Meltdowns and shutdowns might be described as a state of emotional or sensory overload that effectively shuts down a persons rational thinking and judgement and allows the Sympathetic Nervous System (our fight-or-flight system) to completely take over.

Meltdowns are often directed outward towards others. Shutdowns are typically directed onward towards oneself. While meltdowns and shutdowns can look very different, the underlying sensory overload is typically similar.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of meltdowns and shutdowns  is that in this highly emotional fight-or-flight state, almost any additional sensory stimulation can exacerbate the meltdown.

Any attempt to touch or restrain a person experiencing a meltdown may be perceived as a threat and may provoke an immediate and possibly violent resistance.

 Any verbal communication may occur as intrusive or confusing to a person in the midst of a meltdown also provoking additional upset and resistance.

Given this knowledge and given how difficult it can be interrupt a meltdown once they’ve begun, it is far more effective to prevent them or intervene before they begin.

Note: A meltdown is not defiance or disobedience. In many cases the person is unaware of exactly what is happening.

At the NLC we’ve adopted a three-tiered approach towards meltdowns and shutdowns.

  1. Prevention
  2. Intervention
  3. Interruption

Together, these three approaches can support a significant reduction in the occurrence of meltdowns and shutdowns.


The first approach to stopping meltdowns and shutdowns is to initiate lifestyle-type changes that prevent the buildup of sensory and emotional stress that eventually lead to meltdowns and shutdowns.

As the NLC, we recommend a daily program of stress reduction and sensory processing exercises like those found in chapters two and three of 55 Essential Skills.

Just a few minutes, 3 times a day can help prevent the onset of emotional and sensory stress that leads to meltdowns and shutdowns.

In addition to these stress reduction strategies, we want to manage the child’s sensory exposure.

This means scheduling our days to limit sensory exposure as well as demands on our physical, emotional, and social energy.

The NLC book, Waves—Not Spoons is an excellent resource for managing our physical, emotional, and social energy.

Some additional tips to prevent meltdowns and shutdowns are:

  • Take regularly scheduled breaks to avoid mental fatigue.
  • Establish rhythms throughout the day to allow for rest and recovery.
  • Try to limit the duration of activities so as not to exceed the limitations. Two successful 15-minute trips to the market are far better than one 30-minute trip that ends in a meltdown.
  • Honor calendars and project schedules to avoid undue stress.
  • Maintain clear goals and expectations to avoid uncertainty and anxiety.
  • Provide a “place of refuge” where persons experiencing feelings of stress or overwhelm can go to de-stress or decompress.
  • Maintain good light quality – LED’s are best; some fluorescent lights can cause visual stress.
  • To the extent possible, limit background noise, overlapping conversations, and excessive interruptions.
  • Maintain a safe environment—predictable with few sensory “surprises”.

Lastly, for those experiencing someone else's meltdown or shutdown, do not take meltdowns and shutdowns personally. If helpful, repeat to yourself, "It's not about me. It's not about me..."

It is especially important for parents to learn to mentally step back (dissociate) from the child’s meltdown.

It is important to remember that a meltdown is about stress. It is NOT about you.

It is important that the adult/parent maintain good judgment and avoid getting stressed themselves.

For more information on preventing and mitigating the effects of meltdowns and shutdowns, Click here.


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