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Meltdowns in Adults on the Autism Spectrum

Grown-ups with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) may be prone to rage (sometimes referred to as a “meltdown”), which can be made worse by difficulty in communicating feelings of disturbance, anxiety or distress.

Rage may be a common reaction experienced when coming to terms with problems in employment, relationships, friendships and other areas in life affected by autism spectrum disorders. There is often an “on-off” quality to this rage, where the person may be calm minutes later after a meltdown, while people around are stunned and may feel hurt. 
Neurotypical spouses (i.e., not on the spectrum) often struggle to understand these meltdowns, with resentment and bitterness often building up over time. Once they understand that their AS or HFA partner has trouble controlling rage, they can often begin to respond in ways that will help to manage these meltdowns.

In some cases, the “Aspie” may not acknowledge he has trouble with rage, and will blame others for provoking him. This can create a lot of conflict in a marriage. It may take carefully phrased feedback and plenty of time for the AS or HFA individual to gradually realize he has a problem with how he expresses his frustration.

A good place to start in controlling meltdowns is to identify a pattern in how the rage-attacks are related to specific frustrations. Such triggers may originate from the environment, specific people, or internal thoughts. Identifying the cause of rage can be a challenge. It is important to consider all possible influences relating to (a) how well you are treated by those around you, (b) the environment (e.g., too much stimulation, lack of structure, change of routine, etc.), (c) your mental state (e.g., existing frustration, confusion, etc.), and (d) your physical state (e.g., pain, tiredness, etc.).

Common causes of rage incidents among AS and HFA adults may include the following:
  • Other people’s behavior (e.g., insensitive comments)
  • Intolerance of imperfections in others
  • Having routines and order disrupted
  • Difficulties with employment despite being intelligent in many areas
  • Difficulties with relationships 
  • Build-up of stress
  • Being swamped by multiple tasks 
  • Being overwhelmed by sensory stimulation

Steps to managing rage:

1. Avoid situations which are associated with a high risk of becoming outraged.

2. Be aware of situations. Become more aware of the situations which are associated with you becoming outraged. Ask other people who know you to describe situations and behaviors they have noticed.

3. Become motivated. Identify why you would like to manage rage more successfully. Identify what benefits you expect in everyday living from eliminating rage incidents from your life.

4. Become self-aware. Become more aware of personal thoughts, behaviors and physical states which are associated with rage. This awareness is important in order for you to notice the early signs of becoming outraged. Write down a list of changes you notice as you begin to “meltdown.”

6. Develop a “rage-management” record. Keep a diary or chart of situations that trigger rage. List the situation, the level of rage on a scale of 1 to 10 – and the coping strategies that help you to overcome or reduce feelings of rage.

7. Explain to another person how they can be of help to solve the problem.

8. Explore the benefits of using medication with a doctor or psychiatrist.

9. Find anger-control classes in your area.

10. Keep a record. As you become more aware of situations associated with rage, you can keep a record of events, triggers and associated levels of rage. Different levels of rage can be explored (e.g., mildly annoyed, frustrated, irritated, higher levels of rage).

11. Leave the situation if possible.

12. Make changes to routines and surroundings (e.g., avoid driving in peak hour traffic).

13. Phone a friend or family member to talk about the cause of rage.

14. Plan ways to become distracted from the stressful situation (e.g., carry a magazine).

15. Reduce levels of rage by using the “Stop/Think strategy.” When you notice thoughts running through your mind: (a) stop and think before reacting to the situation (e.g., “are these thoughts accurate/helpful?”), (b) challenge the inaccurate or unhelpful thoughts, and (c) create a new thought.

16. Try relaxation strategies.

17. Try self-talk methods.

18. Use creative physical activity techniques to reduce rage.

19. Use visual imagery (e.g., jumping into a cool stream takes the heat of rage away).

20. Never give up. You can learn to “be at peace” with enough practice.

You can make use of these techniques when you notice yourself becoming outraged, and therefore avoid becoming extremely upset. But always keep in mind that this may not be possible 100% of the time. For situations where you feel you can’t control your rage – have a personal safety plan in place.


•    Anonymous said... Hard to say,, but if so, there is plenty of hell available... No need to have anxiety nowadays. it might not be,, I do not have Aspergus (my father does), but I have the exact same problems as you. Aspergus is more not being able to have Empathy, or seeing only one point of view. Also are you extremely clever and obsessed with the one thing.
•    Anonymous said... I really like this page. It has helped me with my anxiety as a person with aspergers.. Thanks
•    Anonymous said... So, I have a question about autism/aspergers. My difficulties/disabilities are having severe panic attacks, agoraphobia, and a VERY hard time having eye contact or maintaining eye contact with other people. Just the thought of crowded places or having a conversation with someone outside my family/social circle makes me anxious. Does this sound anything like aspergers, or no?
•    Anonymous said... What's the worst is when you clearly communicate what you need to people + they ignore it. Like if I need to leave because I'm overstimulated + the person I came with wants to stay. Or I'm riding with someone + need them to slow down or turn down the music but they disregard me. People can be so dismissive. I struggle with this one A LOT. I've mastered my emotions much better than I was young but it takes all my strength not to melt down sometimes.

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