Shutdowns – Are They Different from Meltdowns?

When the world around us pushes us to stress overload, as it often does, we turn to our long-learned coping mechanisms to navigate the challenges. But what if we are autistic, and have crossed the threshold of overwhelm? When our emotional resources are tapped out, in exhaustion our brain may react by going into a protective mode called shutdown.

Shutdown vs. Meltdown

The terms shutdown and meltdown are often used interchangeably. While both are reactions caused by sensory, information, or emotional overload, a meltdown consists of more outward behavior, and a shutdown is an internalized mode that is much less noticeable.

The most common signs of a shutdown are:

  • Being completely silent
  • Staring into space (dissociating)
  • Unable to communicate in any way
  • Using incorrect words or stuttering
  • Withdrawing to a dark or quiet place (to break away from the cause of the shutdown)
  • Inability to move away (sitting or laying down in place)
  • Lying on the floor or a flat surface and remaining very still

A person having a meltdown displays outward behaviors and may scream, attack people, hurt themself and break things, which often looks like a temper tantrum.

A person experiencing a shutdown, unlike someone who is having a meltdown, is aware of self-control and that they are in the throes of distress, however, the individual is not able during a shutdown to control their muted internal response. Their brain continues to process in shutdown mode until it recovers and resets.

Katie Louise, autistic, writer, and contributor at The Mighty describes shutdowns as a way that her brain conserves her remaining processing skills and reboots. She describes her inability to communicate during a shutdown.

“I’m still able to hear, comprehend and see while I’m having a shutdown. But talking is one of the most complex things my brain does, and so just like you may not be able to analyze a marketing report when you get very upset (I can), I can’t talk when I get worked up. As I can’t regulate my emotions very easily, talking plus conflict plus general burnout will result in either a shutdown or a meltdown.”

Some autistics experience shutdowns following a meltdown. This is not always the case; a shutdown can occur with or without experiencing a meltdown.

What You Can Do to Help Your Child During a Shutdown

One of the first steps that you can take to help your child during a shutdown is to decrease or eliminate the stimuli.

As explained by Izzy LIvely, autistic writer at A Day in OUR SHOES, a break just may be the best way to recover from an autistic shutdown. She suggests that people having a shutdown eliminate or reduce obligations, take some time off, get away, and spend some time alone.

Here are ways to help your child recover from a shutdown (and we’ve included some of Izzy’s great suggestions):

  • Safety first – move your child away from danger, self-injury, or an overstimulating environment
  • Acknowledge to your child that you know that they are unable to talk at the moment and that it is okay (and if he or she is old enough, encourage them to carry a card that they can hand out, “Sorry, I am in a shutdown and cannot talk right now”)
  • Encourage stimming, listening to music, or other self-regulatory behaviors and favorite coping mechanisms
  • Suggest bath taking, swimming, or standing under a shower of warm water
  • Help your child find a quiet place to retreat
  • Limit communication with your child, and speak in a soft voice

How to Help Prevent Shutdowns in Your Child

One of the first measures that you can take to prevent shutdowns in your child is to identify the triggers that lead your child to overwhelm.

Common triggers that can raise stress and anxiety in autistic children include changes in plans, changes in routines, unfamiliar environments, and lack of sleep.

The steps you can take to prevent shutdowns in your child go hand in hand with the ways that you can help them eliminate anxiety:

Modeling and Guiding

You, the parent guide, can help your child cope through proactive measures – through modeling life experiences. Together, you learn practical life lessons that promote development, independence, and coping skills.

Encourage Brave Behaviors

Reward and encourage your child when they face and conquer adversity in their world. Encourage healthy ways for your child to deal with anxiety and fears, which can reduce the sense that a shutdown is imminent. Brave behaviors can include going to a safe and quiet place, stimming, listening to music, or using other coping mechanisms that personally work to reduce stress.

Convey Confidence

Convey confidence in your child’s ability to handle fears and challenges, but when it feels overwhelming to your child, display confidence in their methods that effectively tamper down stress and avoid overload.

Practice Gradual Exposure

Gradual exposure to anxiety and shutdown triggering points can help your child process situations and build coping mechanisms. Increasingly, your child will become more growth-seeking, “I did it! I want to do this again!” They will also discover their own anxiety threshold. “I am nearing that point that shuts me down, and now it is okay to do this (…) to take care of me!”

We Are Here to Help

You aren’t alone in this journey. Get answers to your biggest questions and concerns about autism and learn how to best support your child’s growth and progress in our online learning community.

Click to enlarge infographic.

autism, echolalia, and apraxia infographic


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