What Do Shutdown and Meltdowns Look like in Adult Autism?

8 Top Tips for Management and Prevention

What Is Autistic Meltdown?

Meltdowns are an expression of a person’s survival instincts (often referred to as the 3 F’s, fight, flight, and freeze) kicking in as a response to nervous system overload. Just like some people may automatically jump, scream, or lash out when frightened or threatened, the way a person with autism responds in these moments isn’t an active or voluntary choice. It’s an automatic response to a trigger - typically, highly stimulating or anxiety-provoking situations. Specifically, an autistic meltdown is an expression of the fight or flight responses

What Does It Look Like?

Meltdowns will look a bit different from one person to the next. And, even for the same person, all meltdowns may not look the same; they may differ in intensity and length depending on the trigger(s) and other contextual factors. Visible behaviors or warning signs of a meltdown may include:

  • yelling
  • stimming
  • hitting or kicking
  • biting
  • crying
  • destroying things
  • throwing things
  • suddenly leaving a situation

What Does It Feel Like?

Like any experience, the way a meltdown feels for the person with autism can vary. Here’s how an anonymous interviewee described what meltdowns feel like for them:

"For me, a more “mild” meltdown looks like crying, and stimming uncontrollably, either physically or verbally or both. One of my meltdown “stims” is to hit myself in the head, as I say or mutter the same things repetitively, oblivious to the outside world. If it is more mild, this is usually not with enough force to actually hurt me, and I won’t necessarily lash out at others. If the meltdown is severe enough though, I black out. My brain turns off, and I’m filled with such uncontrollable rage or anguish that I start hitting, kicking, or destroying things, people or things get screamed at, and I’m prone to self harm or suicidal tendencies before it calms. Whether one remains lucid during a meltdown or not, you don’t feel a sense of “control” over what is happening. You kind of just have to ride it out. It’s like your mind is off, or powerless, as your body carries out the actions that represent the overwhelm you were consciously or unconsciously feeling inside. And a meltdown is almost always accompanied by a poignant sense of shame after it tapers off & ends, especially if anybody witnessed it."

What Is Autistic Shutdown?

Shutdowns are often more subtle, at least from an outside perspective, than meltdowns. But, they’re still a reaction to big emotions like stress and overwhelm when the body’s fight, flight or freeze ‘survival mechanism’ is activated. It’s kind of like how a computer that becomes overheated from trying to run too many processes at once may suddenly shut down or close all but the most basic functions. During autistic shutdown, a person may be so overwhelmed that they seem to ‘check out,’ and struggle to perform even ‘basic’ functions like communication or movement.

What Does It Look Like?

While meltdowns are typically an expression of the fight or flight responses, shutdown represents the freeze response. Often more internal, shutdowns may be more difficult to notice from the outside. It may look like zoning out - staring into space or at the wall, floor, etc. The person may curl up the body in a seated or laying down position. If they were speaking, they may suddenly stop talking or trail off mid-sentence.

What Does It Feel Like?

Our anonymous interviewee described their experience with shutdown:

“For me, in past experiences where I felt myself sliding slowly into a state of shutdown. Often the first sign would be: the carefully crafted mask I utilize as a comfort; starting to crumble and crack. I feel the world around me start to close, some stimuli seemingly increasing, be it in volume or the amount of attention it calls, while others lose my focus. Drown out by my own mind struggling to cope and grasping at any attempt to avoid what ever triggered this slip into shut down.”

Shutdown and Meltdowns: The Aftermath

After a meltdown or shutdown many autistic people will be very tired both mentally and physically. They may last for an extended time even after the initial trigger is removed, and/or after the person leaves the triggering space. If you’re a friend or loved one, try to remain patient and give them the space and time they need for emotional regulation. Afterwards, the person may struggle to remember details of what happened for some time, so try not to initiate a conversation about what happened immediately.

If you experience a meltdown or shutdown, remember that the aftermath is a time to practice extra self-care and kindness. Take care of the body and mind by being in a comfortable sensory environment, prioritizing extra time for rest, hydration and eating safe foods. Post- meltdown or shutdown can also be a time to ask for support from the community. If certain key aspects of self care feel like too much, there may be someone in the community who would be happy to provide support. Unfortunately, adult autism supports are nearly non-existent, ideally this would be a time in which there would be more systemic supports for the autistic individual but for now we do what we can with the resources available.

Autistic Meltdowns vs. Shutdowns: What’s the Difference?

While each person’s experience of meltdowns and/or shut downs is different, in general, the internal experience of these instances can be quite similar. Meltdowns may come with more intense feelings of anger, sadness, fear, or frustration, while shutdowns can come with more feelings of numbness. This is not always a fact, as the opposite can also occur.

The most consistent difference between autistic meltdown and autistic shutdown is in how they present externally.

What Causes Autistic Meltdown and Shutdown?

There are many reasons a person might find themselves at a point of shutdown or meltdown. The body is trying to signal that the person is in extreme distress, and is trying to release that overwhelming distress. This is a non-exhaustive list that can point to some common themes:

  • Overstimulation: Overstimulation is a common cause of these intense experiences. Especially when it is difficult or takes time to escape an overstimulating situation, an autistic person’s body may go into these fight, flight or freeze responses. Sensory overload triggers vary from person to person but can include lights, sounds, smells, and even textures of clothing or other material they’re in contact with.
  • Overwhelm: When emotions or other internal experiences are very intense they may feel like too much to handle. This overwhelm can also lead to a meltdown or shutdown.
  • Frustration: Feeling out of control can also cause a meltdown or shutdown reaction, especially when the frustration has built or is combined with overstimulation or overwhelm.
It is important to remember that having a meltdown or shutdown is morally neutral. The goal is to keep the individual and the people around them safe. Otherwise, it is often helpful to deal with these feelings in whatever way feels right.

How To Manage Shutdown and Meltdowns

In the moment, shutdown and meltdowns can be difficult to manage or stop. Each individual is unique, and what helps one person may just make it worse for another. So, the most important thing for a friend or family member to keep in mind is to follow the individual’s lead and be open to helping in the ways their loved ones ask for. Remaining calm is important.

  • Communicative Accommodations: Having note cards, notes written in a phone, etc., can aid in communication in the moment if a meltdown or shutdown happens around other people. These could explain what is happening and what is needed in order to self regulate in case you’re unable to communicate your needs verbally.
  • Do what feels right for the individual: For some people this could be deep pressure from a sensory aid or another person; for others, it could be to be left completely alone. They might want to turn off the lights, make the space quiet, or take time alone. Other self regulatory tools include stimming, breathing, and even distraction. What works for each person varies greatly.
  • Accept and ride it out: While self-regulation or co-regulation are eventually the goal, meltdowns or shutdowns are inevitable sometimes. Part of moving through them is accepting the feeling and acknowledging that will not feel like that forever. Meltdowns and shutdowns are intense, but they do pass. Sometimes the answer is to ride the wave until it eventually places you back on shore.
  • Avoid self injurious behaviors: Sometimes the person may have behaviors that could be harmful to themselves or others. If possible, it could be safer to transfer the energy to a pillow or other soft, inanimate objects. Or, the person may need help moving to a safer location. These behaviors are heavily stigmatized, but they’re not something to be ashamed of. It is important to accommodate as needed and consider asking a professional for help.

How To Prevent Shutdown and Meltdowns

While it may not be possible to prevent them entirely, having a solid plan in place to minimize exposure to triggers, and prepare a dedicated soothing environment ahead of time, can help reduce meltdown and shutdown frequency.

  • Sensory Accommodations: By accommodating sensory needs some meltdowns and shutdowns can be avoided. Some examples would be wearing sunglasses (even indoors), wearing noise cancelling or reducing headphones or earbuds, wearing comfortable fabrics, avoiding strong smells and practicing leaving situations early with too much sensory stimulation. A common trait in autistic people is poor interoception (being less aware of what’s going on in the body, i.e.. thirst, hunger, discomfort, needing to go to the bathroom). For this reason, it may help to develop a routine practice of mindfully checking in with oneself to see if overstimulation is happening at a low level It can be hard to advocate for oneself in these situations but it is a very important skill to practice.
  • Pre-Emptive Communication: It can be helpful to create physical or digital aids ahead of time to communicate to those around what is happening and what is needed (even if that is just to be left alone). This is especially advantageous if meltdowns or shutdowns come with going non-verbal for the individual. If away from home, preparing a soothing kit in advance with comfort items or sensory-reducing items (sunglasses, headphones, etc) can help.
  • Managing Burnout: Autistic burnout often increases the occurrence of meltdowns and shutdowns. By slowly working towards healing burnout through rest, accommodation, and unmasking, the occurrence of meltdowns and shutdowns will likely go down.
  • Unmasking: Masking takes a large toll on autistic people. While it is sometimes a necessary survival skill, unmasking when it is safe to do so can increase emotional regulation, reducing stress and fatigue and helping to prevent and heal burnout. By being less burnt out, more authentic, and increasing accommodation, overwhelm will likely happen less often.

Closing Thoughts

Understanding the distinction between meltdown and shutdowns can be helpful for people experiencing them to understand themselves more. The more you understand your triggers, and the things that help you self-soothe and regulate, the better you can prepare yourself in advance and reduce the frequency of meltdown and shutdowns. For friends nd family, it’s important to learn how to be as supportive as possible in each situation. Be open to providing support in the way your autistic loved one expresses they need it.

At the end of the day, meltdown and shutdowns will probably happen at some point. The goal is not to make them stop altogether, but to decrease frequency and intensity, and to improve how they are handled for the wellbeing of the person experiencing them. The world is an inherently overwhelming place. For an autistic person, this is especially true. As most of the world and society is, unfortunately, not currently built with autistic needs in mind, it is important to be understanding and patient.

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