When autistic people are extremely distressed – either due to sensory overload, stressful social situations or something else – it can sometimes present as either a meltdown or a shutdown. These are two intense responses to distressing situations that are common among autistic people and often misunderstood by the general public. Without knowledge of how these work, well-meaning bystanders can often make things worse.
An autistic meltdown is an outburst caused by overload or stress, resulting in a loss of control of the person experiencing it. This often resembles a child’s tantrum, with two major differences: a meltdown will continue regardless of whether others are present, whereas a tantrum is designed to get attention; and meltdowns can happen in adults as well as children, which can be dangerous.
Someone experiencing a meltdown may: become violent against others or themselves, yell and scream, throw things, run away from the situation without assessing potential dangers (i.e. may run into a road); or be unable to talk or communicate. This can be dangerous for autistic people of all ages, but particularly adults who may attract unwanted attention from passers-by or the authorities.
Meltdowns among children are often misconstrued as tantrums, and thus adults frequently do not bother to tackle the cause of meltdowns or understand the distress the autistic child is in. This means that potential solutions aren’t found, as the cause of distress remains such as an unsuitable sensory environment or bullying. Autistic children are often punished for meltdowns – despite these being uncontrollable.
Adult meltdowns can be even more dangerous. Police and other authorities will often view an autistic adult having a meltdown as a danger, and will react accordingly – often in ways which increase the person’s distress and escalate the situation. This can be especially dangerous in countries like the US where police regularly shoot people they view as threats. Even if nobody is hurt, meltdowns can be intensely embarrassing one the person has calmed down and recalls what happened.
Shutdowns appear as the opposite of meltdowns, however are often caused by the same things. Different autistic people will experience shutdowns or meltdowns more often; some will almost always react with one while others may react either way. In a shutdown, the person becomes silent, non-communicative and will often block out the world entirely.
An autistic person who can normally speak may become non-speaking during a shutdown; or may be unable to type, point, communicate or acknowledge the presence of other people. It may present as an unwillingness to answer or look at other people, however the person often is unable to do these things, or connect with the world at all while in the process of a shutdown.
Shutdowns are the ‘freeze’ reaction, while meltdowns are fight-or-flight. An autistic person experiencing a shutdown may come across as rude, as if they’re deliberately ignoring you. Inside the person’s mind, there may be a calm after the storm, shutting out the bad things in the world that hurt them and existing in a state of bliss separate from reality. This may seem better than meltdowns, but it makes functioning in society hard – most bosses wouldn’t want employees to become non-responsive periodically.
When I am having a meltdown, the safest thing to do is leave me to calm down on my own. When people put pressure on me to explain myself, or try to touch me, I react by becoming increasingly distressed and unable to communicate, which increases the danger that I may become violent or run somewhere dangerous. Interfering with an autistic person mid-meltdown has a high chance of escalating the situation rather than helping.
I experience meltdowns far more often than shutdowns, but thankfully far less often than I did when I was younger. In school, when I was being constantly bullied and tormented, they were excessively frequent which presented as severe anger-management issues resulting in violence and loss of friendships. Now, they are much tamer, and less frequent, due partly to avoidance of overwhelming situations, and partly to sheer terror of the consequences.
If I feel I’m getting overloaded, and about to have a meltdown, the safest thing for me to do by far is leave the situation immediately, regardless of what it is. If that is impossible for whatever reason, I should put on noise cancelling headphones, shut my eyes and go somewhere I can be alone where nobody is able to burst in and interrupt me – such as a locked toilet cubicle.
Things other people could do to help me if they’re present when I feel overload coming is to help me leave the situation, to never encourage me to stay a little longer, and to leave me alone to work through it and calm down. It is much better to leave me alone than to stay in that situation, as I’ll find arbitrary things annoying and staying only increases the risk of a negative outcome for all present.