Autistic meltdown verses shutdown

A shattered lightbulb

One of the biggest struggles for people on the autism spectrum is dealing with meltdowns and shutdowns. Meltdowns result in a big release of emotional energy and shutdowns can result in a shutdown of the body and its ability to communicate.

Autistic individuals often struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. One of the main causes of these disorders is difficulty in communicating with others. This difficulty is caused by differences in how people on the autism spectrum process information.

Meltdowns

Meltdowns are the result of an overload of emotions or sensory input that haven’t been processed correctly. They are a form of stress release within the body.

Meltdowns are often the result of a mismatch between someone’s brain and body. The person may have an overwhelming urge to do something and cannot explain why to another person. They could also be feeling overloaded with sensory information.

Shutdowns

Shutdowns are a physical phenomenon that results in a shutdown of the body. The person may still be able to think and make sense but is unable to move to express themselves. They may simply go into what can look like a state of shock and become extremely immobile.

If you see someone showing signs of a meltdown or shutdown, they need to be helped. It’s important to help someone who is in the midst of a meltdown or shutdown to regulate themselves again (and become calm).

An effective way to help is to assess the situation and see if you can remove the trigger that caused the response, for example if you’re in a noisy environment, then help to move the individual to a quiet and less busy place.

Meltdowns are understandably alarming to witness but they do not have any long-lasting effects on the individual experiencing them. However often the person experiencing the meltdown or shutdown will feel guilty or embarrassed afterwards, so it’s also important to protect their dignity.

Ways to reduce sensory stimulation

  • Control your environment
  • Sensory toys
  • Noise-cancelling devices
  • White noise machine to cover distracting sounds like traffic or people talking
  • Remove fluorescent lights
  • Limit exposure to tactile stimuli
  • Limit exposure to auditory stimuli

The important thing to remember is that an autistic individual is unable to physically control a meltdown or a shutdown. Once it has started it just needs to run its course. The kindest thing to do is to give the person privacy and time to recover afterwards. Meltdowns are physically and emotionally draining for the person experiencing it.

Meltdowns and shutdowns can also occur when an individual becomes emotionally dysregulated.

What is emotional regulation?

Emotions are a natural part of life. Emotional regulation is the process by which an individual learns to monitor and control their thoughts, emotions, and behaviours in response to various situations.

The ability to regulate one’s emotions is crucial for personal development, interpersonal relationships, physical health, and mental well-being. When an individual becomes overwhelmed with emotion they may shut down or have a meltdown.

Sensory processing disorder is often associated with poor emotional regulation.

There are two parts to emotional regulation:

  1. Emotional Awareness: this is the ability to understand yourself and recognise and understand emotions.
  2. Emotional Reactivity: this is the ability to respond to emotions and situations.

Ways to regulate emotions

  • Breathe deeply
  • Identify the warning signs
  • Practice mindfulness
  • Develop a routine
  • Find activities that are soothing
  • Listen to calming music

Poor emotional regulation is not reserved just for neurodiverse individuals – there are plenty of people who have not learned to emotionally regulate. These people tend to be quick to anger and will often find unhealthy ways to regulate their emotions (through dring and drugs for example).

This is why we always keep in mind that often behaviours we may want to see as autistic or ADHD behaviours are also typical human responses.