguing with and bashing things and breaking things buy I stead I do things before I think. I find it hard to think before I speak. Any strategies I have been told to do when angry just go out the windows as I forget and the time I am in a raging autism temper.

    I have to have half of a small calming down tablet when I become too much h when shouting.

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