Meltdowns and Shutdowns

This is one person’s version of how meltdowns and shutdowns affect him plus some general issues about how it also affects other autistic people.

By Steve Pape

There is a lot of misinformation about meltdowns. When an autistic person has a meltdown it can look like anger, but anger is rarely the trigger and anger management is unlikely to help. very common triggers are sensory issues, anxiety and stress or both.

Meltdown or shutdown is not the normal state for autistic people, despite having meltdowns I have a good life. What follows is an insider’s guide to meltdown and shutdown, autistic overload.

Sensory issues

Two images to depict sensory overload. The ffirst shows the shape over a number of coloured circles on a black background. On the second image the colored circles and background are much brighter,
Free images from Pixabay

I am light sensitive, bright light, including sunlight. is physically painful, it overwhelms me and makes it difficult for me to think. Fluorescent lighting is to be avoided for autistic people because some react to the flicker and some to the hum, fluorescent lights adversely affect a lot of autistic people. 

Autistic people are affected by a lot of different sensory issues. Some by loud unexpected noises, or like me a lot of ambient noise, In a room full of people having conversations all around I cannot switch any of them off to concentrate on the conversation I am having, It is not about the volume of the noise for me, but it is for some, I feel stressed by the noises of crowds but am happy at a metal concert, all the lights and sound come from the stage, If you can hear the person next to you it’s not loud enough. That’s me though, not all autistic people are able to tolerate those sound levels, or are blessed with an appreciation of heavy forms of rock. Sensory overload is a major cause of the overwhelm that causes meltdowns and shutdowns.

Stress and anxiety

Four cartoon images to depict stages of anxiety:
1. headache,
2. Nausea and vomiting,
3. High temperature and upset guts,
4. Totally overcome.
Picture from Wikimedia Commons

Two more triggers. A lot of autistic people have anxiety which accounts for their higher than average suicide rate, I went for a job interview, arrived at the venue early and well prepared but anxiety about something new meant I never made it through the door. We also have the added stress of being expected to act like ‘ordinary’ people, like make eye contact in conversation and lots of other things that make us look ‘normal’ to people who think that only people like them are normal. Newsflash: We are normal and acting like others want us to be, called masking, is stressful and consumes a lot of our energy making us tired. Together with sensory issues, stress and anxiety are major causes of meltdowns and shutdowns.

What are meltdowns and shutdowns?

It is what happens when sensory overload gets too much or anxiety gets too much and the brain overloads and stops working properly. If the reaction to this is to focus inwards and go quiet it is a shutdown. A shutdown can go on for hours, even weeks. The brain gets overloaded and protects itself by shutting off. 

Photo by David Garrison on

A meltdown is a different reaction to over stimulus and stress. It manifests like a temper tantrum, a fully grown adult reacting in a way that looks like anger, but is just an over stressed, over stimulated overheated brain that cannot function, often what is said to a person during a meltdown or shutdown is not remembered. There is already too much going on in the brain for any more input. The person having a meltdown loses logical thought. All is instinctive, they do not mean the things they are saying, and will not remember them later anyway. But the last stage is that they regress to childhood, that is why it can look like an adult is acting like a five-year-old having a tantrum, but the cause is different. A five-year-old is trying to get their own way, a person in lockdown is an anxious, frightened person. Meltdowns are horrible to have. I am frightened of what I might do after control is lost. Please do not ask me to pull myself together. I can’t, you might as well tell an epileptic to stop having a seizure, I believe that seizures and meltdowns are connected. If you want to help a person in a meltdown they need to be somewhere safe and quiet, they need time to withdraw and recover, but it may be easier to ask people around them to move away, You cannot reason with a meltdown. My touch sensitivity goes up during a meltdown. Please do not touch a person having a meltdown, not even a reassuring hand on their shoulder, it may be taken to be an assault.

You can help us not to have shutdowns and meltdowns. Do not have lighting too bright, especially from fluorescent lights, or background music too loud. Have a quiet place where people can escape if overwhelmed, and most important do not insist that people join in at a party.

I have focussed on the negative here, but for me full meltdown is not that common; life as an autistic person is mostly good. I weep for those who meltdown regularly.