As a sensory processing disorder (SPD) advocate, people frequently ask me about sensory shutdowns, those neurological episodes in which sensory information becomes too overwhelming to tolerate and the system goes haywire. 

While Autism Shutdowns vary on a case by case basis, They are less well known than Meltdowns.

Shutdowns (inward): Shutdowns are less noticeable and are less commonly seen than meltdowns. Shutdowns can be summed up as the 2nd side of the coin. Same coin; two different outcomes. With a shutdown, the child is still experiencing perceived sensory overload to an environmental trigger. The same trigger that caused an outward meltdown in one child, can cause an inward shutdown in another. Shutdowns can be defined as a person’s brain going into a protective mode, where it ‘shuts off’ momentarily. Individuals experiencing sensory shutdown often appear immobile; they may lay in one position and not move or blink. They may not hear their names being called and are unable to respond. These individuals in the midst of a shutdown often retreat from the outside world, by going inside, or within themselves for comfort, in an effort to self-calm and remove whatever caused their stress. To observers (including professionals), these non-behaviors may appear to be functioning as escape/avoidant – as if the child is deliberately ignoring prompts or directives or deliberately trying to avoid a task or something in the environment. Some shutdowns may even go completely unnoticed especially if the child is lower-functioning or nonverbal. Knowing the child’s behavioral history is critical for addressing and intervening with shutdowns.

How to Respond to a Shutdown:

  • Protect the child immediately from danger, self-injury, or aggressing at others.
  • Understand how the child needs support (allow them time to retreat and recover).
  • Provide a calming environment (soft voice, limited communication, soft touch).
    • Provide the child their favorite blanket, toy, or other calming item to help them recover.
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