As an autistic person, you might experience periods of intense overwhelm that are incredibly difficult to manage, which will often lead to an autistic meltdown or shutdown.  These involuntary reactions can stem from sensory overload, unexpected change, intense emotions, or a buildup of stress. It’s important to recognize what these look and feel like for you because they can vary widely between people based on personal triggers and nervous system hyper or hypo-reactivity. By learning what they look like, you can better manage them, identify your triggers, and communicate your needs to others.

Both meltdowns and shutdowns in adults are often highly misunderstood. As a result, autistic people can feel isolated or embarrassed when they experience one, leading to feelings of low self-worth. Unfortunately, many people think that the autistic person is just being difficult or having a tantrum, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Autistic meltdowns and shutdowns manifest very differently but are both coping strategies used at a crisis point in the nervous system. They are not behaviors that can be changed, and it’s not used to manipulate others; this makes it very different from a tantrum.

In this article, we’re going to look at the key differences between autistic meltdown symptoms and autistic shutdown symptoms and how best to regulate yourself afterward using the Polyvagal Ladder framework.

What is an Autistic Meltdown?

An autistic meltdown is when your system feels completely overwhelmed, and your emotions come out in an uncontrolled and sometimes explosive way. Frustration, anger, sadness, or anxiety might feel too big to hold inside. Meltdowns happen when you’ve reached your limit for coping.[1] They can look and sometimes feel like they come out of nowhere, especially if you’re consistently in environments that can cause a lot of stress. The truth is, they are the result of prolonged exposure to stressors that the autistic person may not even notice due to difficulties perceiving those stressors.

For example, autistic people often experience a world of amplified sensory input. Meaning, everyday sensations easily tolerated by others feel intense, even painful, for autistic people. Alongside sensory overload, autistic people may also struggle to interpret internal cues like hunger, thirst, body temperature changes, and even subtle warning signs of building stress or illness.[2] This difficulty with interoception means they might not recognize the mounting overwhelm until their bodies reach a breaking point, resulting in a meltdown.

The challenges of understanding and navigating social interactions can also put significant stress on autistic individuals. The need to constantly decode facial expressions, tone of voice, and hidden social rules adds a layer of complexity that can feel relentless and draining. Limited social stamina, sensory overload in group settings, and difficulty dealing with unexpected change can all contribute to feeling overwhelmed, triggering a meltdown response.

All of these challenges can lead to frustration and a sense of losing control, pushing them closer to their internal limit.

What Does an Autistic Meltdown in Adults Feel Like?

Everyone’s experience of a meltdown is different, but here’s what meltdowns could feel like for you:

Before a meltdown: You might feel increasingly agitated, overwhelmed, or unable to communicate your needs clearly. This feeling may have come from nowhere, or it may have been building over a period of time.

During a meltdown: You might cry, shout, pace, rock back and forth, self-harm, or find yourself unable to stop repeating certain movements or behaviors. Your sensory systems might feel overloaded, making everyday input unbearable.

These reactions aren’t intentional but a result of a neurodivergent body and brain trying to cope with too much at once. You can feel completely out of control and are not able to be rational or reasonable during this time.

It’s crucial to recognize autistic meltdowns aren’t simply behavioral outbursts. They are a physical and emotional release of stress caused by a combination of sensory overwhelm, internal dysregulation, cognitive overload, and social pressure. Understanding these factors helps foster empathy for and create environments where autistic people feel seen, understood, and supported. It’s important to remember that the final straw may not make sense and may seem small, but it is the culmination of stress over time.

How Long Does an Autistic Meltdown Last?

Meltdowns can be short or last for hours – it really depends on the situation, the level of overload the person is experiencing, and the support you’re given. After the intensity of a meltdown, feelings of agitation and despair will eventually lessen.  It’s not unusual to experience remorse, embarrassment, or even confusion about what happened, so it’s important to remain self-compassionate.

How do I recover from an autistic meltdown?

After an autistic meltdown, focus on finding a safe, quiet space and reducing any sensory overload with tools like noise-canceling headphones or sunglasses. Allow yourself time to process and rest without pressure to immediately return to normal activities. Engage in soothing, comforting activities that help regulate your emotions. For some, this might look like listening to calming music, using a favorite stim toy, or resting. If possible, tend to basic needs like hydration and gentle snacks.

When you’re ready, you can take time to reflect and discuss what happened with those around you, if it’s a safe and compassionate space. If you have a neurodivergent affirming therapist, you can also discuss what happened with them so you can gain insight and understanding as well as implement strategies for the future.

It’s important for those around someone experiencing a meltdown not to criticize, interrogate, or use physical restraint but instead try to provide a safe and affirming space for the autistic person.

What is an Autistic Shutdown?

Similar to the “fight, flight, or freeze” stress response, autistic people often react to overwhelming situations with a meltdown (fight), an attempt to escape (flight), or an internal shutdown (freeze). An autistic shutdown in adults is a less obvious response to reaching your threshold. It’s when you feel so overwhelmed you internally “shut down” to cope. It’s like a protective mechanism when the world becomes too much.

Though they are a less obvious response, they’re equally important to recognize. An autistic person in shutdown mode may withdraw, become unresponsive, temporarily lose skills, and can easily be missed by people who are not used to your specific signs of shutdown .

What Does an Autistic Shutdown Feel Like?

Like meltdowns, shutdowns are a sign of overwhelm and reaching a breaking point. While the reasons behind a shutdown might seem small from the outside, it’s often the culmination of stress building up over time. Everyone’s experience with an autistic shutdown is unique, but here’s what it might feel like for you:

Before a shutdown: you might sense a feeling of increasing numbness, overwhelming fatigue, or detachment from the world. This feeling could come on suddenly or gradually build over time.

During a shutdown: you might be unable to speak or communicate your needs. It can feel like you’re floating and aren’t connected to your body. Basic tasks that you usually do with ease feel impossible. It might even seem like the skills you normally have completely vanish, temporarily. Others might misunderstand what’s happening, perceiving you as disinterested, unwilling, or even defiant—but none of this reflects your true state.

Remember, this isn’t a choice. It’s your neurodivergent brain and body reaching their absolute limit and desperately trying to protect themselves.  It’s your system’s way of saying “enough!” and trying to conserve energy when the world feels like too much.

How Long Does an Autistic Shutdown Last?

The length of a shutdown can vary greatly. Some might last for hours, while others extend for days. How long it takes to recover depends on the intensity of the overload, the severity of the shutdown, and how much safe, quiet space you have to rest and recharge.

Once the initial shutdown lessens, you might feel emotionally drained and mentally foggy. It’s normal to experience exhaustion, confusion, or even a sense of detachment afterward. Be patient and kind to yourself during this time.

How do I recover from an autistic shutdown?

Make sure to prioritize a safe, quiet space and minimize demands on yourself. Focus on things that calm your senses, such as noise-canceling headphones, dim lighting, soft textures, or a weighted blanket. If you’re able, a comforting drink, snack, or just simply getting some sleep can be incredibly helpful.

The way people around you respond during a shutdown can significantly impact your recovery. Ideally, they will offer a calm, safe environment without judgment or demands. If you feel comfortable doing so and have supportive people in your life, discussing the event afterward provides an opportunity to identify triggers and strategize for preventing or managing future shutdowns. Working with a neurodivergent-affirming therapist can be invaluable for deeper understanding and developing helpful coping strategies.

Meltdown vs Shutdown, How Can You Tell Them Apart?

In many ways, autistic meltdowns and shutdowns are similar. They are both involuntary and can be the response to a nervous system overload, whether from one specific trigger or a buildup of stress over time. Common triggers for meltdowns and shutdowns can include:

  • Unexpected changes to routines or plans
  • Sensory overload (e.g., bright lights, loud noises, strong smells)
  • Social situations that feel overwhelming, difficult, or draining
  • Emotionally charged environments
  • Unexpected touch or crowded environments
  • Cognitive overload from tasks that require intense focus
  • Lack of sleep, which reduces stress-management abilities

The major difference between them is that meltdowns are typically explosive and externalized; they are obvious and might involve strong emotional displays. On the other hand, shutdowns are more internalized, typically less noticeable, and often involve a withdrawal from the world. Meltdowns can even lead to shutdowns. Autistic meltdowns and shutdowns in adults can be extremely exhausting, and finding the time to recover afterward is key to avoiding autistic burnout.

How to Use the Polyvagal Ladder to Understand Your Nervous System and Help You Regulate

The Polyvagal Theory offers us a framework[3] for understanding our nervous system’s response to stress and safety. It uses the metaphor of a “ladder” with three rungs representing different physiological states:

  1. Dorsal vagus (social engagement): This is the top rung, representing a calm and socially engaged state. The nervous system is regulated, allowing for communication, connection, and exploration.
  2. Sympathetic fight-or-flight: The middle rung signifies a heightened state of arousal. We might feel anxious, stressed, or experience a surge of energy in response to a perceived threat.
  3. Ventral vagus (immobilization): The bottom rung represents a state of overwhelm or shutdown. When the nervous system feels unsafe, it might shut down non-essential functions to conserve energy.

For autistic people, sensory overload, social challenges, or unexpected changes can easily trigger a descent down the Polyvagal Ladder.

This framework can be used in a number of ways to help autistic people self-regulate and gain awareness of their triggers. For example, by recognizing early warning signs like increased heart rate, difficulty focusing, or feeling overwhelmed, you can identify situations that might push you down the ladder.

Once you recognize your triggers, you can develop strategies to stay on the top rung or climb back up, if you start to descend. This might involve deep breathing exercises, calming sensory tools, or removing yourself from overwhelming situations. Feeling safe and secure is crucial for staying regulated. Creating a predictable routine, establishing trusted support people, and having calming spaces available can all contribute to a sense of safety.

It’s important to remember that the Polyvagal Ladder is a simplified model of a complex system. However, it offers a valuable tool for autistic people to gain self-awareness and develop personalized strategies to manage their nervous system responses and promote emotional regulation.

Get Support for Your Autism From an Understanding Therapist

Autistic meltdowns and shutdowns are not your fault. They are your body’s way of coping with overwhelming situations. By understanding your nervous system and your triggers on a deeper level, you can develop strategies to manage overwhelm and self-regulate. You don’t have to do this alone, and instead, get support by working with an understanding and compassionate therapist.

Here at LA Concierge Psychologist, all of our doctoral-level therapists are firmly committed to providing neurodivergent-affirming therapy for our clients. In particular, we specialize in adult autism and adult ADHD. All our therapists also have experience with anxiety, depression, and trauma. Send us a message to see how we can help, or book a free 20 minute consultation call with Dr. Barajas, Dr. Goldman, or Dr. Marin.

 

 

[1] The lived experience of meltdowns for autistic adults (Laura Foran Lewis & Kailey Stevens)
[2] Interoception and mental wellbeing in autistic people (Dr Emma Goodall)
[3] A Beginner’s Guide to Polyvagal Theory (Porges,Deborah Dana 2015)