In my last post, I discussed sensory overload and the fact that if sensory overload occurs, and isn’t addressed using supports and techniques specific to my needs, or the needs of the person at hand, it can result in meltdowns, shutdowns, or both. Essentially, shutdowns are a specific type of meltdown. They come from a similar place, but they manifest and appear differently.
Autistic people experience shutdowns and meltdowns. It just happens. Sometimes they become less common with age, sometimes we go from experiencing more to less or only meltdowns as compared to shutdowns, or sometimes we only experience shutdowns or shutdowns more often than meltdowns. Some people can go a long time without experiencing a meltdown or shutdown, and other people experience them rather frequently, depending on the person and individual life circumstances. Sometimes they’re a result of sensory overload as mentioned, but sometimes they’re the byproduct of a change in schedule, plans, or routine, being mentally or physically exhausted, as a result of trying to be socially engaged for too long, or a variety of other factors depending on the person. Also as I said in my last post, we can be more vulnerable to sensory overload if we’re tired, hungry, sick, in pain, or experiencing anxiety or depression. These things can lower our ability to cope and result in us not having the energy left to stave off a shutdown. Our brains are left with no other option except to “hibernate”, as it were.
The amount of energy that it takes a neurotypical person to make it through an entire day is generally vastly less than that of an autistic’s. Similarly to the way in which we have to make conscious decisions of what sensory input is and is not relevant or important, we have to make a large number of other conscious decisions throughout the day each day, decisions that neurotypicals generally don’t even have to think about making, or at least not to the extent that we do. From the moment I wake up, until the moment I drift off to sleep, my brain is making connections and seeking out possibilities, making everything a step-by-step attempt at creating and solving patterns. This is the case for every single thing that I do. Everything is in overdrive, and everything has to have a reason, and if it doesn’t outwardly have one, my brain has to seek out and create one. Every action I take is broken down into numerous parts and steps. I can’t just do something. My brain demands that it be analyzed, and there’s no working around it. What other people do automatically, you know, those mundane tasks, are extremely complex to me with numerous accompanying thoughts and facets. Each action or task is accompanied by a dozen questions: the exact words I need to use when speaking, “how long to make eye contact before I look away and then have to look back again? “, “should my arms be folded or not and what does it mean if I leave them folded?” “If I don’t leave them folded, where do I put my hands?” “Do I use them theatrically and move them about as I speak to illustrate my point, or do I tuck them in my pockets?” “Wait, I’m not wearing anything with pockets…I wonder how many pairs of pants I have with pockets in them?” Tasks like washing my hair can take significantly longer than someone who is neurotypical. The same amount of shampoo has to be squeezed out each time, I need to make sure the bottle is facing the right direction, with the label out because that’s the “right” way for it to be, and so on and so forth. Every single thing I do has to be analyzed until I’m sure it feels right. Until I’m sure I’ve assessed it from every angle. My brain has to consider all of the possible outcomes, or it can’t move on. These things have become so ingrained in my being, that they are just normal experiences of my existence. If my brain didn’t analyze everything and file it all away into its neat little filing system, I’m not sure what I would do. I don’t know that I would know how to do.
All of this conscious effort that we put into decision making and in regards to sensory input can take its toll and can easily push us into a shutdown or meltdown. If we can’t attain comfort through something soothing to us, if we just can’t seem to cope with circumstances beyond our control and find some semblance of a foreseeable outcome, or if we are just full to the brim with input, our brains go into that “hibernation” state, as I called it, and we can shut down. It’s essentially the internalized or implosive form of a meltdown. It’s like a brain break, but one that you have no choice in. Brain break actually makes it sound like a positive. It isn’t.
Shutdowns can look and feel differently for different people. When I am heading toward shutdown, I feel very disoriented and imbalanced. I can’t think, and I feel as though I’m lost in space. I hear things going on around me, but I’m not experiencing them. It feels surreal, as though I’m extra in the scene of a movie, with everything else going on around me. It feels as though my brain is part of one of those little zen sand gardens and someone is just raking it around in circles. I can either be near people and stuck in my thoughts, or I’ll be alone, depending on the situation. Sometimes I’m not even initially aware that this is happening, I just suddenly feel very tired and out of it, and other times I know that it’s happening, but it’s too late to do anything about it and I just have to wait through it. Generally, when I’m experiencing a shutdown, I either speak very quietly or am unable to speak at all. The words simply won’t come out, and I don’t have the ability to make them come out and I’m too exhausted to do anything. It’s not a regular kind of tired, and it’s different from depression. I’m not tired or shutting down because I feel sad or depressed, I’m shutting down because my brain has exhausted all other options, and there’s nothing left for it to do but to actually go through a period of shutdown and “reboot”, much like a computer that’s overheating. For me, and most people on the spectrum while experiencing a shutdown, this results in finding a comfortable spot and sleeping until my brain “reboots.”
Our brains may choose to engage in fight or flight or freeze. While a shutdown is more internal and is akin to freezing, a meltdown is an outward expression of this overwhelm and is more on the fight or flight side of things.
A meltdown is not to be confused with a tantrum. Meltdowns cannot be controlled, while someone in the midst of a tantrum can be distracted. Additionally, when people have tantrums they generally have an end goal in mind, while meltdowns occur as a response to being overwhelmed.
When an autistic person is in the midst of a meltdown, control is lost and it can be humiliating. It feels like a hammer hitting a rock until it cracks under the pressure, and like nothing is ever going to be able to put all of the little pieces back together. Like nothing will ever feel right or be good again and the whole world is caving in. While in meltdown, autistic people tend to lash out at others, verbally, physically, or both. Body parts and objects can go flying, and damaging, hurtful things can be said or in a lot of cases, screamed. People may try to run or hide away, may engage in self-injury, or may stim. Eye contact is usually also limited, as no one wants to be seen when they are in the middle of having a meltdown, and it takes way too much effort to even attempt to look in the general direction of someone else. It’s embarrassing and feels childish.
Reminders of our behavior after it is all said and done isn’t warranted either. We know how we behaved and we feel ashamed. Reminding us of it will only make matters worse.
The best thing you can do when someone is having a meltdown is to be there for them. Sit there with them quietly. Don’t try to engage in conversation, don’t physically touch them. Doing so will likely only prolong the meltdown.
Following a meltdown, people feel generally exhausted and they just need space to retreat. In this, meltdowns can actually transition into shutdowns. Things like deep pressure are often helpful post-meltdown as well. Anger and embarrassment are also common feelings, as we’re both upset with ourselves for losing control and embarrassed that other people may have witnessed it.
Just know that we don’t like this happening, and just as it makes those around us uncomfortable, it makes us all the more uncomfortable.
Sometimes shutdowns and meltdowns are simply unavoidable. It’s important to consider personal triggers and methods for sensory input and regulation that we may potentially have in place to try to prevent shutdowns and meltdowns or help us in their aftermath.