A shutdown is very different from a meltdown but similar to it in some ways.
Meltdowns are the more dramatic of the two, the classic fits you see in children with ASDs. They may involve screaming, banging your head against something, biting, hitting and running around. They're pretty common in younger kids and are the classic sign that a kid is overstimulated by something.
A shutdown is different than that. They're more controlled, less noticeable and appear more in older kids who can't cope. These often manifest as a sudden communication breakdown - putting your hands over your ears, going to the fetal position, crying, not being able to speak and hiding. It's difficult for someone who doesn't have experience with ASDs to understand what's going on.
The last time I had a breakdown was over two years ago and I don't remember when or why I had it. However, I had a shutdown just last month after being overstimulated by two friends fighting nearby. Shutdowns are painful. Remember that if a sensation is strong enough to cause a shutdown, it's already painful, but the response can be just as difficult.
The best way to explain what meltdowns and shutdowns feel like to a neurotypical person is that it's like suddenly being unable to control your reactions. Everything is coming on too strong, particularly emotionally, and you can't block it out. You can only think about getting out of the situation no matter what that way is. You feel unsafe, attacked, like the world is suddenly out to get you. Eventually you start to be able to think again, but you can't move, can't do anything about what your body is doing. You just have to sweat it out until you can regain control. This can take a minute or five minutes or an hour.
While kids can have parents there to explain what's going on or teachers who understand how to deal with their issues, shutdowns are terribly embarrassing for adults of all ages. Not only that you know you look silly or are worrying others, but that it can damage your reputation.
Here are my tips for dealing with adult shutdowns and meltdowns.
- Be aware of your own condition and triggers. I know I keep saying this for everything, but self-awareness is the number one way to prevent problems. If you know what triggers you to go into a shutdown or a meltdown, you can try to head it off. This includes seeking accommodations for your condition, finding a safe space and knowing when to bow out.
- Find a safe space. This could be as simple as a bathroom stall. If you go somewhere a lot or know that a place you're visiting could trigger problems, have an escape mapped out in case a problem does occur.
- Head it off. When you feel that pressure start to build, that panic rising, know when to get out and how to do it. When I was dealing with severe depression and was at work, I knew that when that weepy, irrational feeling started to come on that I had to apologize to the customer I was helping and tell another employee that I needed to go get myself together.
- Make others aware. If you're going to be around someone enough that they could witness a meltdown, let them know what it looks like and how to deal with you when you go into them. I told my boyfriend that if I started shutting down to just leave me alone. Leave the room if possible and ignore me until I have myself together. This doesn't have to be a big explanation. It can be as simple as telling a new friend "I sometimes get overstimulated. If I start flexing my fingers a lot and pacing around quickly and ignoring you, please leave and I'll talk to you when I feel better."
- Find support. When you're an adult it sometimes feels like all the services are suddenly closed off to you. Even if you can't afford counseling, try to find a group of others who have similar issues. Many churches and youth groups have programs like this. It could be as complex as a dedicated support group with buddies or as simple as an online message board like Wrong Planet.