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The Difference Between Meltdowns and Shutdowns

difference between meltdown and shutdown

The Difference Between Autistic Meltdowns and Autistic Shutdowns | Easy To Understand Explanation About #Autism, From An #ActuallyAutistic Perspective. | Pinterest Image.

If you’ve heard of autism, you’ve heard of autistic meltdowns. They’re often the part of autism that people mistake for being ‘bad behaviour’, even though that couldn’t be anything further from the truth.

However, if you’ve heard of autism, you probably haven’t heard of autism shutdowns. It’s a relatively new phrase used in the autistic community by people who don’t experience meltdowns, but still have an adverse reaction to sensory overload.

If you haven’t heard of the phrase, though, don’t beat yourself up; up until a year ago, I had no clue what they were, either. I hope that, by the end of this blog post, you’ll be enlightened to the differences between autistic meltdowns and shutdowns, too.

Meltdowns and shutdowns are similar, in the sense that they are both reactions to an intense environment. If this becomes too much to process for an autistic person’s sense, it can lead to sensory overload. However, this is where the similarities end.

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Autistic Meltdowns

An autistic meltdown, then, is a term used to describe explosive, external reactions to sensory overload. It’s a way of communicating the pain someone’s in that can be easily understood. While meltdowns look different in everyone, they usually fall into one of two different ways of expressing.

The first is explosive behaviour. This is aggressive or violent in nature, which, contrary to popular belief, is difficult for an individual to control.

The other kind is loud, vocal responses, such as shouting, screaming or crying. Someone experiencing an autistic meltdown, for example, may communicate their pain in a high-pitched scream. Again, this is difficult for people to control.

Some people, while having a meltdown, may use a combination of the two methods to communicate their distress. This is also something that can be aimed inwardly, with someone engaging in self injurious behaviours, or outwardly, by hurting others.

From a personal perspective, although I don’t have meltdowns very often, I become non-verbal and engage in self-injurious behaviour to soothe myself. This isn’t something I necessarily want others to witness. Thankfully, through years of self-reflection, I’m normally able to detect when one is approaching and get somewhere quiet to ride it out once it’s started.

This doesn’t work for everyone, though. While I like to be by myself, other autistic people might like someone close by to comfort them, or to help them immediately after a meltdown ends. It’s worth communicating with the autistic person in your life about what works best for them, if you’re reading this and aren’t autistic yourself.

The National Autistic Society, as part of their Too Much Information campaign, filmed a video which explains meltdowns in a more visual form. You can watch that by clicking here.

Autistic Shutdowns Feel Like An Out-Of-Service Phone | Autism Quotes / Blog Posts | Autism Quote on Light Blue Background With Brain Inside Light Bulb.

Autistic Shutdowns

The way I like to remember the difference between a shutdown and a meltdown is to remember that a meltdown is exploding, and a shutdown is imploding. With that explained, a shutdown involves internally shutting off from the outside world in reaction to sensory overload. To cope with what’s going on, the brain will severely limit the things it processes to protect itself. Sometimes, it will stop processing altogether.

A shutdown is extremely individualised, though, and everyone will present with them differently. Some people might be able to remain in a situation with limited success, while other individuals might find themselves needing to completely leave a situation to recover.

I suffer with shutdowns far more regularly than meltdowns. I was always taught that expressing things outwardly was wrong, and therefore, keeping things inside has become something of a coping mechanism. If I’m going through a stressful time, these can happen several times a day.

In an ideal world, I’d remove myself completely from a situation when I shutdown. Unfortunately, I’m not so good at predicting when these will happen, though, and by the time I realise I’m experiencing a shutdown, I find it difficult to ask my brain to do anything. Usually I ride them out, and rely on autopilot to kick in if needed.

I like to explain this by thinking of my brain like an out-of-service phone. You might be able to use said phone for basic, emergency functions, but continuing as you usually would is out of the question. Sometimes, you might have 1% battery left, but this runs out just when you need it the most. It doesn’t run out every time, but when it does, you’re completely unable to use your phone, even in emergencies.

There’s a lot less information about shutdowns on the internet. I did, however, find a great video by Amethyst Schaber, which you can check out here.

Everything You Need To Know About #Autism / Autistic Meltdowns and #Autistic Shutdowns | Pinterest Image With Watercolour Background.


Whether you’re an autistic person, a family member or friend of an autistic person, or someone who is simply curious, I hope this post taught you something.

Unfortunately, perceptions of meltdowns are often stereotyped, and greatly misunderstood. They’re also far off the reality experienced by autistic people themselves. I hope this blog post has given you the insight to realise that meltdowns are so much more than tantrums, though, and that you will treat someone experiencing one with the dignity and respect they deserve.

If you have anything you’d like to add to the conversation, please leave a comment down below. I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for reading, and until next time,


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27 thoughts on “The Difference Between Meltdowns and Shutdowns

  1. This was so helpful, my twin brother was recently diagnosed with Aspergers at 22. We always just assumed he was a really difficult child, he was always very explosive (probably a meltdown) and when he went to uni became very depressed (sounds like a shutdown) since his diagnosis he has been able to understand why he feels like this and we can finally understand why he has always behaved the way he does. I’m really enjoying reading about the condition as it helps me to understand what he must be going through. Thank you xx

    Sophia xx

  2. Damm! i thought meltdown and shutdowns are same things and i am sure many people l think the same way. thank you for thee diffrentiation between them. very well explained!

    1. Yeah, you’re definitely not the only person who thinks that! I’m glad you were able to learn the difference between them.

  3. Great read. I do not know anyone with autism in my personal life, and I am very uneducated on it honestly, so this was nice to read and to grow some awareness on meltdowns vs. shutdowns. Great post & great that you are spreading some insight!

  4. This is a fantastic and incredibly informative post for those who aren’t autistic and aren’t familiar with the struggles of being so. I’ve heard of the sensory overload thing, where people can’t cope with all the different sounds, smells etc in an environment. That sounds terrifying, in my opinion. But the shutdowns are something I’ve never heard of before. Great post xx

    1. Thank you so much! I’m glad you were able to learn something from this blog post. It can be terrifying, but being in an environment or in a place where people know the warning signs, definitely helps.

  5. I am 27 but I was only diagnosed last year so these posts are so useful to me. When I got diagnosed it was weird to realise how some of my behaviour that baffled me for so long were things like meltdowns. I don’t feel weird any more- I know why I am me. That’s why diagnosis was so important to me. 🙂

    1. Yeah! I completely agree. When I received my diagnosis in 2015, it was like everything had finally slotted into place. It made sense for the first time in my life and it really helped my self-esteem! My diagnosis was definitely important for the same reasons you’ve mentioned.

  6. Very informative. It helps so much to learn about aspects of autism from the true experts – people with autism.

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