Understanding and navigating the complexities of neurodiversity within relationships can be both challenging and rewarding. For neurotypical individuals partnered with neurodivergent spouses, comprehending and supporting their unique experiences, especially during meltdowns, is crucial for fostering mutual understanding and a harmonious connection. This article explores strategies, insights, and the importance of proactive measures to effectively manage and support neurodivergent partners through meltdowns within relationships.

What is a meltdown?

A neurodiverse meltdown, seen from a neurotypical perspective, is a temporary loss of emotional control resulting from overwhelming stimuli. These episodes stem from various stressors such as excessive external input, compounded stress, or sudden significant changes. Understanding these stress factors is crucial for neurodivergent individuals and their partners.

For neurotypical partners, it’s essential to recognize that a neurodivergent meltdown isn’t a tantrum or an attempt to control others. Yielding or agreeing won’t stop it, as these meltdowns arise due to an overwhelmed nervous system, beyond the individual’s control. Diagnosis and education are key steps for supporting neurodiverse couples.

Sensory overload and meltdowns

Unlike neurotypicals, neurodivergent individuals are sensitive to their environments and often have sensory experiences that are profoundly different from their neurotypical spouses.

  • Smells can induce nausea.
  • A light touch on the skin can burn.
  • Fluorescent lighting can induce an immediate crippling migraine.
  • The noise of a crowd can sound deafening.

Strategies for managing meltdowns: The rumbling stage

The term “rumbling stage” is used to describe the early signs or behaviors that an autistic person may exhibit before the onset of a meltdown. This term has gained popularity in the autism community, particularly among autistic individuals and those who love them, as a way to recognize and communicate the build-up of stress and overwhelming sensations that can lead to a meltdown.

The exact origin of the term “rumbling stage” is unclear, as it seems to have emerged from the experiences and observations of the autism community rather than from a specific research study. However, the concept of recognizing early signs of distress in autistic individuals is supported by research and clinical observations.

Studies have shown that autistic individuals may exhibit changes in behavior, communication, and physiological responses when experiencing stress or sensory overload. For example, a study by Lydon et al. (2016)1 found that autistic children displayed increased repetitive behaviors and decreased social engagement during periods of high stress.

The “rumbling stage” is often described as a period of increasing agitation, anxiety, or discomfort that precedes a meltdown. During this stage, an autistic person may show signs such as:

  1. Increased stimming (repetitive movements or behaviors)
  2. Heightened sensitivity to sensory input
  3. Withdrawal from social interactions
  4. Increased irritability or frustration
  5. Difficulty communicating or expressing needs
  6. Changes in facial expressions or body language
  7. Increased heart rate or other physiological changes

Recognizing these early signs can help caregivers, educators, and the autistic individuals themselves to take proactive steps to manage stress, reduce sensory input, or find a safe and calming environment before a meltdown occurs.

The importance of custom protocol

In neurodiverse marriages, having a customized protocol and best practices to handle meltdowns is crucial. Criticism during these episodes can worsen the situation, as some individuals might retain little awareness during meltdowns, while anxiety about perceptions or consequences can intensify the experience. It’s challenging for neurotypicals to grasp that these meltdowns stem from involuntary nervous system overload, emphasizing the need for understanding and support in these situations.

Understanding and effective response

When facing a meltdown from a neurodivergent partner, understanding and response are key. Just as with someone experiencing an epileptic seizure, recognizing that it’s an involuntary reaction rather than deliberate is crucial.

Seventeen best practices for meltdowns

To support your partner, become well-versed in their triggers leading up to the meltdown. Neurodivergent individuals have varying triggers, so customizing strategies becomes vital. Here are 17 best practices tailored for managing meltdowns in a neurodiverse marriage, which can be adapted to suit individual circumstances:

  1. Acknowledge it’s involuntary: Don’t approach it like anger; stepping back is key.
  2. Understand triggers: Have detailed talks about triggers leading to meltdowns.
  3. Plan for meltdowns: Discuss how to handle meltdowns with a therapist experienced in neurodiverse couples therapy.
  4. Seek appropriate help: Consider anger management or DBT for rage-related meltdowns.
  5. Avoid engaging: Let the meltdown run its course; avoid excessive verbal intervention.
  6. Be present, not active: Your presence matters, but avoid verbal containment efforts.
  7. Respect verbal limitations: Avoid requesting words during a meltdown; clarity might be lacking.
  8. Respect sensory overload: Touch might not soothe; understand sensory overload during a meltdown.
  9. Preserve dignity: Understand the desire for dignity during a meltdown; discuss safety and calmness.
  10. Ensure safety: Prioritize safety if concerns arise during a meltdown; discuss what brings calmness.
  11. Listen and assist: Help your neurodivergent partner exit stressful environments quickly.
  12. Establish reliable protocols: Create trustful routines to avoid stress-inducing situations.
  13. Recognize the pre-meltdown phase: Identify the “rumbling stage” preceding a meltdown.
  14. Document rumble signs: Keep a journal to note specific behaviors or signs before a meltdown.
  15. Adapt to individual needs: Explore tools like fidget toys or breathing techniques tailored to your partner.
  16. Understand meltdown purpose: Recognize meltdowns as a necessary reset for the nervous system.
  17. Plan for meltdowns: Anticipate and prepare for meltdowns by understanding their trajectory.

The focus is on swift action: remove the upsetting stimulus from your neurodivergent spouse. This might involve gently relocating them or yourself from the distressing environment. Consider using non-verbal support like moving closer to them. Establish a routine and discuss plans in advance to smoothly navigate these steps when recognizing signs of distress.

Home base and meltdown kit

Having a “home base” is essential—a calm and low-stimulus environment, often at home, where the neurodivergent person can find solace. They might prefer solitude, sleep, a bath, or soothing music in this setting. Consider creating a “meltdown kit” for outings, including noise-canceling headphones or apps for puzzles on their phone. It’s crucial to understand that the neurotypical partner might not fully grasp the experience, and after the meltdown, the neurodivergent individual might feel exhausted, potentially overlooking its impact on their partner.

Post-meltdown debriefing

One of the best ways a neurotypical spouse can support their neurodivergent partner is to notice subtle shifts in behavior and encourage increased self-awareness. There is simply no substitute for unpacking the neurodivergent’s meltdown experience. Make sure to have a debrief after every meltdown, considering the following questions:

  • What were the factors leading up to the rumbling stage?
  • How was the meltdown managed?
  • What worked? What didn’t?
  • What could have been better?
  • What didn’t we try that we want to explore next time?

Neurodivergent individuals can help the situation by acquiring the education and social support needed to help manage their meltdown experience with their neurotypical partner as carefully as possible. Accept that a meltdown is a sometimes preventable, but necessary involuntary response to a somewhat predictable set of stimulation. As a couple, you’ll want to become experts on how your neurodivergent meltdowns occur and precisely what works for you in curbing their impact.


Embracing neurodiversity in relationships involves ongoing learning, patience, and mutual support. By acknowledging the distinctive needs and experiences of neurodivergent partners during meltdowns, couples can cultivate a stronger bond founded on empathy, proactive strategies, and a shared commitment to understanding each other’s worlds. With compassion, communication, and a willingness to learn, navigating the complexities of neurodiversity can lead to a relationship rich in understanding, support, and shared growth.


  1. Lydon, S., Healy, O., Reed, P., Mulhern, T., Hughes, B. M., & Goodwin, M. S. (2016). A systematic review of physiological reactivity to stimuli in autism. Developmental Neurorehabilitation, 19(6), 335-355. https://doi.org/10.3109/17518423.2014.971975