I've talked quite a bit about meltdowns on this blog because they're so integral to the aspie condition but I really haven't given much attention to their poor cousin - the shutdown.
Technically, there aren't too many differences between meltdowns and shutdowns. Both are extreme reactions to everyday stimuli. Both tend to be the result of long term unresolved issues rather than the more obvious triggers and both are almost completely out of the control of the aspie rather than being used by children and adults as a means to an end - that would be either a tantrum or emotional blackmail.
Some aspies are more prone to meltdowns while others lean more towards the shutdown model. It's possible to do both but this depends greatly on the root cause of the problem.
I think that there's a bit of a personality component to the reaction with aspies who are more sure of themselves or more fiercely independent leaning towards meltdowns rather than shutdowns but again there's a wide variance depending upon the feelings brought on by the trigger. Some events can make even the most confident of aspies doubt themselves.
What Exactly is a Shutdown?
While a meltdown could be described as rage against a situation, a meltdown tends to be more of a retreat.
Behaviours which manifest during a shutdown include rolling oneself into a ball or foetal position, crawling under objects or lying face down or completely under the covers on a bed. Gaze avoidance tends to increase significantly during a shutdown and conversation is non-existent.
As with meltdowns, in a shutdown situation, the aspie may act irrationally or dangerously. Unlike a meltdown however, the harmful activities are almost always directed at oneself.
The aspie may attempt self harm and may even be suicidal. They may be more likely to take reckless risks such as walking along a busy road on a dark/rainy night.
As with meltdowns, the cause of a shutdown tends to be culmulative and the trigger may bear little resemblance to the actual problem.
The real problems associated with shutdowns tend to lean towards depression, lonliness poor self image and poor self worth.
In a small child, a shutdown may be triggered because of a simple breakfast issue (perhaps they were given something they don't like). In this case, the cause may actually have nothing to do with breakfast at all but rather it may be symptomatic of the child's frustration at not being able to make herself understood.
In an adult, shutdowns can result from extreme events such as losing a job or a marriage break-up but they can also have very small triggers which simply "remind" an aspie of a larger pain. Perhaps a small incident at work could provoke some long term insecurities and cause a retreat.
What Do Shutdowns Feel Like?
Since these are extremely rare for me, I'm probably not the best person to answer the question but I'll try.
For me, a shutdown will move my pain to the center of my focus and I'll start thinking "what if" and "if only" scenarios. These are always counter-productive because you can't change the past and they usually only make me feel entrapped by events.
I'm not so much of a foetal position person - I tend to collapse into a heap instead. During a shutdown, I'll generally not have any contact with anyone but I do still hear voices.
As a child I'd often try pathetic ways of self termination, like holding my breath or strangling myself. Note that I didn't do this as attention-seeking behaviour but instead would attempt it unannounced and in solitude. I'd also attempt self harm but usually only by banging my head or pummeling myself with my fists. I know quite a few aspies who have, and in many cases continue to, self harm using sharp instruments. As a parent or friend, you need to keep a close eye on these situations.
I think I've only had two shutdowns in my adult life and in both cases there was no danger during the actual shutdown period but afterward, when I was moving around, my behavior was reckless and could have been self-destructive (depending on chance factors).
Like all aspergers things, there's not really a cure however self-respect goes a long way towards prevention. If you have children, it's very important to counter any negative messages they're receiving from others. If those negative messages are coming from teachers or family, then you may need to get involved yourself.
Unlike meltdowns, where it's best to leave the aspie alone but in a safe place, it's generally ok to talk in a soothing voice during a shutdown. Just make sure that you're careful what you say and keep things positive. The only thing to remember when soothing during a shutdown is that you're still dealing with a person on the spectrum. Don't try to force eye contact and don't touch without either being invited or being cautious to see the reaction frst.