I feel like most people have an understanding of what autistic meltdowns are. Autistic shutdown is a relatively new phrase, though, so I feel like a lot less people know what they are. Even people who may be close to an autistic person, or who may be autistic themselves, may not know what it means. Up until a year ago, I didn’t either.
Meltdowns and shutdowns are both reactions to an intense environment which proves too much to process for an autistic person’s senses—otherwise known as sensory overload.
Meltdown is a term used to describe explosive reactions to sensory overload. It’s a way of expressing the pain in a way that cannot be very easily misunderstood. While they present differently in everyone, they often fall into two different ways of expression. The first is explosive behaviour, aggressive or violent in nature, that an individual is unable to control. The other includes vocal responses, like shouting, screaming or crying. Some people may express their over-stimulation through a combination of the two methods, which may be aimed towards themselves or others.
Thankfully, I don’t have meltdowns very often. When one does occur, though, I’m often able to detect it coming on in advance. It gives me enough time to find a safe, private place to ride it out. I like to do this because I become non-verbal and engage in self-injurious behaviour to soothe myself that I don’t want other people to witness. Other people might not want to be left alone during a meltdown, but it’s what works for me.
Although being left alone works for me, others may prefer to have someone close by to comfort them or be there after a meltdown ends.
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 difference between a shutdown and a meltdown is that a shutdown consists of imploding instead of exploding. Instead of outwardly expressing a reaction to sensory overloading, shutting down in a very internal process. In order to cope with the overwhelming environment, the brain will stop processing things as effectively as it usually would. In some cases, the brain stops processing things altogether.
A shutdown is very individualised, though, like a meltdown, and everyone reacts differently to them. Some people may be able to remain in a situation if their processing slows down with an understanding that they need more time to respond to people. Other individuals may find that they need to remove themselves from a situation completely in order to stop shutting down. It may take someone twenty minutes to recover, but for others, it may take longer.
Shutdowns occur in my life a lot more regularly than meltdowns do. I was always taught that expressing things outwardly was wrong, so I think it’s partly a subconscious thing for me. These can happen several times a week, easily, especially when a lot is being demanded of me.
In an idealistic world, I would remove myself from a situation when I shutdown. Communication becomes very difficult, and I sometimes become non-verbal, so being able to refresh my brain would be so helpful. I often don’t notice until I’m in a shutdown that one is happening, though, and by that point I find it difficult to instruct my brain to do anything. Usually I just sit there and ride it out, and rely on autopilot to do the work in an emergency.
I like to explain this by thinking of my brain like an out-of-service phone during a shutdown. You may be able to use it for basic functions, like phoning the police, but doing anything you usually would on it is out of the question. Sometimes, you may find yourself in this situation with 1% battery, and to your luck, it runs out just when you try and call for assistance. It doesn’t happen every time, but when it does, you are unable to use your phone. That’s what it feels like for me, personally. It’s important to remember that this isn’t the case for everyone, though.
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 a family member or a friend of an autistic person, simply curious, or an autistic person yourself, I hope you learnt something. Perceptions of meltdowns are often a lot different to the reality when you get inside the mind of an autistic person. Once you have that perspective, it’s easier to understand why they aren’t just tantrums. I encourage you to comment down below if you have anything you want to add to the conversation. I look forwards to hearing from you!
Thanks again for reading this blog post, and until next time,
PS: This blog post was written as part of Autism Awareness Month 2017. To read other posts I’ve written for Autism Awareness Month, including my first for 2017, click here.