“First … My brain stops. There is nothing. I cannot see. I cannot hear. I am not there. I don’t feel anything.
Next … My heart is pounding, booming so fast. Can you feel it? Can you hear it? My fingers tingle, feeling strange. Goosebumps all over; they prickle me. Feel so cold; can’t get warm. So much noise, everything spinning … I liked it better when I couldn’t hear.
And then … Mummy’s arms hold me tight. She says, “Scream”. She shows me how. My eyes are shut, my mouth wide, “Aaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh”. I don’t even notice if anyone hears. My heart slows down. I am safe. Not hurt. I survived”.
Close your eyes and imagine, if you can, how it might feel when your whole world is spinning out of control, when goosebumps on your body feel like millions of prickles piercing you, when the pounding of your heart is so strong you are certain others can see and hear it. Imagine being a child who experiences this.
It’s not uncommon for a child (or adult) on the Autism spectrum to ‘shutdown’ – to become motionless and unresponsive – perhaps even suddenly dropping to the floor, with a blank or ‘absent’ expression. This response, to being overwhelmed, is often misunderstood or wrongly perceived as the child being wilful, stubborn or too ’emotional’.
‘Shutting down’, or ‘disassociating’, is thought to be a physiological response to intense and overwhelming fear (or stress) that can result from sensory overload, unmanageable social pressure or intense anxiety provoking situations (and / or a combination of all three) – a protective measure to enable the body to feel safe and allow time to ‘regroup’.
‘Shutdowns’ and ‘Meltdowns’ (not to be confused with ‘Tantrums’) are similar, in that both come from a place of an individual feeling extremely unsafe and intensely overwhelmed. ‘Shamming’ or ‘punishing’ a child, or adult, for feeling overwhelmed, is both unhelpful and potentially damaging to the individual experiencing the distress.
Practical and supportive responses, to either shutdown or meltdown, include:
- Sit, quietly, with the child / adult, irrelevant of where you are.
- Offer gentle words of encouragement
- Rub your child’s back firmly and / or hold them in your arms, to help ‘ground’ them.
- ‘Prompting’ (encouraging) screaming can assist in releasing excess emotion energy in some situations.
- Find a quiet place for the individual to recover.
- Support and encourage your child, on an ongoing basis, to self identify anxiety and sensory provoking situations; along with regularly teaching and practicing calming techniques that are meaningful to your child.