Autistic Meltdowns vs. Shutdowns



Two dreaded words that you never want to hear if you have an autistic loved one. And if you are autistic, these are the two most dreadful experiences you probably face…

Living inside a meltdown or shutdown
is always, always, always harder than
witnessing a meltdown or shutdown.

I’m going to touch on this subject in 600 words, just as an introduction to the harder side of autism. Then in an August week-long daily post challenge, I’ll come back to this topic  in greater detail:

  1. Tracking triggers for reducing meltdowns and shutdowns;
  2. How to proactively handle sudden disruptions to routines;
  3. What to do if you’re trying to help someone with a meltdown;
  4. What to do if you’re trying to help someone with a shutdown;
  5. What to do if you’re experiencing a meltdown;
  6. What to do if you’re experiencing a shutdown;
  7. Recovering after the meltdown or shutdown.

If there’s anything you take away from this blog post:

What is felt is worse than what’s seen.

It horrifies me when I see parents and partners of autistic people writing about their meltdowns and shutdowns on Twitter. Or when parents record their child’s meltdown for YouTube. My ex used to record me when I was having a meltdown.

Whatever you’re rollercoasting through, living on the edge of an autistic person’s meltdown or shutdown, it pales in comparison to what they’re experiencing; and rather than grab a glass of water, a weighted blanket, or a hand spinner, you pick up a camera?

That is the antipathy of love.

What is a Meltdown?

Autistic people define meltdowns in different ways; I’m going to try to describe them using metaphors, in hopes I can help readers build empathy. I like metaphors.

😡 A meltdown is what happens when a thousand needles try to force themselves through a pixel simultaneously, except the needles are your feelings, and the pixel is your amygdala (i.e., your fight-flight control center).

🤬 A meltdown is what happens when cymbals bang in random intervals behind you, lightning strikes near your feet, and your asshole ex leaves a bag of dog shit in your fridge, right after you hit every red light on the way home from work and school.

🤯 A meltdown is an explosion.

What is a Shutdown?

Again, I’m going to lean into metaphors to describe a shutdown.

😭 A shutdown is an implosion.

😣 A shutdown is a crippling car wreck in your head, and you should be unconscious, but instead you’re wildly trapped inside a broken body with no pain killer.

🤮 A shutdown is what happens when your heart, mind, and soul break simultaneously.

Aspies Want to Help You Understand…

The Aftermath

Over a long period of time, meltdowns and shutdowns can wear your mind thin.

You may become chronically anxious of future meltdowns.

You may slip into depression when you realize they will never go away; the best you can do is reduce risks.

You may have post-traumatic stress disorder due to the way your meltdowns and shutdowns were handled in your previous years.

Or maybe you have passive suicidal thoughts because the meltdowns and shutdowns have worn you thin; because the way your environment collapses at first sight of these experiences is too much to think about anymore.

If you have active suicidal thoughts,
(i.e., you’re anywhere in the planning process,)
please call a suicide hotline immediately:

It’s hard for me to write about meltdowns and shutdowns, but it’s just as imperative to try to sort through the logic behind these perfectly human behaviors. I hope to shine more light on this subject in August, after I complete more research.

family medicine


Kourtnie View All →

Kourtnie has an MFA in Creative Writing from CSU Fresno and a BA in English from CSU Fullerton. When she isn't writing or making art, she's moonlighting as a professor at community colleges. Read her writing at or

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