Meltdown and Shutdown: The Consequences of Sensory Overload in ASD

Faced with sensory or emotional overload, people with autism can suffer quite startling crises. In this article, we're going to explain meltdowns and shutdowns, and how to respond to them.
Meltdown and Shutdown: The Consequences of Sensory Overload in ASD
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 30 December, 2022

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex condition that affects not only those who suffer from it but also their families and close friends. On a social level, we’re a long way from understanding the needs of people with ASD. In fact, some of their behaviors and manifestations can be disturbing or confusing. Such is the case of meltdown and shutdown, two realities we’ll explain in this article.

Both terms refer to reactions that an individual with autism has to protect themselves against sensory overload. Despite not being the most appropriate methods of coping, they’re the ways in which autism sufferers deal with overwhelming situations.

As a rule, the families and people closest to ASD sufferers are used to these crises and, although it’s also difficult for them to deal with them, they’re better able to understand them. However, in terms of the general population, these phenomena tend to provoke prejudice, misunderstanding, and rejection. In order that this doesn’t happen, we need to understand why these kinds of behavior occur.

boy screaming stairs

Sensory overload in autism

To address meltdown and shutdown, we must first talk about sensory processing in people with ASD. Let’s start by remembering that the senses are the way in which we capture relevant information from the environment in order to process it and make use of it. Sounds, lights, aromas, tastes… All these sensory inputs enter through our senses and are combined and translated by our brains before we can generate an appropriate response to them.

People with ASD process stimuli from the environment differently. This can lead to hyposensitivity or hypersensitivity. Hyposensitivity causes difficulties in identifying pain or triggers stimulation-seeking behaviors. On the other hand, hypersensitivity makes the sufferer extremely sensitive to certain environmental stimuli, thus promoting sensory overload.

Loud noises, bright lights, intense smells, and certain types of clothing or material. These elements, which are harmless to most people, can be really annoying and even painful for people with ASD. They overload and overwhelm them, triggering crises.

Meltdown and shutdown

Meltdown and shutdown are two consequences or responses to sensory overload, antonymous in their manifestations but caused by the same process. The individual feels overwhelmed and collapses, experiencing a crisis that can express itself in one of two ways.

As we said earlier, this mainly happens due to sensory saturation, but it can also occur due to emotional overload or overflow. For example, when the individual experiences frustration, stress, or overexertion, when they’re in a hostile environment, or when they have to face change or uncertainty.

However, what do these two terms involve? Meltdown is an externalized reaction to the discomfort that the sufferer is experiencing. They might scream, cry, self-harm, hit things, and, ultimately, temporarily lose control. These episodes can be quite disturbing to see.

A shutdown is an internalization of discomfort. Frustration or saturation leads the individual to experience an internal ‘short circuit’ and to disconnect from the environment. Therefore, they may appear absent, withdrawn, and subdued, and mutism may also appear. If this is the case, the episode may even pass unnoticed.

Despite their differences, both reactions are due to the inability to process a particular situation. In both cases, there’s a temporary loss of basic skills. In fact, during one of these crises, it may be impossible for the individual to communicate or socialize, think clearly, or even remember how to tie their shoelaces.

Boy with his back sitting on a sofa

How to handle them

Understanding the origins of these crises and knowing how to act when faced with them is crucial for the relatives of people with ASD and those who deal with them on a regular basis. That said, we should all be knowledgeable and aware so we can act and respond toward any sufferers we might encounter with empathy and respect.

Although it isn’t possible to completely control or avoid these crises, their appearance can be reduced by taking certain measures. For example, adapting the environment so that it isn’t so stimulating or challenging. Also, providing people with ASD with coping resources and emotional management strategies.

During these episodes, it’s essential to remain calm, not get upset or yell (this will only make the situation worse), and act sensitively. Validating the sufferer’s emotions and showing them respect is key. This implies knowing how to read their non-verbal language and understanding, among other things, when they require physical contact or when it’s preferable to remain silent.

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  • Alhaddad, A. Y., Cabibihan, J. J., & Bonarini, A. (2019). Head impact severity measures for small social robots thrown during meltdown in autism. International Journal of Social Robotics11(2), 255-270.
  • Blanche, E. I., & Reinoso, G. (2007). Revisión de la literatura: déficit de procesamiento sensorial en el espectro del autismo. Revista Chilena de terapia ocupacional, (7), pág-59.

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.