How to Know the Difference Between an Autistic Meltdown Vs. Panic Attack

It’s often hard enough to understand the differences between an anxiety attack and a panic attack. But when you or someone you care for has autism, understanding the differences between an autism meltdown and a panic attack is a whole different ballgame.

There’s no question that autism can often cause distress and dysregulation. Sometimes, it can be overwhelming, leading to emotional meltdowns that can look very similar to panic attacks. 

While the two situations share some similarities, they are quite different. Understanding those differences will make it easier to get the right kind of help, whether that’s for you or someone you love. 

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the differences between an autism meltdown and a panic attack. 

What Is an Autism Meltdown?

It’s not uncommon for someone with autism to experience emotional dysregulation when they are overwhelmed or overstimulated. For some, it could be an experience that is too loud or chaotic. For others, transitions, emotional stress or difficult social situations could cause those feelings to spiral out of control.

Whatever the case, that loss of control can manifest itself in a variety of physical ways. 

When someone is having an autism meltdown, they can exhibit symptoms like hitting, crying, or yelling. They might even try to “escape” the overwhelming situation by running away.

What Is a Panic Attack?

Anyone can have a panic attack, but people who deal with anxiety tend to experience them more often. They are sudden, and intense, and often occur without warning.

Some of the most common symptoms of a panic attack include shaking or trembling, a racing heart, sweating, and difficulty breathing. You might also feel like the world is closing in around you, and it’s difficult to focus on anything but the impending doom surrounding you. 

How Are Panic Attacks and Autism Meltdowns Different?

Both panic attacks and autism meltdowns can be frightening for the person dealing with them. They’re intense, and while they might not last long, they can be so overwhelming that it feels like an eternity to whoever is going through them. 

With that in mind, though, the two have some important differences.

First, it’s important to understand the cause. When someone experiences an autism meltdown, it’s typically due to some kind of sensory overload or overstimulation from external triggers. The dysregulation builds up over time, and eventually, if the person isn’t able to regulate their nervous system, then a meltdown can ensue. A panic attack can come on more suddenly either seemingly out of the blue or as a response to a specific triggering event.

Autism meltdowns can also last longer than panic attacks. Most panic attacks peak within an average of 20-30 minutes before lessening in severity. Autism meltdowns can go on for several hours without much relief. 

Additionally, the symptoms are often different. When someone is having a panic attack, they’re likely to experience a racing heart, sweating, and difficulty taking deep breaths. They may feel like they are going to die as a result which can make the panic attack much more frightening. When someone is dealing with an autism meltdown, the common symptoms include screaming, throwing items, self-injurious behaviors, and hitting. Some even try to run away. Others may completely shut down and become non-verbal. 

Why These Differences Matter

In reality, someone with autism isn’t immune from experiencing things like panic attacks. Someone with anxiety who is prone to panic attacks might also deal with autism. Grouping the two issues together, however, can be problematic because the treatments are different.

When you assume that someone is dealing with panic attacks and they’re actually having a meltdown due to autism, you’re not going to be able to identify the correct kind of help they need to get through the situation, and vice versa. 

Hopefully, this helps you recognize some of the signs of both issues. It’s never easy to see your loved one go through either; whether a panic attack or a meltdown. Additionally, if you’ve experienced either yourself, you know how frightening they can be.

Don’t hesitate to reach out for help, no matter what you’re dealing with, or encourage your loved one to do the same. If you are curious to know more about how I can be of support, I invite you to reach out for your free 20-minute phone consultation so we can connect. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Be well,

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