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Meltdowns vs. Shutdowns and How Parents Should Respond

"Are shutdowns actually avoidance behavior, in other words, the child is simply trying to get out of doing something uncomfortable? And how is it different than a meltdown? I'm not sure exactly where to draw the line between intentional and involuntary acts with my 10 y.o. (high-functioning) son."

When it comes to dealing with a child who has High-Functioning Autism (HFA) or Asperger's (AS), 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 youngster rather than being used as a means to an end (which would be either a tantrum or emotional blackmail).

Some kids on the autism spectrum are more prone to meltdowns while others lean more towards the shutdown reaction. 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 HFA and AS 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 youngster on the spectrum doubt himself or herself.

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
  • lying face down or completely under the covers on a bed
  • gaze avoidance tends to increase significantly
  • conversation may be non-existent

As with meltdowns, in a shutdown situation, the youngster may act irrationally or dangerously. Unlike a meltdown however, the harmful activities are almost always directed at oneself. The youngster may attempt self-harm - and may even be suicidal in some cases. He or 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 younger children, 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 adults on the autism spectrum?

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 person 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 or 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 person 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?

Think of the fight-or-flight response. When a child shuts down, he is in flight mode. In other words, the child is trying to protect himself/herself from real or imagined harm. So, your objective as a parent is to think in terms of assuring the child that he or she is not in harm's way. Here are a few tips to achieve this objective:

1. Children on the autism spectrum often shut down as a result of being teased, rejected or bullied by others (e.g., siblings, peers, etc.). Thus, it's very important to counter any negative messages your son is receiving from others. If those negative messages are coming from teachers or other family members, then you may need to get involved yourself.

2. Unlike meltdowns (where it's best to leave the 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 son 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 him without either being invited to do so - or being cautious to see the reaction first.

3.  Send him a text message (assuming he has a cell phone) voicing your concern. In this way, you are less likely to elicit an immediate and defensive reaction. The advantage of a text message is that it allows stepping away from the situation and invites reflection and thought.  

4. When your son is in shutdown mode, don’t talk directly to him. When possible, let him overhear you expressing your concern (in a non-critical and non-judgmental way) to someone else (e.g., a spouse). In this way, you are giving your son a chance to understand your concern with no immediate response called for on his part. Your son is more likely to hear your words as concern rather than an attempt to control. You are giving him an opening to talk when he is ready.

5. When your son shuts down, sometimes the best thing you can do is whisper, because it is so different from what he normally hears. If you get down at his level and whisper, then he has to pay closer attention to what you're saying in order to hear you. He will be very curious as to what you're saying (e.g., "I see you're upset. I want you to know that I'm here to listen to you when you're ready to talk. In the meantime, you are safe and nobody is going to hurt you.").


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Parents’ Comments:

•    Anonymous said... my son has shutdowns more than meltdowns i never knew there was more than one kind... thanks for the post makes sence now weve been told to grab and hold him when hes trying to hurt himself since it can get serious. he still managed to bang his head good last one we had. does anyone else see a kid that doesnt remember what happened in a shutdown? ours claims he cant remember its what led us to the therapist saying something is wrong... they said aspergers. he was missdiagnosed for years
•    Anonymous said... My daughter is also more prone to shutdown more than meltdown as she has such a beautiful and caring nature. She has now learnt that rather than going through the frustration of trying to explain herself verbally, it's much easier for her to draw a picture or act it out (the arts, both visual and performing, are a life long obsession) and she asks for visual cues when she can't understand whats being explained to her, or she simply says "I don't understand, can you please show me another way?" So she is basically overcoming her difficulties her own way to avoid frustration.
•    Anonymous said... My 4-year-old is just like this. I hadn't read anything about shutdowns before, but this is exactly what he does when he is distressed (hides under the bed, curls up on the floor, etc.).
•    Anonymous said... My 8 yr old has meltdowns at home, but he will shutdown at school, so that's when I get a phone call to come and get him.
•    Anonymous said... I don't know what's worse. My 5 year old has the mother of all meltdowns. It's so hard. However I'm sure that it feels helpless when your child goes into shutdown mode.
•    Anonymous said... Thank you so much for sharing this!
•    Anonymous said... I had not read about shutdowns before either - this is so so helpful!
•    Anonymous said... I must admit I hadn't realised shutdown was a thing, my son has meltdowns, but they are few and far between just now, he seems to have switched to shut downs instead. His self harming behaviour is not present during shutdowns, just meltdowns. I would rather deal with a shut down, but after reading this I realise I still have a lot to do :) Thank you x
•    Unknown said... Thank you so much for this information. Both my husband and son were diagnosed with HFA. I am learning much about the issue surrounding the disorder, and through mistakes and life experience. I hope this article helps others as well.
•    Upside Down Cake said... I can tell you shut downs are pretty horrible. When I have one I can't even talk. People around me will think I'm being rude but I'm not, I literally have no control. For me I normally get them with too much stimulation but they can be the result of a build up of stress. I also have partial shut downs which can last for days and leave me needing my bed the whole time. I find these partial shut downs are caused but stress and I can face going out or having contact in any form with the outside world. It is nice tho if there is a calm caring person around to make tea and give sympathy. During these partial shut downs I am totally drain and I suffer with a lot of pains, my arms go numb too xx
•    Multiple Me's said... My aspie had a total shutdown for 6 months in school and his teacher never communicated that to me. He was then placed in a gifted class and struggled to catch up. Meltdowns and shutdowns were his entire life until he was diagnosed with a new mood disorder and treated. Once I put him in online school, he became a different boy and started articulating what had happened in his mind for 2 years. The poor child was in such pain, yet at 12 yrs was able to finally start talking and so intuitively it was shocking. That was when we finally got the ASD (aspie) diagnosis. His schooling caught up, straight A's for two years, advanced classes, and even high school math credit in 8th grade. We're able to work through meltdowns and shutdowns quickly now because we both look for triggers and work them out. I wish I had this article when he was a toddler and either started his violent meltdowns or seemed secretive and stoic and wouldn't cry or talk. He still doesn't cry, even when hurt, so I know he continues to escape.

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