Shutdown VS Meltdown: The Internal and External Explosions That Are Characteristic to Autism

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For many people who have been touched by autism on a personal level, meltdowns are a far too common and distressing experience. But we don’t hear much about autism shutdowns, which are similar to autism meltdowns but a little bit different.

You’ve probably at least heard (if not experienced) that meltdowns are different from tantrums. An autistic person having a meltdown is not necessarily in control of their actions and isn’t just upset in the standard way a child gets upset when they can’t have what they want. A meltdown is generally a reaction to a feeling of being overwhelmed or incredibly frustrated. But how is a shutdown different from a meltdown?

Photo: YouTube/Amythest Schaber

In the video below, Amythest Schaber explains that both meltdowns and shutdowns are physiological and emotional responses that the brain uses to protect itself when it’s overwhelmed or upset. It’s not the cause of the reaction or the emotions that are different, but rather how the person tends to respond to those feelings.

A meltdown, as we mentioned before, looks a lot like a tantrum—it can involve stomping, screaming, crying, rolling around on the floor, and other typical tantrum behaviors. A shutdown, on the other hand, is quieter and less noticeable. It generally causes the person to become very quiet and unresponsive to their surroundings.

The most basic explanation is this: meltdowns are more external “explosions” whereas shutdowns are more internal—it involves withdrawal and disassociation.

The extreme courage and desire to help others who are on the autism spectrum, as well as people who know and love people on the autism spectrum, is evident in Amythest’s weekly video blog series, “Ask an Autistic.”

In this video, Amythest discusses the differences between shutdowns and meltdowns, along with examples of the frightening, frustrating emotions that accompany a shutdown. We hope it helps people who have not experienced a meltdown or a shutdown to understand what it means to go through these difficult experiences.

Check out this video to discover what to do when you or a loved one starts to experience a shutdown.

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