Meltdowns – Part 4 – Shutdowns

sad childWhat is a shutdown? 

And how is it different to a meltdown or outburst?  A lot of autistic people have shutdowns when they become overwhelmed, and this can be due to social or sensory issues; an emotional or sensory overload can trigger this response.  But why do people have shutdowns, rather than outbursts?  And what are the differences between these two reactions?

When a person goes in to Shutdown they may cease to talk, or to interact with what is around them.   This is different from an outburst type meltdown.  With meltdowns/outbursts everything builds up until it explodes outwards.  It is as if the internal systems for coping have gone in to meltdown.  A shutdown is similar to a computer that has been asked to perform too many tasks, and simply freezes.  The person doesn’t become frustrated at anybody else, or even show a massive outward reaction.  They simply can`t accommodate any more social or sensory input, and tend to freeze up – this is how shutdowns have been described by some people who experience them, though of course others may say they experience shutdowns differently.

Everybody`s triggers for shutdowns will be different, and some people may not have shutdowns at all. Others will have them if there is too much sensory stimulation, and like outbursts they can often come during, or after prolonged social interaction.  Stereo-typically shutdowns are associated with females who have autism, and outbursts with autistic males.   It is possible that shutdowns may affect women more than men, but this doesn’t mean that males with autism can’t have shutdowns as well – as with everything with autism, it depends on the individual.

The best way to deal with somebody having a shutdown is the most obvious way; if they are having their shutdown because they are overwhelmed with what`s going on around them, then getting in their face, and trying to persuade them out of it will not help.  What they need is to be left alone.  Often people think that it is dangerous if somebody has a shutdown, but it is probably just a way of coping.   And although it might not feel too pleasant for the person, it may avoid a lot of stress in the future if the person is left in peace to recover.  Often it is simply the body or mind`s way of regaining a level of control over a particularly stressful situation.  The person, without even realising they are doing it, takes themselves out of that situation, and gives themselves a break.  But if somebody is constantly trying to communicate with them it is just going to make them more stressed, and perhaps even draw on the sort of meltdown that leads to an external outburst.  Sometimes people need a break, and the best thing others can do is to give them that break.

Shutdowns, like meltdowns, cannot be helped.  It is possible to identify which situation bring them on more than others and try to avoid those situations, or work on making them easier.  But the important thing to keep in mind is that shutdowns are a coping mechanism, they happen not to hurt the person, but in fact to try to keep them safe and alleviate some of their stress.  Ideally it would be better for people not to have shutdowns, but they are not the worst thing in the world, and the majority of people who have them say that while they don’t feel particularly nice, they tend to feel better afterwards. Sometimes the after-effects of shutdowns can last for several days, leaving people unable to leave the house.  This isn’t the shutdown itself, but an after-effect; the same as feeling worn-out after an outburst. Some people with autism have said they are not sure how they could have handled the stress, and pressure without the shutdown.