Meltdowns, shutdowns and burnout


Meltdowns are NOT temper tantrums, even though they can involve screaming, kicking, stamping feet etc. What parents have to realise is that meltdowns come when children are overwhelmed by their experience, environment and emotions that their anger, sadness and frustration bursts out.

There’s nowhere for those feelings to go, and it is at a point where it is impossible to regulate, so the only thing to do is meltdown.

Despite what society may think, it is important to remain calm and patient when someone is having a meltdown. No matter how embarrassing you may think it is to have your child on the floor of a supermarket, screaming, it will be even more painful and uncomfortable for your child who has gone past the point of being overwhelmed.

Sometimes you have to wait until the meltdown is over so all of those feelings can be released, or a child may respond to touch and a safe place. Find what works for your child and don’t pressure them to stop what they’re doing: they cannot.

Adults may act differently during a meltdown to a child. Ranting, swearing, pacing or talking really fast are all indicators of a meltdown, so it is important to understand that an autistic adult isn’t being rude or aggressive, they are in crisis and need support.

A meltdown can feel like you’re stuck under burning water and something keeps pulling you down, even when you try to fight it. Everything becomes too much, sound and touch becomes painful and all these feelings come pouring out.

Personally, I feel like I want to escape my own body and I can’t, and that is why it can be so overwhelming.

Ways to help a meltdown:

  • Take them to a quiet space where they can’t hurt themselves
  • DO NOT use restraint unless trained in positive handling, and always ask if you can touch before you do so
  • Don’t talk lots, this adds to the sensory overload autistics experience when having a meltdown
  • Wait with the person until it is over, then help them regulate by providing water, a safe snack or safe item
  • Use safe items to distract the autistic person from their environment
  • Keep a calm, gentle tone of voice
  • Advocate for the autistic person by removing any additional people, not get drawn into other people’s comments and don’t react to disapproving people: anger and shouting will only make the meltdown worse
  • Talk about their interests when they are ready to listen so they have something positive to grasp onto


Shutdowns are the opposite of a meltdown, where instead of reacting, you revert back into yourself and almost ‘switch off’. This is not to be confused with an absence seizure which is a serious medical condition to watch out for and treat differently than a shutdown.

When autistic people go into a shutdown, they can be nonresponsive, nonverbal and not react to even their favourite things. It feels like running out of batteries and everything seems so far away, with touch and sound not even registering.

If an autistic person is curled in a ball and won’t look or talk to you, they aren’t ignoring you. It is possible that the demands of the day or of an experience has caused a shutdown, and the autistic person is too fatigued to break out of it.

Ways to help a shutdown:

  • Use a weighted blanket and sensory tactics to draw the autistic person’s attention back to the present moment
  • Speak calmly and quietly, the don’t need more sensory input
  • Decrease the amount of sensory input in the room, such as turning off the lights
  • Be patient, a shutdown can be hard to come out of and an autistic person needs time to regain energy
  • If you know what provides the autistic person with energy, such as a special interest or safe food, try that
  • Provide a calm and quiet area for rests
  • Give the person space as sometimes no people around will help


Burnout is a little like a shutdown but for different reasons, with an autistic person putting so much on themselves and expending all their energy that they crash and burn. To quote A Kind of Spark “She gave more than she had, and now she has nothing left to give.”

Everything can be hard when you’re struggling with burnout, and it takes a lot longer to come out of than a shut down. Talking, functioning, working and even just moving from your bed can seem impossible as you have zero reserves of energy.

Burnout can be caused by anything, but mainly autistic people get burnout from the demands of the world. If they mask too much that could use up huge amounts of energy, and they could be suppressing stims and behaviours that help them to regulate for the sake of fitting in. Too hard a job without any accommodations, being surrounded by people who zap energy and not having any downtime can all lead to burnout.

Burnout can come on slowly or quickly, depending on how much pressure an autistic person is putting on themselves. There’s no timescale on recovery and it is a very difficult experience.

Recovering from a burnout

Unfortunately, recovering from burnout is not the same as coming out of a meltdown or shutdown. It takes a lot of work and a lot of difficult decisions.

  • An autistic person may have to quit their job and take time off sick
  • Keeping relationships, friendships or even seeing people can become impossible, as time and space is needed
  • An autistic person will have to concentrate on the small wins and not put any more pressure on themselves. Instead of wishing they were fully recovered, it is important to give self-love and care for just getting through the day the best you can.

Autistic people must realise that there is no quick fix for burnout and that they need to be kind to themselves. They don’t have to do everything and ‘act’ like everything is fine. Taking the days slowly, concentrating on hygiene and self-care is a step in the right direction and this can look like:

  • Remembering your meds
  • Drinking water
  • Changing your PJs
  • Washing your face
  • Opening the curtains
  • Having something to eat even if it is just a snack

It can be easy to think you have to have everything together, but you don’t. The main thing is to focus on recovery and there is no shame in that. If you can’t brush your teeth that day, swill with mouthwash or have some chewing gum. If you can’t get dressed, put some clean PJs on. If you can’t do all the washing up, wash one pot. There’s no rules to recovery and so there’s no reason to add them.

For neurotypical friends and family members, it can be hard watching your loved one go through burnout, however there are ways to offer a lot of support, such as:

  • Take them meals
  • Change their sheets
  • Reduce demands
  • Sit with them if they need company
  • Brush their hair
  • Remind them to take their meds

Just being there and advocating for their recovery can do a world of good.