Meltdown vs. Shutdown vs. Tantrum

adult alone anxious black and white

Photo by Kat Jayne

Autistics have meltdowns. Autistics have shutdowns. This is just part of life. We experience the world at 100% and some days it can just all get too much.

I’ve heard recently a lot of talk around people using autism as an excuse for bad behaviour, specifically with respects to childhood tantrums… I want to clarify some things here.

I wonder if there is just not enough information about the differences between autistic responses to overwhelm and temper tantrums?

 

So, here’s my take on it all.


 

What is a Meltdown?

A meltdown is essentially a complete loss of control over emotional regulation and behaviour.  It is an autistic’s response to overwhelm, which often is seen as an explosion of emotion, or an implosion (or sometimes both). When an autistic person is completely overwhelmed by something that is happening in their environment, or something that was said to them, they can *melt down to a childish state*.  So, a meltdown can look like: becoming reactive, stomping feet, throwing objects, screaming, banging things (or themselves), running away, etc…

Meltdowns are the result of sensory-overwhelm. Yep, this can be emotional overwhelm (too many feelings!), or too much light, texture, noise, aromas, people… Remember, meltdowns are never really about you. They are about the *environment* being too much for us to bare. A meltdown is completely non-reliant on your attention or reaction; it is a response to the environment.

 

How to help in a meltdown:

It’s generally hard to identify the start of a meltdown in your loved one. You may become cluely to their personal triggers, and this is definitely handy because it means you can help keep them calm… but sometimes LIFE just happens, and meltdowns occur.

If your autistic loved one is in a meltdown, stay calm. We dont need you also melting down! Please try to make sure they are somewhere safe, remove the offending sensory stimuli and leave them be.  Give your autistic SPACE. Avoid excessive verbal prompts. Aaagh, words are hard for us to process during meltdowns. Depending on the autistic individual and whether they have advised you of their needs, weighted blankets, firm hugs, or comforting sensory objects may help.

Meltdowns are not about a grab for attention or bad behaviour; this is simply a response to overstimulation, overwhelming factors.  Yes, as adults, we can rationally discuss the reasons why a meltdown is a silly action, childish and inappropraite. As adults, we can also agree to *not* meltdown, but essentially this is moot point. Meltdowns are out of our control. We do not choose to have a meltdown. They just sometimes happen.

 

black and white black and white depressed depression

Photo by Kat Jayne

What is a Shutdown?

A shutdown is an anxiety response to “too much”. It can be triggered directly by the sensory challenges in the immediate environment, or over a long-term exposure to being in crowds, at work/ school, around media/ TV. When an autistic person is completely overwhelmed, they may *shut down to a silent state*.

Shutdown is a coping response to overwhelm.  It is not reliant on you; it is not bad behaviour, nor is a grab for attention. It is a response to the environment. We need to shut it down, shut it out, and find peace.

A shutdown may look like:

  • They may hide away in a small dark space
  • Get far away from the noise/ offending sensations
  • Close their eyes
  • Block up their ears
  • Non-communicative/ Silent
  • Non-responsive
  • Staring blankly, as if they are “not there”
  • Not being able to move

 

How to help in a shutdown:

Noticing a shutdown about to happen in an autistic can curb us back into reality and make us feel stable again. The triggers and signs of shutdown will differ with each person you meet, but for me it starts with stuttering and confusion in my mind. I quickly lose my ability to think and to speak, and then it just stops all together. When I begin to stutter, my partner Z. will tell me to sit down, breathe, say ‘everything is ok’, offer me a comfort object, and that helps me so much!

If your autistic loved one is in shutdown mode, make sure they are somewhere safe, remove the offending sensory stimuli and leave them be.  When the autistic person has calmed down you can rationally chat about ways to manage the future. I recommend they keep a mood calender and to record their worries in a seperate booklet. The worry book can then be discussed with therapists/ parents/ partners together with your loved one to remedy or remove some of these anxieties.

 

“A tantrum is an on/ off event, where the person is SOLELY seeking a response from you”.

 

What is a tantrum?

A tantrum is a form of bad behaviour, meant to attract attention, often puported by young children (and some adults). Tantrums happen because these people do not know how to communicate their complex feelings of frustration, guilt, anger, or disbelief. As an expression of temper, they cry, stomp their feet, throw objects or scream… and why? Because something did not go their way. A tantrum feeds off attention with even negative comments propelling the emotional response… A tantrum stops when good attention is received.

What makes a tantrum different to an autistic meltdown or shutdown is that a tantrum is an on/ off event, where the person is SOLELY seeking a response from you. For example: The child wants a chocolate bar. You say ‘No’. Child screams and kicks and cries. You give in. Child gets chocolate bar. The screaming and kicking stops. This is a tantrum. If this event occurred in an autistic meltdown, the child will keep screaming regardless of whether a chocolate bar is presented or not.  Why? Because in an autistic meltdown, the denial of a chocolate bar is not even remotely related to the emotional outburst. You may be able to calm your autistic child down in time, but in autism, your interventions will not switch the behaviour on and off.

 


In Sum…

An autistic experience of the world being too overwhelming, and resulting in either a meltdown or a shutdown is NOT bad behaviour. We cannot control this. We do not choose this. We are not being bad.

Knowing the difference between a meltdown and a shutdown can help when working with, living with, or being with autistics. We understand that these intermittent experiences and responses to stimuli can be frustrating or unusual for you.

Yes, therapeutic interventions such as psychotherapy can help us manage our own emotional space, yet sometimes sensory overwhelm creates a response of meltdown or shutdown in us. What we really need is your patience and calm and awareness that we are not having a tantrum, or acting out…. we are autistic.

At times like these, we ask for your kindness.

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