Technically, there aren't too many differences between meltdowns and shutdowns. Both are extreme reactions to everyday stimuli. Both tend to be the result of long-term unresolved issues rather than the more obvious triggers, and both are almost completely out-of-the-control of the Aspergers (high functioning autistic) youngster rather than being used by kids and adults as a means to an end (which would be either a tantrum or emotional blackmail).
Some Aspergers kids are more prone to meltdowns while others lean more towards the shutdown model. It's possible to do both, but this depends greatly on the root cause of the problem. There's a personality component to the reaction with Aspergers kids who are more sure of themselves or more fiercely independent leaning towards meltdowns rather than shutdowns, but again there's a wide variance depending upon the feelings brought on by the trigger. Some events can make even the most confident of Aspergers kids doubt themselves.
What exactly is a shutdown?
While a meltdown could be described as rage against a situation, a shutdown tends to be more of a retreat. Behaviors which manifest during a shutdown include rolling oneself into a ball or fetal position, crawling under objects or lying face down or completely under the covers on a bed. Gaze avoidance tends to increase significantly during a shutdown, and conversation is non-existent.
As with meltdowns, in a shutdown situation, the Aspergers youngster may act irrationally or dangerously. Unlike a meltdown however, the harmful activities are almost always directed at oneself. The Aspergers youngster may attempt self-harm and may even be suicidal. He/she may be more likely to take reckless risks (e.g., attempting to jump out of a bedroom window).
What causes a shutdown?
As with meltdowns, the cause of a shutdown tends to be cumulative, and the trigger may bear little resemblance to the actual problem. The real problems associated with shutdowns tend to lean towards depression, loneliness, poor self-image and poor self-worth.
In a small child, a shutdown may be triggered because of a simple breakfast issue (e.g., they were given something they don't like). In this case, the cause may actually have nothing to do with breakfast at all - but rather it may be symptomatic of the youngster's frustration at not being able to make himself understood.
What does a shutdown look like in Aspergers adults?
In grown-ups, shutdowns can result from extreme events (e.g., losing a job, marriage break-up, etc.), but they can also have very small triggers, which simply remind the Aspergers adult of a larger pain (e.g., a small incident at work can provoke some long-term insecurities and cause a retreat).
A shutdown will move some form of emotional pain to the center of the adult's focus, and he/she may start contemplating "what if" and "if only" scenarios. These thoughts are always counter-productive, because you can't change the past, and they usually only make the Aspie feel entrapped by events. During a shutdown, the adult may collapse into a heap and will generally not have any contact with anyone.
What can be done?
Like all Aspergers traits, there's not really a cure; however, self-respect goes a long way towards prevention. If you have Aspergers kids, it's very important to counter any negative messages they're receiving from others. If those negative messages are coming from teachers or family, then you may need to get involved yourself.
Unlike meltdowns (where it's best to leave the Aspergers youngster alone - but in a safe place), it's generally helpful to talk in a soothing voice during a shutdown. Just make sure that you're careful what you say - and keep things positive. The only thing to remember when soothing your Aspie during a shutdown is that you're still dealing with a child on the autism spectrum. Don't try to force eye contact, and don't touch the child without either being invited to do so - or being cautious to see the reaction first.
Preventing Meltdown and Shutdowns in Aspergers Children
More resources for parents of children and teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism:
==> Discipline for Defiant Asperger's Teens
==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management
==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's: How to Promote Self-Reliance
==> Everything You'll Ever Need to Know About Parenting Asperger's Children
==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism
==> AudioBook: Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism