Understanding Neurocrashes: Meltdowns and Shutdowns in Autism Spectrum

Autism is often used to describe a range of conditions that fall under the larger umbrella of a neurodevelopmental disorder called autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A person with ASD may display symptoms like communication difficulties, repetitive behaviors, and delayed onset of skills like language, movement, and learning. There is no cure for ASD, and at Spectrum Connections Therapy we don’t try to fix our neurodivergent clients, but rather support them with the symptoms they want help with through collaborative and affirming, trauma-focused treatment.

However, living with autism often includes managing a very unpleasant experience commonly associated with ASD, also known as “Neurocrashes”. These crashes, also known as meltdowns and shutdowns can look like an aggressive panic attack and a frozen trance of sorts. When a person with ASD is overwhelmed, out of their window of tolerance, or having a trauma response, either option is a possibility. At Spectrum Connections Therapy, this is a difficult experience that our clients and families generally want and need support with. But why?

What is a Meltdown?

No one likes to feel so overstimulated that they can’t find an escape. With or without ASD, such a scenario can send a person into fight, flight, or freeze. People with ASD tend to default in fight or flight mode, and when they do, it’s called a meltdown. It’s not a temper tantrum but, instead, a direct response to a situation that feels unsolvable and inescapable to their nervous system.

A couple of characteristics of an autism meltdown:

  • Outward signs include yelling, aggression, self-harm, stimming, running away, and repeating words
  • The person suffering the meltdown is (temporarily) not reasonable and usually is not receptive to someone’s words or support
  • They become physically and emotionally drained from the experience afterward, often feeling remorseful, ashamed, and disappointed that they couldn’t avoid or prevent the meltdown.

What is a Shutdown?

Welcome to freeze mode. When things reach this point, someone with ASD bypasses fight or flight and goes into freeze. As mentioned above, it can appear like a trance. External triggers in their environment have gotten so overwhelming that the only solution for people with ASD is to retreat. This retreat can be literal — as in going into a dark, quiet room alone. It can be metaphorical in that they are physically present but simply stop responding in any way. 

An important factor to keep in mind is that a meltdown can precede a shutdown. It can begin with the loud, physical signs listed in the above section. But if relief is not forthcoming, the person reaches a point where they cannot continue melting down. Rather, they shift into withdrawal. This can be distressing to witness but is frequently the only way for someone with ASD to recover. Hence, their loved ones or the observers of their experience must not assume that the sudden cessation of aggression is a sign that the person has recovered and is ready to talk about it.

Typically, the best course for someone supporting anyone experiencing a meltdown and shutdown is to give them space, eliminate any control battles or comments, and ensure safety first and foremost. Allow them to rest and recover, and do not make further demands on them.

Common Triggers For Meltdowns and Shutdowns 

External

  • When plans change unexpectedly
  • Control battles
  • Sensory overload, e.g., sounds, lights, crowds, etc.
  • Social overload, e.g., being expected to interact with far too many people 
  • Physical overload, e.g., situations that involve a lot of physical effort
  • Lack of sleep
  • Lack of exercise
  • Poor eating habits

Internal 

  • Masking as a maladaptive coping skill to adhere to neurotypical standards
  • Unmanaged anxiety or depression that continues to build upon more triggers, demands, and requests from a neurotypical perspective and routine
  • Feeling a lack of agency or autonomy
  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Overthinking 
  • Feeling inadequate
  • Believing that you’re the victim of an injustice 

Preventing Meltdowns and Shutdowns

Full prevention is a tall order, but it can help immensely to understand what triggers the person with ASD in your life. This empowers you to take preemptive steps to reduce the likelihood or, at least, the severity of such outcomes when a neurocrash occurs. When you know what has the potential to cause a meltdown or shutdown, you can plan for co-regulation or self-regulation more logically.

That said, perhaps the most effective step is to gain as much information as possible about ASD and its symptoms. The best way to do so is to connect with an experienced mental health professional with whom you can work collaboratively together as a team. Together, you will develop the awareness you need to keep situations from escalating into something distressing for the person with ASD. If you are interested to know more about how we can be of support to you or your loved ones, we would welcome an opportunity to connect with you more through a free phone consultation. Please reach out today!

Be well,

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