“Neurotypical and autistic people have the same fundamental response to stressors. When people recognize something as harmful, they become alarmed. Their brains and bodies secrete combinations of chemicals that people typically recognize as emotions. Those emotions, in turn, spur people to take action intended to face the threat. If these emotions are ignored, then they will build until they prompt the person experiencing them to fight or flee the threat.” – Meltdowns, Autism Wiki
Both meltdowns and shutdowns are the result of stress left unchecked for too long and/or built up too intensely for a person to be able to deal with otherwise.
In a lot of cases, an older child or adult who is having a meltdown or shutdown might know that their reaction is “unusual” or “inappropriate” for the situation. They may know that there are other things that they can do to calm down or to express that emotion. But knowledge has little hold when one is at that point of fight-or-flight.
Meltdowns are the autistic brain’s answer to fight. A person having a meltdown might scream, break things, self-injure, stim aggressively, throw themselves on the floor, tighten their muscles, cry, yell, and, in some cases, injure others.
A meltdown can last anywhere from less than a minute to several hours, depending on that person and their energy reserves. A meltdown may also progress into a shutdown and/or to fatigue and exhaustion. My meltdowns seldom ever last more than a few minutes, but I’ll still be completely wiped after having one.
Shutdowns are the flight. A person having a shutdown is generally very quiet; they may not move, or they move slowly/with effort if they do. They may seem to be “in another world.” On the inside, the person might feel very overwhelmed, or they might feel completely numb and find it hard to think at all.
A shutdown can last anywhere from minutes to weeks. A shutdown might make one more susceptible to meltdowns if one is greatly agitated during this state. A shutdown that persists for a very long time might turn into a burnout, or a loss of functionality/skills.
Again, the person is likely aware on an intellectual level that these actions are not the most socially appropriate actions or those most conducive to a good outcome. A person doesn’t decide to have a meltdown/shutdown; in fact, because they are highly unpleasant for the person having them and consume a lot of energy, autistic people generally take steps to avoid meltdowns and shutdowns when possible.
The first step in preventing these from happening is to identify what may case them. These will differ by person; what might cause a meltdown or shutdown in one person might not cause one in another. People will also differ on how long they are exposed to a trigger or how intense a trigger is before a melt/shutdown happens.
Some possible triggers for meltdowns/shutdowns:
*Body dysregulation (hunger / pain / tiredness / being too hot or cold / hormones influxes, such as during one’s menstrual period / GI issues)
*A busy day/week with insufficient cool-down periods
*Too many demands being made at once / too much to process at one time [this tends to be a major trigger for me; my brain short-circuits easily if I am trying to meet one than a few demands at once]
*Frustration that isn’t resolved (i.e. working on a difficult task for a long time)
*Emotional overwhelm (may result from any strong emotion going unchecked for too long or from the sudden onset of a very intense emotion)
*An unexpected change/interruption (can be anything from a video game that one is engrossed in suddenly not working properly to a traumatic event)
Some of these are easier to prevent/work-around than others.
*Sensory overwhelm: While it’s impossible to control for every possible sensory input, having sensory defenders (earplugs, sunglasses, weighted vest/blanks) and stim items can help reduce overwhelm, as can knowing where the strongest sources of input are and avoiding or lessening one’s exposure to those (i.e. going to eat out at less popular restaurants or at less busy times; only spending an hour at a party instead of the four hours the party may last; avoiding certain stores with strong lights / smells [heck, I know some non-autistic people who won’t step foot in a Lush because of fragence overwhelm]).
*Body dysregulation: This can be reduced by making sure that one’s needs are met — eating/snacking regularly, staying hydrated, getting an adequate amount of sleep, avoiding foods that tend to cause stomach upset. Executive functioning issues can make any of those things harder, however, and may autistic people struggle to sleep (melatonin, weighted blankets, earplugs, and/or a bedtime routine may help with this). One can’t control the weather or know how hot/cold every place they’ll encounter may be, but bringing a jacket if one runs cold (I’ll often bring a jacket if I know I’m going to a store, to a place of business, to someone’s house, or out to eat because I get cold very easily) or dressing warmly if one runs warm can help with this. One especially can’t control being sick or being on one’s period, but having protocols in place for when those do happen (i.e. I’ve learned that I have to take Aleeve at the slightest hint of cramps, else I’m at risk of being in excruciating pain, which does significantly increase my melting down and also hurts an incredible lot) can help prevent a meltdown/shutdown.
*Too busy, not enough cooldowns: Life happens, and, sometimes, life is busy. But if you know that you’ll melt or shut if you don’t get a break, then make time for those breaks, even if it means taking longer to finish something or not being able to do everything you intended to do (i.e. on vacations or at conventions, schedule in “rest periods”). How long and what type of breaks are needed will depend on that person at that time. There are times when a person genuinely can’t take a break — overtime at work, busy part of school or a school organization, a family emergency. Even short periods of time to stim / listen to ASMR / unwind can help. If all else fails and one absolutely can’t take breaks, make sure that one’s other needs (hydration, hunger, sensory needs) are met, and stim if possible (and if that helps).
*Too many demands at once: Again, one can’t always help what life throws at them or what others demand of them. If a person knows that they don’t handle many demands at once, it can be useful to say “Let me finish this first” or “I’ll get to that after I finish this”. It can also be useful to have the demands in written instead of spoken so that a person can better organize those demands. In a school setting, both of those things (one task at a time and writing down tasks) can be written in an IEP/504 if one is in the United States. Similar accommodations can be made in the work environment; there are also certain jobs that are more/less conducive to working on one thing at a time (i.e. waiters tend to be pulled in many different directions at once, but most desk jobs let a person prioritize tasks/jot down a task and get back to it later, and being a driver for Waitr/Uber/a restaurant by nature means that you’re only driving to one place at a time because, well, can’t exactly multi-task driving [though you will also have to deal with looking at a GPS/contacting customers]).
*Unresolved frustration: Some things are just frustrating, and you sometimes have to work through it (or want to work through it if you enjoy the frustrating task, i.e. a game or an interesting essay or learning an instrument). It can be useful to take breaks if one finds oneself getting frustrated and/or at set intervals. If one knows beforehand that the task/event will be frustrating, it may be useful to have ways to make it less frustrating handy — Google, a reference guide, someone else to help, someone else to vent to. But sometimes, the frustation comes from different sources: traffic was bad in the morning, your boss gave you a bunch of tasks to finish by the end of the day, one of which was really annoying for whatever reason, the vending machine in the breakroom took your dollar, your computer crashed and you had to re-start it, traffic was even worse on the way home, and you get home and the WiFi doesn’t connect. By this point, a person might explode at the realization of the WiFi not connecting, even though there were a lot of other frustrations built up.
*Strong emotions: People, including autistic people, feel emotions. We might become saddened if a loved one dies (even if that loved one is a favorite fictional character), enraged if we hear of yet another person killing their child, worried if we hear that someone is ill or injured, confused if someone gets arrested for something we never thought they’d do. Even excitement can be exhausting or overwhelming if it is intense — there is a popular video on Facebook right now of various people crying as a result of receiving a puppy as a gift. Autistic people in particular may feel any or all of these emotions very intensely. One can’t plan for every emotion in advance, but having room to breathe / to process the emotions in their own way (be that through stimming, being alone for a while, engaging in an enjoyable activity) can help one to deal with that emotion. One might be tempted to reassure or to comfort the person, but this may not have the intended result with some people — others getting involved may make the overwhelm worse (especially if they’re repeatedly touching you and going “It’s okay, love, it’s okay, it’s okay…”).
*Unexpected change/interruption: The very nature of something being unexpected is, well, that you didn’t expect it. It’s hard to plan for something you didn’t know was going to happen. Again, having that space to cool down / react in their own way can help prevent it from escalating into a meltdown or shutdown. Again, there might be a tendency to comfort or to assure the person that the situation “isn’t that bad”, but this may actually push one more into an overwhelm than out of it.
Despite all of one’s best efforts, though, a meltdown or shutdown will probably happen at least sometimes.
If you’re the one having a meltdown/shutdown:
*Try to get somewhere isolated/safe, like your bedroom or your car [if you’re out], if you can.
*Let yourself have the shutdown/ meltdown; once you’re at that point, there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
*Afterwards, try not to put yourself down for it. This may be a lot easier said than done if someone else witnessed the meltdown/shutdown or if you hurt yourself, someone, or something. But remember that you’re a person with a different brain wiring dealing with a lot of stress. It’s not your fault that this happened.
*Most importantly, get some rest afterward. Take a break from whatever demands you may have going on. Get yourself to a low-sensory environment. Do something that you enjoy. Do what you need to do to recover. Even if that recovery takes days or even weeks — pushing yourself too hard after a meltdown/shutdown runs the risk of hurting you more in the long run.
If you’re witnessing a meltdown or shutdown:
*Try to get them somewhere isolated/safe, like your bedroom or your car [if you’re out], if you can.
*Try to stay as calm as you possibly can. This is difficult if you care a lot about the person– seeing someone you love being that distressed hurts. But becoming overwhelmed or angry yourself will only make their overwhelm worse. If they respond well to comforting words / being touched during a meltdown or shutdown, then go for it. Otherwise, let them ride it out.
*Try to get others who may be around the person at the time to remain calm. If you absolutely can’t leave the room/area, encourage others to be quiet / turn down the volume of music or other media / not stare at the person. You can’t control everyone’s behavior, of course, but most people genuinely want to do what’s best in any given situation. Some people might just need to be gently instructed on what that best is.
*Afterwards, check up on the person. If they want to be left alone, leave them alone. If they respond well to being comforted, comfort them (be it through words, touch, music, just having you there). Don’t put the person down for having a meltdown/shutdown. We know we responded “inappropriately.” We know that people saw/heard us. We know, trust us. What we need in that moment is gentleness and understanding. And probably also a glass of water.
*Most importantly, let them rest. If you’re out and about, this may mean that you have to go home (or, at the very, very minimum, let them rest in the car [I say this now remembering that some people live in an area where public transportation / walking to places is a thing] or in a quieter place). In any case, this means reducing or eliminating demands — homework and chores can wait a little bit — and letting them recover. Maybe this means they read or play video games for the rest of the day. This may look like them being “lazy” or “spoiled”, but this is how you prevent further meltdowns/shutdowns or, worse, even burnouts/regressions. Just like you’d want to turn off a computer for a second if it’s getting very hot, you absolutely need to give an autistic person who has had a meltdown or shutdown the time and space to cool down if you don’t want to damage the system.
Not every autistic person has meltdowns/shutdowns. Some only have them under very intense and very prolonged periods of stress, and some who have them in childhood become so good at identifying triggers and coping beforehand that they almost never have them as adults. Conversely, a person can go a long time without having a meltdown/shutdown and then have one due to increased stress or fatigue.
But meltdowns/shutdowns are a part of life for many autistic people. Knowing how to prevent them and how to recover from them can help an autistic person be a happier, healthier autistic person in the long run.