Neurodivergent Meltdowns in Adults – A Guide for Autistic and ADHD Adults

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First thing’s first: Neurodivergent Meltdowns in Adults are NOTHING to be ashamed of.

I’m sure you’re reading this because you feel ashamed and/or frustrated that you’re experiencing meltdowns as an adult. I totally understand the sentiment. Meltdowns are excruciating for Neurodivergent people in general. But they are double difficult when we have them as adults.

I want you to know: you’re not alone. And it’s okay to have meltdowns. Neurodivergent Meltdowns in adults happen. More frequently than the general public might want to believe.

You’re not a bad or manipulative person (as others may have wrongly assumed). You’re just overwhelmed by stress, difficult emotions, masking, or sensory triggers.

They’re a way to cope when you just can’t cope anymore.

So big hugs to you if you’re beating yourself up about a meltdown. I’ve been there and just want you to know it’ll be okay. Now let’s get you some education and strategies to make meltdowns less hard on you <3

What is a Neurodivergent Meltdown?

A Neurodivergent Meltdown is a reaction to feelings of intense overwhelm and is NOT a tantrum1. It is not a behavior that can be changed. It is not a manipulative action and has no end goal other than to communicate frustration and to help the ND person survive.

Meltdowns are usually impossible to stop once they get going and can vary in intensity. They can look like:

  • Crying, sobbing and wailing
  • Hitting, kicking, punching, biting (oneself, objects, or others)
  • Intense stimming like rocking, muscle tensing, vocal stims, or joint cracking
  • Screaming
  • Self harm

Meltdowns can be a way for Neurodivergent people to release pent up frustration, help them process and/or express their emotions (which can be hard for NDs during calmer times).

All Neurotypes can experience meltdowns. ADHD meltdowns are common and are often triggered by rejection sensitivity, distress intolerance2, and emotional regulation issues.

Sensory meltdowns3 happen when there is too much external stimuli for the ND to process at once. They are often attributed to Autism but can occur in other Neurotypes as well.

Specific Reasons Why Neurodivergent Meltdowns in Adults Might Occur

  1. Stress
  2. A toxic work or living environment
  3. Sensory triggers like crowds, parties, or screaming children
  4. Big life changes like getting married, moving house, changing jobs or having children
  5. Expectations on adults that trigger PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance)
  6. Comorbid Mental Health conditions
  7. Hormone changes (periods, menopause, being on Hormone Replacement Therapy)
  8. Medication reactions
  9. Dealing with chronic pain or physical illness
  10. Inconsistency of routine

Meltdowns vs. Tantrums

TL:DR – Meltdowns and Tantrums may look similar but are not the same. Both need a compassionate approach but different strategies to resolve.

A lot of people conflate meltdowns with tantrums. And while they may have a lot of the same characteristics like screaming and crying, they are NOT the same.

Tantrums are used to control others via extreme behavior. They have an end goal in mind and can be used to get a need or a want met when an individual doesn’t understand how to communicate that need properly. Tantrums are an unhealthy communication style but sometimes they are the only one a person knows.

Meltdowns do not have an end goal (other than helping the ND person survive). They are not an attempt to manipulate others but rather an attempt to regain stability.

And yes, Neurodivergent people can have tantrums and meltdowns. I certainly have had terrible tantrums as an adult before I learned how to communicate my needs properly. Both come from a place of frustration and overwhelm. Compassion should be used when dealing with both cases. However the reaction to them fundamentally needs to be different to prevent a traumatic outcome for all involved (more on that later).

Why Neurodivergent Meltdowns Might Be Uniquely Difficult for Adults

TL:DR – Shame, persistent life stress and lack of resources may make Neurodivergent Meltdowns harder for Adults.

Meltdowns are commonly attributed to ND children. However Neurodivergent adults also experience them. More frequently than many people realize.

Why? Because Neurodivergent children grow up into Neurodivergent adults of course!

We may get better about managing our day to day triggers but that doesn’t mean meltdowns stop happening past a certain age.

And while having meltdowns as a kid is undoubtedly miserable, they are uniquely difficult to deal with as an adult. This is because of a few reasons, the biggest among them being shame.

Adult Meltdowns and Shame

While Neurodivergence isn’t new, the cultural understanding of it is relatively novel. Count back a couple decades and people didn’t know much about Autism and ADHD.

When you had a meltdown as a kid, people just assumed you were a brat in those days. And, sadly, our parents and teachers reacted accordingly by punishing or shaming us.

As adults, we’ve carried those punishing voices in our heads. So whenever we get overwhelmed, especially in front of other people, we feel a deep shame for “losing control” or “acting childish.” This shame is like kindling for our already fragile emotional state, often making meltdowns worse for adults.

Cultural understanding doesn’t help much either. As we talked about earlier, people conflate meltdowns with tantrums because on the outside they can look similar. This leads to people thinking the Neurodivergent person is trying to manipulate them.

All of this can lead to what’s known as a “shame spiral4.” Shame spirals happen when we can’t escape negative thoughts, leading to them stacking and becoming very toxic.

Certain traits of ADHD and Autism (like Executive Function issues) can exacerbate that shame spiral, taking negative thoughts from 0-100 in an astonishingly short time. This can greatly increase the chance of suicide in Neurodivergent people during meltdowns5.

Meltdowns and Life Stress in Adults

Another reason why Neurodivergent Meltdowns in adults might be uniquely tricky: life stress.

A lot is expected of us as adults. We have to deal with work, family, intimate relationships, finances, friendships, etcetera etcetera. In our house, laundry is a never ending battle and we say that dishes “are a river that never stops flowing.”

Constant and persistent life stress is enough to drive even Neurotypicals up the wall. It’s double difficult for Neurodivergent people as we’re often also dealing with Executive Dysfunction and co-occurring mental and physical issues6.

While they have their own relative stresses, most children don’t have to deal with the persistent and frustrating life stress that adults do.

And ND people have lots of life stress that others may not have to deal with. For instance, Autistics have higher rates of unemployment7 which adds to financial stress. ADHDers have a higher rate of stress at work due to Executive Function challenges8. Intimate relationships can be extra difficult for us due to the unique challenges of being Neurodivergent.

We all know prolonged stress can be dangerous. But as we’ve seen, life stress can also be especially toxic to Neurodivergent people and can lead to more meltdowns.

Meltdowns and Availability of Information and Strategies for Adults

The last reason why Neurodivergent meltdowns in adults are so challenging: there’s just not a lot of information out there for ND adults.

Seriously, in order to research for this article I had to wade through pages and pages of information on meltdowns in children. It was a rare find when I stumbled across something that wasn’t aimed at parents or carers of Autistic children.

This makes it really hard for adults to find effective help with their meltdowns.

Resource Guide for Neurodivergent Adults Experiencing Meltdowns

For educational purposes, I’ve split this resource guide into a few sections. One with info about avoiding or lessening the frequency/intensity of meltdowns, one about how to self care through a meltdown, and finally a section discussing what to do after a meltdown.

1. Understanding and Avoiding Meltdown Triggers

Meltdowns are exhausting, emotionally and physically. Even if they are nothing to be ashamed of, most of use would really rather NOT have a meltdown. Here are some resources and advice to help you identify your meltdown triggers and potentially avoid them.

  1. Identify your triggers – A helpful worksheet where you can list out and track triggers
  2. Learn about ADHD Specific triggers and understand how ADHD can hijack your emotions. You can also learn about the ADHD Volcano model.
  3. If you’re having a lot of meltdowns, consider why. Are you currently dealing with a lot of stress? Do relationships trigger your feelings of rejection? Are hormones changes or medications affecting you (check out our article on PMDD here)? Is your environment or job toxic for you? Consider some of these factors and see what might need to be changed.
  4. Learn about Autistic Specific Meltdown triggers and get vital info about Sensory Processing Sensitivities and how they may be affecting you.
  5. Learn about co-regulation and how your partner, therapist, or parent can use it to help you. Co-regulation is a mirroring tool where one half stays calm in order to model stability. This can help cut the time of a meltdown and may event prevent one from occurring if done properly.

2. Self Care Through a Meltdown

As much as we’d like to avoid them or even eliminate them, meltdowns are eventually going to happen. And when they do, it’s important to self care to keep yourself from going down that Shame Spiral.

  1. Check out these strategies for regulation during a meltdown
  2. Create a sensory friendly environment you can retreat to with this article on creating a safe space and this article on how to DIY your own Sensory room.
  3. Headphones! Headphones and sensory friendly music are the best during a meltdown. This is one of my favorite lo-fi channels at the moment but there’s lots of great binaural beats out there on YouTube to help you. Some people also find that the opposite, listening to loud rock music also helps them – every ND is different so I encourage you to find out what works for you!
  4. Use crisis grounding techniques like this list of DBT techniques, the 5-4-3-2-1 Method and Square Breathing. *Note – if you’re in full blown meltdown, these techniques may not be accessible to you. They are most helpful on the downswing of the meltdown to help you from diving into the Shame Spiral and reigniting the meltdown.
  5. Stim! Stim as much as you need or want to help yourself feel centered. If you feel like doing harmful stims like headbanging, cutting, or hitting yourself please consider redirecting it to a less harmful stim. You can find a helpful list of redirects in our article on Stimming and Mental Health
  6. Bring a sensory bag and/or a mental health first aid kit with you in case you have a meltdown in public. You can find SO many awesome things to put in your bag on Sensory One’s website.
  7. Be kind to yourself. Remember, it’s totally okay to have a meltdown. Being unkind to yourself is only going to make it last longer. This is where positive self talk needs to come into play for you.
  8. Get help from a partner. Partners aren’t always going to be available (emotionally or physically) to help you regulate. But if they are, it can really help to have someone be compassionate and calm while you’re melting down (co-regulation). My advice is to explain what works and what doesn’t during calmer times and for both of you to learn about triggers, regulation, and ND processes in general.

3. Strategies for the Aftermath of a Meltdown

Meltdowns have impacts in our lives before, during and after they occur. These are things such as making us miss work, physical exhaustion and pain, and hurt feelings. This is the part of the guide with resources to deal with the aftermath of a meltdown.

  1. Realize that it’s okay to have a meltdown or have a backslide in your mental health
  2. Work towards amending any hurt feelings. I have a tendency to be mean to my partner when I’m having a meltdown (I’m working on it!) so it’s helpful for me to remember Gottman’s 5-1 ratio to keep from getting myself into the shame spiral. Remember to also amend your own hurt feelings (you’re a person too).
  3. Check out this article on dealing with the aftermath of Autistic Meltdowns as an adult . It truly has a lot of valuable information about how to move forward with less shame and more empowerment.
  4. Choose curiosity, compassion, and introspection over shame. Shame is unhelpful in most situations. Instead, work towards understanding yourself and helping yourself to a better outcome next time. I promise you’ll feel so much better this way. And if you’re struggling with toxic shame, you might find Neurodivergent Magic’s Toxic Shame Masterclass helpful.
  5. S L E E P – Seriously, get some sleep. You’ll feel way better about things when you wake up. Meltdowns are physically exhausting and your body needs a ton of rest after them. On that note, make sure you drink lots of water and maybe take an Ibuprofen or two (I always need one because my eyes get so puffy).
  6. Reduce the Emotional Charge – Even if your body is exhausted, your mind may still be emotionally charged after a meltdown which can lead to more meltdowns. It’s best to get that energy out so your Nervous System can relax and recharge. Talk to someone you trust about what happened. Tell your therapist and workshop ideas with them. Or if you don’t feel comfortable talking, write it out in a journal or make some art.
  7. Take some time off – You need time to rest and process so don’t be afraid to cancel plans or call out of work if possible (check out FMLA and work accommodation resources that might help with this here). If skipping work isn’t an option, remember that just showing up is enough for that day.

Wrap Up on How to Deal With Neurodivergent Meltdowns in Adults

An important thing to remember is that we can’t stop meltdowns. No matter how much we want to, we can’t always avoid them. They’re a part of Neurodivergent life.

But we can:

  1. Lessen their frequency by assessing our environment, understanding ourselves, and building a Neurodivergent affirming life
  2. Lessen their intensity by avoiding the Shame Spiral and being compassionate with ourselves
  3. Educate ourselves and our loved ones on what to do before, during, and after a meltdown
  4. Get peer support so we know we’re not alone (please feel free to join our Neurodivergent Learning and Life Skills Group on Facebook, it’s a truly wonderful ND community)
  5. Self care in ways that will truly move us forward

Much Love,

MB

Article Reference Links:

  1. https://www.understood.org/articles/en/the-difference-between-tantrums-and-meltdowns
  2. https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/~/media/CCI/Mental-Health-Professionals/Distress-Intolerance/Information-Sheets/Info-What-is-Distress-Intolerance.pdf
  3. https://www.thechaosandtheclutter.com/archives/child-sensory-meltdown
  4. https://www.akuamindbody.com/mental-health/escaping-the-shame-spiral/
  5. https://www.spectrumnews.org/features/suicidal-thoughts-alarmingly-common-in-people-with-autism/
  6. https://www.planetneurodivergent.com/is-comorbid-specific-enough-to-describe-conditions-co-occurring-with-autism/
  7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28211841/
  8. https://adhdatwork.add.org/impact-of-adhd-at-work/

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4 thoughts on “Neurodivergent Meltdowns in Adults – A Guide for Autistic and ADHD Adults”

  1. As happens so often when I read your posts, I see myself and I learn a better way to navigate my mental health concerns.

    Thank you for another well-researched post packed with helpful information and resources to help those of us in the neurodivergent community navigate our journey a whole lot smarter.

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