Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism: What Are Meltdowns?

October is Sensory Processing Disorder Awareness Month. Is understanding SPD the key to helping someone experiencing a meltdown or shutdown?

Whether it’s due to increased awareness of sensory processing disorder and autism spectrum disorders, I can’t say, but there’s no denying that the words “meltdown” and “shutdown” have been absorbed into our modern vernacular. But what do they really mean?

We use “meltdown” colloquially to describe someone in a bit of a bad mood, but this belies the true meaning and experience of a meltdown. “Shutdown” is often used when we feel ignored or if someone hasn’t responded to us, but it, too, belies the actuality of the experience.

So what are meltdowns and shutdowns? In simple terms, they are two sides of the same coin. According to Alis Rowe, author of Asperger’s Syndrome: Meltdowns and Shutdowns, they are an involuntary physiological reaction to “overload.” This can be from too much social/cognitive input, anxiety or most often sensory processing disorder.

There is evidence that people with autism have increased amounts of stress chemicals in their bodies to start with. As Bill Nason, author of The Autism Discussion Page on The Core Challenges of Autism, explains, “Just regulating the normal daily demands (sensory, social, cognitive, etc.) causes extensive accumulation of stress chemicals in the nervous system.” The physiological impact should not be underestimated, and it is important to understand the influence this will have on the tolerances of a person with autism or sensory processing disorder.

In her world-famous book Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, Ellen Notbohm states, “No matter how unprovoked, how random it may appear, behavior never, ever comes out of nowhere.” She continues, “As many as twenty-one sensory systems are at work in our bodies.” So when faced with a meltdown/shutdown, “sensory overload should be the first suspect.”

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How many times a day do you adjust yourself or your surroundings to accommodate your sensory preferences? You might take your sweater off, open a window, turn the radio down, have a drink, wear sunglasses, draw the blinds, scratch an itch and so on.

Imagine being on the deck of a ship in rough seas during a storm. You’re likely to be soaked, dizzy, nauseated, cold, scared, deafened and working hard to stay upright. Now imagine having to hold a meeting in those conditions. How would you feel? What would you do? It may sound extreme or even unlikely, but when senses are magnified and simultaneously diminished, as they are for someone with sensory processing disorder, it is a very real struggle. In a world where you can’t control the environment or your reaction to it, nature takes over with the flight-fight-freeze response. This is where the meltdown/shutdown response comes in.

When there is a gradual buildup of stress, the brain begins to shut out stimulation to avoid an overload, which can lead to shutdown. According to Rowe, a shutdown may look like someone sitting silently and rocking, staring into space with a blank expression, being speechless, seeking out a dark and quiet refuge or withdrawal from society for a day or more. For the person experiencing a shutdown, it may feel like exhaustion, numbness and an inability to connect with the outside world.

If the stress buildup is faster (think of a tidal wave), it generally results in meltdown. According to Rowe, a meltdown may look like someone curling up in a ball or flopping onto the floor, hitting or kicking or throwing, breaking things, shouting, screaming, crying, pulling out one’s hair or banging one’s head against the wall or flapping hands.

In the run-up to either a shutdown or a meltdown, there may be a “rumbling stage.” This is when telltales indicate that intervention is necessary, and when strategies will be most successful. Signs can include shielding eyes, covering ears, fidgeting, pacing, agitation, tears, impatience, withdrawal and stimming. (Stimming is self-stimulating behavior which can manifest as repetitive movements, such as hand flapping or chewing, or can be vocal, such as monotonous humming.) It is at this stage that identifying triggers and adjusting the social, cognitive or sensory load may abort the escalation to full shutdown or meltdown. Pinpointing the triggers is the key to prevention.

Pinpointing the triggers is the key to prevention.

Strategies to help at this stage include getting away from a busy, noisy environment and changing the physical environment. Changing lighting, noise, temperature (either of the room or the person, so opening a window or taking off a coat), turning music down or putting on ear defenders, dimming lights or putting on sunglasses, for example. Movement often helps to realign the senses, so suggest walking around or away, jumping, dancing, spinning or running. A tight hug can help some but make it worse for others. Every person has their unique reaction and requirements.

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Once someone is in meltdown or shutdown, it is too late to interact with them. They have lost the ability to regulate themselves and are not in a position to negotiate, rationalize, learn or discuss. They are in crisis. They lose the ability to cognitively process. They are just feeling and reacting. Their world is an explosion of chaos, their sensory processing will be misfiring on all levels, and it will feel like everything is spinning out of control. This feeling creates all-consuming anxiety.

At this stage they may run, be aggressive physically and verbally, kick, scream, shout, cry, punch and generally lash out. An explosion, if you like.

They may, however, react by shutting down: an implosion. The body closes down and the person generally needs to be left alone to withdraw completely, with all demands on them removed.

How to help

So what can you do to help a person in meltdown/shutdown?

In the run-up, quite simply lessen stressors and increase coping skills. If you know the person, get to understand their triggers and help them prevent reaching meltdown in the first place. Provide an explicit exit strategy, an “out,” a script to use and a place to go when they need a social break, a quiet space to reduce the social/sensory overload. Learning the triggers is a slow process, but prevention is ideal. Teach the person strategies to self-manage in the rumbling stage. Remove demands and make them feel safe. Allowing them to stim, by not inhibiting any repetitive movements, is critical. Of course, if they are a danger to themselves or others, intervention may be necessary. But if their behavior is benign, do not intervene. It is for an important purpose of physical release.

Once a person is in a full-blown meltdown, extinguishing it is impossible. It has to burn itself out, self-driven by the person experiencing it. No cajoling or persuasion will work. Remove all demands on the person and give them time. Remember they are at their most vulnerable, so make sure they are safe. Give them a calm, private space, which may mean taking them back home. Act with compassion.

If someone is in total shutdown, once they are home or in a safe space, even your presence is a demand on them, so leaving them alone to sleep, recuperate and recharge is vital.

How to respond if you’re an outside observer

By all means ask if you can help, but address your question to their companion or parent, if applicable. Offer specific assistance. For example, offer to help take care of the other children or carry shopping to the car if the parent needs to contain the child. If any offer is declined, be understanding.

It is also fine to just smile supportively and walk on by, but don’t just stop and stare. Treat them with dignity without gawping at them. They are not a circus animal performing for you. They are a person in crisis.

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After you have experienced someone in crisis, learn from them. Don’t judge. Many people with sensory processing disorder and autism describe feeling ashamed after a public meltdown, so be accepting and supportive. The most valuable thing you can do, though, is to teach others. By doing so, you will be spreading acceptance and tolerance, which ultimately helps us all. end



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