We all experience stress. Some of us experience it on a daily basis (a-hem…) while others may experience it less frequently (those lucky ducks!). Children on the Autism spectrum are no different; they face daily challenges and stressors like the rest of us. Children with ASD often have more sensitive ‘stress triggers’ to environmental stressors which can push a child into a dangerous meltdown (or shutdown) within moments of the stressor affecting them. Now, I want to discuss the similarities and differences between these two common behaviors associated with ASD.
Meltdown vs Shutdown: The Similarities & the Differences
Meltdowns (outward): Most parents of a child with Autism have experienced the behaviors associated with meltdowns. Once you’ve seen a meltdown, it is stamped on your brain forever. To this day, I recall each child I have worked with over the years who I witnessed in the midst of a meltdown. Each child’s behaviors were different; some screamed and kicked on the floor. Some scratched, cried and bit. Some became self-injurious, while others tried aggressing at others. Durations of the meltdowns also differed. Some lasted only a few minutes, while others lasted upwards of 2 hours. And each meltdown I have witnessed pierced my heart in wishing I could take away whatever these kiddos were feeling and experiencing. The one common element with meltdowns is sensory overload. Think of meltdowns as the sensory overload being experienced outwardly, or the 1st side of the coin.
How to Respond to a Meltdown:
- Protect the child immediately from danger, self-injury or aggressing at others
- Know how the child needs support (ex: dim the lights, provide proprioceptive sensory, blankets, favorite toy, etc).
- Remain calm
- Remove any items that can be used for self-harm or aggression
- Limit communication and verbal prompts
- Allow sufficient time for them to regulate their energy and self-calm
Shutdowns (inward): Shutdowns are less noticeable and are less commonly seen than meltdowns. Shutdowns can be summed up as the 2nd side of the coin. Same coin; two different outcomes. With a shutdown, the child is still experiencing perceived sensory overload to an environmental trigger. The same trigger that caused an outward meltdown in one child, can cause an inward shutdown in another. Shutdowns can be defined as a person’s brain going into a protective mode, where it ‘shuts off’ momentarily. Individuals experiencing sensory shutdown often appear immobile; they may lay in one position and not move or blink. They may not hear their names being called and are unable to respond. These individuals in the midst of a shutdown often retreat from the outside world, by going inside, or within themselves for comfort, in an effort to self-calm and remove whatever caused their stress. To observers (including professionals), these non-behaviors may appear to be functioning as escape/avoidant – as if the child is deliberately ignoring prompts or directives or deliberately trying to avoid a task or something in the environment. Some shutdowns may even go completely unnoticed especially if the child is lower-functioning or nonverbal. Knowing the child’s behavioral history is critical for addressing and intervening with shutdowns.
How to Respond to a Shutdown:
- Protect the child immediately from danger, self-injury, or aggressing at others
- Understand how the child needs support (allow them time to retreat and recover)
- Provide a calming environment (soft voice, limited communication, soft touch)
- Provide the child their favorite blanket, toy, or other calming item to help them recover