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Joined: 25 Aug 2013
Age: 66
Gender: Male
Posts: 34,670
Location: Long Island, New York

29 Feb 2024, 10:18 am

Psychology Today

The clouds roll in as I sit cross-legged on the floor. It's been a lot today. My mind races. Intense. I am not up for any more demands. I turn on some heavy metal music and match the energy. There was a time when I didn't know how to meet myself in these times, but I know this is what I need now. And I'm so glad I have this time to ride out the storm.

Meltdowns, Shutdowns, and Mindstorms
Strong reactions to neurodivergent overwhelm have traditionally been labeled "meltdowns." Yet, the same term is also one for tantrums of all kinds. While young children (and sometimes adults) may throw a "tantrum" to get something wanted, a meltdown is a much more nuanced experience. Like a storm, it is neither chosen nor controlled. It's not a way to get what someone wants; it's a response to total overload.

While tantrums are most associated with kids, mindstorms affect neurodivergent people of all ages. This more specific label highlights it as a separate experience.

A study utilizing interviews with 32 autistic adults found several themes throughout the experience of "meltdowns." Among these were overwhelm, difficulty accessing logic, strong emotions, loss of control, a need for release, and looking for ways to minimize harm such as by isolating at the moment (Lewis and Stevens, 2023). Contrary to the stereotypical meltdown, a word that exemplifies the behavior, the inner experience of such is more akin to an internal storm.

Autistic meltdowns come in different "flavors." Some are a high-energy, anxious, or angry response. It's like a tornado ripping through. The person may rise with the winds, potentially shouting. In adults, it might be more subtle, a walk that, without realization, turns into a stomp. Or a door might be shut hard, reflecting the energy bubbling up. Of course, it could also look like a more traditional outburst—tears, shouting. In the moment, life feels like too much.

Then there is the shutdown variety. These are more like ice storms. A youth might stop responding, placing headphones over their ears or their head on a desk. For an adult, it could feel more like anxiety. An adult might withdraw to their office or go through the motions. In these times, finding words or organizing a task can feel impossible. A break is necessary.

An Unnamed Experience
It might be difficult to imagine, but many who experience mindstorms (or meltdowns), especially adults, don't recognize their experience. They may see it as something similar, like a panic attack. Yet, there are important distinctions. Panic attacks tend to be more time-limited, whereas a mindstorm can sometimes last hours. Mindstorms also often have more of a buildup in overwhelm.

Being able to label and create a compassionate understanding of the experience is empowering and gives autistic individuals and those who love them language for support. When mindstorms are appreciated as common byproducts of the autistic neurotype, often evidence of overwhelm, we can respond more effectively.

In Conclusion
Perhaps it is time we move away from the term "meltdown" and toward "mindstorm." While just a language change, it sets a tone of compassion, reflecting the inner experience over behavior. Regardless of what we call it, mindstorms are common and deserve both recognition and kindness.

Professionally Identified and joined WP August 26, 2013
DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity

“My autism is not a superpower. It also isn’t some kind of god-forsaken, endless fountain of suffering inflicted on my family. It’s just part of who I am as a person”. - Sara Luterman