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.
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.
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.
THANKS FOR READING
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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