Meltdowns and Shutdowns

The non-autistic brain can filter and only concentrate on what it wants to focus on, ignoring some of the sensory experiences it receives.

The autistic brain may have more difficulties in filtering noises, lights, smells, and therefore has to process everything at the same time. If the autistic cannot regulate himself, and the sensory input continues, he goes into overload.

Common triggers (what causes) are:

Excessive sounds (not just loud sounds, but sometimes repetitive sounds like people talking are painful when we have hypersensitivity)

Visual overload (bright lights, too many colours or too much visual to process)

Excessive touching (too many people touching or strangers touching)

Change in routine

Difficulty in communication (difficulty to communicate or verbalize what we are feeling can lead to frustration)

Emotional overload (feeling too much, difficulty in processing emotions or having to process other people’s emotions)

It may seem sudden, but it usually happens after a cumulative increase in exposure to stimuli (over hours, days), and we’ve shown some signs of stress before:

Becoming non-verbal or having difficulty speaking

Does more stimming and with greater intensity (and potentially self-harming)

Remaining too still or not responding

Appear angry, frightened or nervous

Covering the ears, nose, eyes

Not being able to mask, such as being without facial expressions (blank face)

Isolating themselves or trying to run away

There are more signs, but they depend entirely on the person. Ask them what the signs of getting overwhelmed looks like to them and what are their triggers, so you can support them.

Types of Overwhelm

Meltdowns – Externalised overload

Meltdowns happen when there the brain is overwhelmed, making it unable to process any other stimuli, which increases stress, and can be externalised as loss of control, screaming, crying, self-injury or aggression. Meltdowns are the fight reaction in fight or flight. Which ones are more common depends entirely on the person.

This is not being “mean”, throwing a tantrum or behaving badly, it is a reaction to neurological overload and it is out of our control. A tantrum is a manipulative child behaviour with a purpose, but a meltdown is a neurological reaction without any purpose or ability to choose when it happens.

Be aware that most of the time we will be non-verbal and will struggle to understand or process what is around us and anyone that tries to communicate with us.

Shutdowns – Internalised overload

Shutdowns are an internal meltdown and the flight or freeze (although internal). They are episodes that cause the autistic person to switch off and “reboot” their brains. This means that when we receive too many sensory stimuli (noise, communication, lights, pain, etc.), our brain cannot process any more information and has to shut down to rest, like a computer with several windows open. It can be gradual (continuous exposure to stimuli without pauses makes it increment over time) or immediate (very strong sensory stimuli or an emotional reaction).

Shutdowns are more difficult to detect because they are internal. It may appear that the autistic person is:

– “zoning out”, 

– falling asleep/looking exhausted, 

– Hiding/defensive position from the issue that caused it

– Silent

– Not being able to communicate, or communicating less and with brief sentences

– Isolating themselves or lying on a flat surface in fetal position

– Remaining completely still

How to help during?

Please, DO NOT use restraints or seclusion for the autistic person!! It is dangerous and it can hurt the autistic person, or yourself.

Try turning off any sound, light that might be causing the meltdown

Redirect the autistic person to a more secure location, that are silent and where they can rest

Some autistic people like stim toys or heavy blankets, give them if possible

Don’t expect communication. Many people do not speak and cannot articulate what they want. If you really need to ask something, ask a yes or no question

DO NOT touch the person. Although sometimes a tight hug can help, any touch is sensory and can make the meltdown worse. When they are okay, ask if you can touch them. If you don’t know, don’t do it

Be patient. Let them calm down in their own time

Don’t get upset or frustrated. This is not a tantrum and your emotional reaction will be something else they will have to process

How to help after?

After the meltdown, they may feel ashamed and it is important to reassure them that this is normal and there is nothing to be ashamed of. Judging will only make the autistic person feel worse for something they cannot control or avoid. Also, meltdowns are exhausting and the person may feel the need to rest or sleep. Allow them to do this, as exhaustion can lead to more shutdowns. Ask them if there is anything you can do to help, such as giving them something to drink/eat, stim toys, heavy blanket, etc.

Give them space and time to recover. Overload generally leaves autistic people exhausted and they may need some time to fully recover.

Talk to the autistic person about how they feel during to better understand how to help

Ask what you can do to help and how to proceed when it happens.

Ask what causes it, if sounds, lights or emotion are the main triggers, you can prevent it next time

Avoid taking them to places with these triggers. If you can’t avoid it, allow the autistic to use noise-cancelling headphones, stim toys, and others that can help regulate.

Learn to detect if you are feeling overwhelmed

Defend them if someone is rude to them. Ableism is common and not everyone knows a meltdown. They may try to scold or argue with the autistic person. Defend them if you can, as after a meltdown the autistic person may still be non-speaking.