Living with autism, or supporting someone who does, comes with unique challenges and experiences. One of the most misunderstood aspects of autism are the episodes of meltdowns and shutdowns. These are not simply temper tantrums or a desire to be anti-social; they're a deeper, intense, and often exhausting reaction to overwhelming situations.
What is a Meltdown?
A meltdown is a response to being overwhelmed. Imagine your senses and emotions like a cup filling with water. When the water overflows, that's a meltdown. The individual experiencing it loses control of their behaviour temporarily. This loss can manifest verbally—through shouting, screaming, or crying. Physically, it might result in actions such as kicking, lashing out, or even biting.
For children with autism, meltdowns can often be misinterpreted. To the uninformed observer, it might seem like a temper tantrum. This misinterpretation can lead to hurtful comments or judgmental looks from the public. However, understanding the root cause can change the way we perceive and react to these situations.
Shutdowns: The Silent Overwhelm
While meltdowns are often visible and audible, shutdowns are their quieter counterparts. But make no mistake, they're equally intense. When an autistic person goes into shutdown, they might become silent or seem to 'switch off' from their surroundings. To the external world, this might seem like a passive response, but internally, the experience can be incredibly debilitating.
One autistic woman described her experience with shutdowns: "It's just as frustrating as a meltdown because of not being able to figure out how to react how I want to, or not being able to react at all; there isn’t any ‘figuring out’ because the mind feels like it is past a state of being able to interpret."
Both meltdowns and shutdowns are intense responses to overwhelming situations for individuals with autism. Understanding and recognizing these states can lead to greater empathy and support. Instead of judging or misinterpreting, it's essential to offer patience, kindness, and assistance when possible.
Remember, acceptance and knowledge are powerful tools in building a more inclusive and understanding society. Let's use them to support our autistic friends, family members, and community members.