When in extreme distress some autistic people can experience a meltdown or a shut down. We think it’s important that everyone understands these, so that if they see someone experiencing this kind of overwhelm, they are able to help the person and educate others.

About meltdowns and shut downs

Both meltdowns and shutdowns are reactions to extreme distress. A meltdown involves a range of behaviours which may include self-injury, crying, shouting, rocking and other outward signs of distress. A shut down, is when someone becomes ‘zoned out’ and unresponsive to the environment. Some autistic people may experience both of these types of reactions to distress.

These reactions can happen as a result of sensory overload, social overwhelm, uncertainty and unexpected changes. Different things can trigger different people, and sometimes a combination of things can build up to create this feeling of overwhelm.

How you can help

If you think someone is experiencing a meltdown or shutdown there are some things that might help:

Do try to:

  • Keep them safe: remove anything that they might hurt themselves on.
  • Support them to find a comfortable space. They may benefit from somewhere quiet without bright lighting.
  • Try to stay calm, be assertive and appear confident and in control.
  • Allow one person to take control rather than lots of people intervening, which will feel overwhelming.
  • Give them space if this is appropriate
  • Provide clear and simple directions and acknowledge emotions, give a reason for direction then give direction.
  • Focus on using short, direct sentences (e.g., “I can see you are feeling stressed. I am going to try and help you. Take deep breaths. Close your eyes”)
  • As soon as they begin to calm down, recognise it, reinforce it, and encourage them (e.g., “I can see you are feeling much calmer”).
  • If talking, use a slow, low tone of voice and clear, simple, minimal words.
  • It may help to sit to one side, at their level.
  • Ask them to sit down, if this is possible – this will help to reduce arousal.
  • Use deep breathing and get them to join in when they can.

Try not to:

  • Restrain them, unless it is a protective action to stop violence, aggression or injury.
  • Match your mood with your speech, instead stay low and slow. If you seem scared or overwhelmed it will reinforce their feelings and make things worse.
  • Talk about consequences of their behaviour. This will increase anxiety, anger or frustration.

Directing people to support

Most of the time a person will not need intervention for a meltdown or shut down. Calling out emergency services could make the situation worse. But if the person is in immediate danger, or if meltdowns are very frequent, you may want to help them to get support.

Resources for well-being

If you or they would like to talk to someone, we have listed some resources for online and telephone support. Autistica does not endorse the services below, but we know that they can provide help and support for many people. 

Ambitious about Autism offers information for parents and carers of autistic children and young people. You can call them on 020 8815 5444, email info@ambitiousaboutautism.org.uk or visit their website www.ambitiousaboutautism.org.uk

The National Autistic Society provides online guidance, a services directory and has a forum and local branches where you can seek advice and support. Visit: https://www.autism.org.uk/cont...

Scottish Autism offers information and advice. You can call them on 01259 222022, email advice@scottishautism.org or contact them online (Monday to Friday; 10am to 4pm; and Tuesday open 10am to 7pm) using this form: www.scottishautism.org/advice-line-form

Mind, the mental health charity, offers information and advice. You can call 0300 123 3393, or text: 86463, or email: info@mind.org.uk  

Samaritans are always open and are there to listen. You can call 116 123. 

is for anyone experiencing a mental health problem or supporting someone else. You can call 0300 304 7000 (4.30pm to 10.30pm, every day).

Shout 85258
is a free, confidential, 24/7 text messaging support service for anyone who is struggling to cope. Just text 'Shout' to 85258. https://giveusashout.org/

CALM Zone (Campaigning Against Living Miserably can offer support via their web chat at thecalmzone.net, or their telephone helpline 0800 58 58 58 (open 5pm to midnight).

Urgent support

If the person you are supporting needs immediate help they can: 

Contact their local crisis team (CRHT), if they are under their care.

Call NHS 111 (England, Scotland and Northern Ireland) or NHS Direct 0845 46 47 (Wales).

Call 999 or go to A&E if someone's life is at risk – for example, they have seriously injured themselves or taken an overdose and you do not feel you can keep yourself or someone else safe.