The Scream or Noises On

A manual for meltdowns


A lithograph of Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1895). The guy must be an Aspie – look how he’s covering his head!

Christopher Boone (the kid in Curious Incident) called it white noise.

One friend of mine has called it Jurassic Park noise.

Another friend way back tried to sum it up in a phonetic word: VOOM!

Needless to say, the latter two of these had witnessed yours truly having a good old stress on occasion.

In general the terms ‘tantrum’ and ‘meltdown’ are used of children on the spectrum, the former of an outburst from a child who has not been given something they want and/or need, the latter to a reaction to sensory overload. Personally I am happier to use ‘tantrum’ of a child’s adverse reaction to being told (s)he can’t play on the iPad until Daddy’s finished doing the accounts on it than one who has tried to request attention from a parent and had it withheld without so much as a “just a minute”.

What doesn’t seem to get mentioned in all the explanatory literature is that adults on the spectrum are not immune from such seemingly infantile displays.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating. It isn’t that we can’t get what we want, it is that we do not get what we have been led to expect. And if there is an unexpected interruption to our sentence, or three people trying to address us at the same moment or someone shows that they have forgotten something important we told them that it was hard enough or embarrassing enough to tell them the first time then why should we be begrudged a moment to bury our faces or even make a loud nasal groan?


Having witnessed a few others on the spectrum aged between 15 and 45 have moments like this, I’m also acutely aware that in some cases they can manifest in behaviour that at best can come over as threatening and at worst become abusive or even violent. Obviously if it does devolve to such then measures for self-protection should be taken. But it won’t with every individual.

Here are a few tips for how to deal with a meltdown if you witness one:

  • DON’T BE AFRAID: Meltdowns do not lead to violence from every individual. Assume this one won’t unless it becomes apparent that it will. If we cover our heads with our hands or clothing I’d say that’s a pretty good sign that we are cowering in rather than lashing out. But whatever you do, don’t come any further into the Aspie’s personal space than you already are at the time the meltdown breaks out.
  • HOLD OFF ON THE REBUKE: Telling us to calm down or act our age is liable to make things worse. The best thing to do is to assume that like the wave that breaks over your head in the shallows, whatever has caused us to feel overwhelmed will soon pass.
  • KEEP A CALM MEASURED TONE: Maybe say something like “Sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you” or “Sorry, was there something I missed?” This takes the matter into what went wrong rather than who went wrong and is more likely to create a forum for calm discussion.
  • DON’T TAKE IT TOO PERSONALLY: I say TOO personally because while the Aspie is not seeking to aggravate or insult you with their reaction here, it could be that they’ve been particularly dreading your reaction if you are any sort of authority figure in their life. In this case you have to just reassure them that you won’t be cross if they’ve gone bankrupt/forgotten to tidy up the kitchen in the proscribed way/wet themselves again (in a child’s case) etc, as long as they’re prepared to be honest with you, you are happy to help them with whatever has taken place.

I could say more about where to take it from there but will hold off for now. But hopefully this has given you lucky neurotypicals a helpful rule of thumb for next time your autistic friend or charge grits their teeth, screws up their eyes and makes a noise like an electric drill.