January 11, 2022

“Why did I have a meltdown?”

A guide for soul-searching autistics!

Have you ever found yourself crying, yelling, breaking things, or hurting yourself for reasons that seemed miniscule or mysterious?

Mid-meltdown is no time for sleuthing, but a later review can help identify causes and avoid them in the future.

I prefer to call these causes “ingredients,” because it’s rarely just one thing. There might be a straw that breaks the camel’s back, but only if the burden is heavy already.

Here are three ingredients that may contribute to a meltdown, with questions to help you consider if that ingredient applies in your case.


Ask yourself, “What unusual circumstances may have sapped my strength in the day leading up to the meltdown?”

The answer may include extra tasks, extra socializing, unfamiliar environments, unfamiliar foods, or poor sleep.

Some call the result “having an empty bucket.” Some call it “being low on spoons.” I usually call it “feeling fragile.”

Whatever you call it, less strength means less resilience, making you more susceptible to a meltdown when new stressors arise.


Another ingredient to consider is intense sensory input. Ask yourself, “What did I see, hear, taste, smell, and feel right before the meltdown?”

This can be a hard question to answer accurately if you’ve been a victim of sensory gaslighting, though. If none of your answers to the sensory question feel like a problem, try asking this instead:

“What memories do I have of people telling me something shouldn’t hurt or is barely noticeable?”

If people made fun of you for flinching at raindrops, you might have water sensitivity. If they acted incredulous that you could hear a TV on mute, then you might have audio sensitivity.

Unpack what surprises others about you, and you may discover hidden sensory needs.


Ask yourself, “What new information did I encounter right before the meltdown?” Whatever it was, you may not have been able to process it quickly or thoroughly enough to maintain a feeling of control.

Some examples include multitasking, changes of plan, holding multiple steps in memory, quick transitions, and surprises.

This also includes converting information from one form to another, like if your brain needs to turn verbal directions into a visual map.

Something as simple as a question can cause cognitive overload if other ingredients are present. And if every ingredient is small, they can still add up.

Over time, as you learn which ingredients contribute to your meltdowns, you can try to reduce them. The recipe for a meltdown-free day is to eliminate ingredients that your body and brain can’t handle.

P.S. I write from my personal experience as an autistic. What I share is not a substitute for advice from an autistic medical professional. Also, some of my opinions have changed since I first wrote them.