a picture of an acorn: a new autism symbol
Autism Advocacy

Through My Eyes: behavioral meltdowns

Hi, everyone. I appreciate the great response to my last post about autism symbols and how I would prefer to be seen as an acorn with great tree-like potential rather than a random piece of an unsolved puzzle.   Today, I want to focus some attention on an uncomfortable topic for me:  behavioral meltdowns. These are dreaded by teachers, principals, therapists, and parents, I’m sure, but maybe you are not aware of how much those of us actually having the meltdown dread them, too.   

Behavioral meltdowns are hard, and they take a toll on everyone involved. For me, they are uncomfortable physically because of the stress on my body and chance for injury, but the emotional piece is even worse.  After the meltdown, I always feel embarrassed, disappointed in myself, and sorry for those who had to deal with it. That feeling can last for days or weeks after a meltdown that might only last a few minutes.  This is how meltdowns are different than tantrums.  

A tantrum is usually a strategy to get something that you want, like a toy or to get to stay up later.  It is a behavior that is positively reinforced if those around you, like your parents, cave into your demand. It is the “spoiled child” syndrome. Behavioral meltdowns are not like that. They are never in response to something that I want; rather, they happen when I can no longer control what I don’t want. 

Everyone with autism is unique and has different challenges and strengths, but I think that something that is very common, if not universal, is anxiety.   I feel a baseline level of anxiety all the time and go throughout my days using various strategies to keep it at bay.

 A lot of “experts” think that we perseverate on the toys or other items because these are the things that we really like.  But that’s not true. At least it wasn’t true for me.   It is not that I really liked those things. I needed them. Without them, my anxiety took over and led to a behavioral meltdown.  Those toys were like anxiety guards.  Believe me, I got sick of Toy Story toys and ABC letters as I got older, but I needed them around me to help me feel calmer.   Also, the verbal scripting, which I still do, helps relieve anxiety.  My pacing, which I also still do, relieves anxiety. These are some of my strategies. 

To me, anxiety is like the simmering lava of an active volcano.  It is ever present below the surface.   When something happens in my environment that is stressful and that I can’t predict or control or I simply just get too tired to use so much energy keeping my anxiety in check, my volcano erupts. 

So let me give a few suggestions to those who must help manage these behavioral meltdowns, either as a professional or a family member:

  1.  Don’t take away the things that we use for anxiety protection. That makes it worse in a moment that we need all the help we can get. 
  2. Gives us space and time in a low-sensory environment. 
  3. Don’t take it personally. It’s rarely about you.
  4. Don’t punish us for it. That doesn’t help prevent the next one and only makes us feel worse about ourselves.
  5. When you see things escalating, try intervening with calming strategies before it’s too late.
  6. It’s fine to teach us better coping strategies with ABA and other methods but let us progress to those on our timetable instead of yours. 
  7. Don’t confuse meltdowns with tantrums. 

And some tips for the rest of you who might see a meltdown in a shared public space:

  1.  Cut the judgment.  You don’t actually know what is going on or how to “teach those parents a thing or two about raising kids.” 
  2. How about asking the parent if there is anything you can do to help, as opposed to the three usual responses of the disgusted look, the pity look, or the quick look the other way?  
  3. If someone with autism loses control of their behavior sometimes, don’t assume that that is what they are like all the time and that they can’t be a net positive to the community. 
  4. Be kind.  Smile more.
  5. See us as intelligent humans with a lot to contribute and forgive our shortcomings. You probably have some, too. 

Thanks for reading. 


  • Steve Howland

    Great read and wonderful information.
    I love the Acorn idea!!!!

    I look forward to your next post.

    Thank you


    P. S. I worked in the ER with your father in Texas.
    Please say hello to him.

    • Christy Smith

      This is such great insight, Aaron – thank you for sharing with all of us! I’m so impressed by and proud of you for the growth you’ve made and your role of advocacy. You’re teaching me more than I’m sure I ever taught you and I’m so happy to see you thriving.

      All my best,
      Christy 💙

  • KarenHepler

    Aaron, Thanks so much for this informative article!! I am very happy that you are giving us needed information but also raising awareness in several areas! I appreciate your examples as well and do feel that many misread or misinterpret meltdowns vs tantrums! Keep up the great work! This is a wonderful method in which to educate people and in so doing, help lessen and/ or eliminate the stigma! We really are more alike than we are different!! Thank you for this candid article!!

  • Aunt Jeanette Jepson

    I loved your article on meltdowns. I thought your thoughts on helping someone come through a meltdown could be used for people or children who don’t even deal with autism. Congratulations on a really good article.

    • Natalya Chayka

      This is so well written. Thank you so much for giving a voice to the topic as well as an inside look into the situation. As a mom of a non verbal 9 year old boy I thank you for posting this.

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