It’s a fact of life. We all have meltdowns, we all have shutdowns. That’s not a trait of autism, it’s a fact of life. It’s just that research shows that it is notably more common in individuals with autism. My theory is that the reason more meltdowns and shutdowns occur in people with autism are because…well, our senses are less able to handle a certain amount of stimuli.
Meltdowns can often be mistaken for tantrums, especially in younger children, There are no set occurrences for meltdowns. Some can involve screaming and violence, including attacking themselves. Others can be just silent tears and an inability to get out of it until removed from the situation. While tantrums ask for attention and not giving it is the best way to make tantrums stop, there is no way to modify behaviour from a meltdown, except to keep the stimuli causing it away from the person. Not an easy thing to do. Often, once the stimuli is removed, a meltdown will eventually be over.
A shutdown is different. While a meltdown is an external reaction, you might not even notice a shutdown at first. A shutdown is when the person just stops reacting. They often won’t talk or respond. I don’t know if they always take in what’s going on, but it takes a while for them to start responding. A friend of mine had this happen to her a while ago, and last time I messaged her, she told me she’d only just started to talk and write again.
Why is it important to look at shutdowns and meltdowns in the context of autism? Well, because what causes them can be completely alien to a neurotypical. And if a younger child has this happen, they might be mistaken for throwing tantrums or sulking, which can prompt grave mishandling of the situation that damages the child, giving them the label of being a troublemaker and denting their self-esteem. If you know what it is, though, you can act quickly, checking for a cause. However, if you really come across an adult meltdown, like the last time I had one, just remember: It’s probably not over two gutter balls in a game of tenpin bowling. Sometimes, one little thing can set off the meltdown that was over several bigger things.