Understanding Autistic Shutdowns
Updated: Nov 7
By Patty Laushman
Stress and overwhelm are often an unfortunate daily reality for autistic individuals. Just existing in a culture and environment that are a mismatch for your needs is stressful and often leads to sensory and emotional overwhelm. This stress can come from many sources, like nerve-wracking social situations, unfriendly workplaces, or sensorily overstimulating environments, and it also can manifest in ways that seem mysterious to neurotypical people.
When chronic stress and overwhelm become too much, neurodivergent individuals can exhibit both internal and external expressions of distress. The reaction more familiar to people is an autistic meltdown, a sometimes dramatic and always obvious reaction due to its external nature. To those unfamiliar with the challenges of autism, it can seem like it came out of nowhere. To the uninitiated, meltdowns are also commonly misunderstood as tantrums, but it’s critical to understand that a meltdown is not a sign of bad behavior; it is a response to sensory overload, emotional overwhelm, or other forms of extreme stress.
The autistic meltdown’s cousin, autistic shutdown, is less familiar to most people because it is an internal expression of distress that is frequently unnoticed by the people around the neurodivergent individual. Though often invisible, an autistic shutdown is no less distressing to the person experiencing it and can have a major, negative impact on their quality of life.
In this blog post, I aim to increase awareness of autistic shutdowns, both to help autistic individuals better understand themselves so they can create plans for responding to and even preventing shutdowns, and to better equip those around them to support them shame-free. So let’s get into it!
What is an Autistic Shutdown?
An autistic shutdown is a state where an autistic person basically withdraws from their environment. A shutdown is often a coping mechanism for overwhelming sensory or emotional stimuli or just plain exhaustion from processing too much stimulation. It indicates a mismatch between what a person needs and the environment they are operating in.
If an autistic person is in tune with their needs, they can do it consciously to protect themself, or it may happen involuntarily as a response to overwhelm. The shutdown basically protects an autistic individual’s nervous system from stimuli that are perceived as too intense or overwhelming. During these episodes, the person may become nonresponsive, withdrawn, or appear extremely tired.
Identifying common triggers for a shutdown can help manage and possibly even prevent them. These triggers can vary from person to person but often include factors such as sensory overload, intense social interaction, stress, anxiety, sudden changes in routine, a series of minor upsetting events, and more. Recognizing these triggers can help with creating strategies to minimize their impact.
Generally, if you want to help an autistic person during autistic shutdowns, being able to recognize the signs and symptoms of one is an important step in the process.
Signs and Symptoms of an Autistic Shutdown
Recognizing an autistic shutdown as it's happening can be difficult because the signs can be subtle and vary by person. That said, when you do understand the more common physical, emotional, and behavioral signs, you can more effectively identify and respond to these episodes whether you are the person experiencing the shutdown or a supportive individual around them.
During a shutdown, the autistic individual might show several physical signs of withdrawal. These can include fatigue or appearing excessively tired, decreased motor coordination, or even a slowing down of movements. Some people may become nonresponsive and stop talking altogether while others might limit their speech to one or two-word answers. An inability to respond to questions coherently is an obvious sign that a shutdown is in progress.
Emotionally, someone experiencing a shutdown may seem disconnected or distant. They may have a hard time expressing their feelings or seem unusually passive. This can sometimes be misunderstood as indifference, but it's important to understand that this emotional distancing is a response to feeling overwhelmed rather than a lack of emotion or concern.
Regarding behavior, the person might disengage from activities they usually enjoy, become unresponsive to social interaction, or show a lack of interest in their surroundings. They may try finding a quiet, low-stimulation environment or perform more self-soothing behaviors, such as stimming.
It's important to remember that these signs are not definitive proof of an autistic shutdown, and they can also, again, vary among individuals. They instead suggest something is going on and should be considered within the context of the person’s usual behavior and recent experiences.
Why Autistic Shutdowns Need to Be Taken Seriously
Autistic shutdowns can have a substantial impact on various areas of daily living for the individual experiencing them. Below are some domains that can be affected.
The emotional toll of regularly experiencing shutdowns can be substantial, leading to increased stress, anxiety, and feelings of isolation. Over time, this can contribute to depression and other mental health challenges.
Shutdowns can interrupt social activities and make it difficult for the person to maintain relationships. If a shutdown occurs during a social event, for instance, the individual may need to withdraw, leading to misunderstandings or tension within the group.
Work or School Performance
In professional or academic settings, shutdowns can make it challenging to concentrate, engage with tasks, or even be physically present. This can lead to decreased productivity and significant misunderstandings with colleagues or educators, potentially affecting career or academic success.
During a shutdown, even basic self-care tasks like eating, bathing, or grooming can become overwhelming and may be neglected.
Shutdowns can significantly hamper communication abilities, whether it involves speaking, making decisions, or even sending a text message. For some, even thinking in a coherent and organized way can be compromised, making it impossible to communicate.
Regular tasks like cooking, cleaning, and managing finances can become insurmountable challenges during a shutdown. Parenting skills can also be impacted, as the emotional and cognitive resources needed to care for a child may be temporarily inaccessible.
Some individuals may experience somatic symptoms during or after a shutdown, such as headaches, digestive problems, or generalized fatigue, which can further impair daily functioning.
Activities that are usually enjoyable may become too overwhelming during a shutdown. This can limit the individual's ability to relax and recharge, affecting overall well-being.
Sensitivity to sensory stimuli may be heightened during a shutdown, making environments that were previously tolerable suddenly overwhelming. This can limit the individual's ability to function across various settings, from grocery stores to public transportation.
In extreme cases, some individuals might find it challenging even to move or leave their space during a shutdown, impacting their ability to engage in virtually every area of daily life.
Recognizing the potential impact on these areas can help caregivers, supervisors, colleagues, educators, and autistic individuals themselves create strategies for coping and improving overall quality of life.
How to Support Someone During an Autistic Shutdown
If you are a friend, family member, or caregiver of an autistic person, knowing how to respond during an autistic shutdown can be very helpful. It's important to remember that every autistic individual is unique, so what works for one person might not work for another. That said, here are some general strategies you can use if someone you know is experiencing a shutdown.
Immediate Steps to Take During a Shutdown
Leave an Overstimulating Environment
When someone is experiencing a shutdown, the first priority is to ensure their safety and comfort. This may mean guiding them gently to a quiet, low-stimulus environment if possible, speaking in a calm, reassuring voice, and not touching them without their consent, since touch can sometimes be overstimulating.
Don’t Pressure Them to Talk
Avoid pressing someone experiencing a shutdown to talk or engage as they might be incapable of doing so. Also understand that they are not being intentionally unresponsive or distant. Their brain is just trying to cope with an overwhelming situation.
Long Term Strategies for Managing and Preventing Shutdowns
Reduce Exposure to Known Stressors
If you know what stresses you, you can plan around it to reduce your exposure to those stressors. If exposure to the stressor is unavoidable, try to limit the amount of time spent there, and plan ahead to minimize sensory sensitivities by bringing ear plugs or sunglasses, things that reduce the strength of sensory inputs.
If shutdowns are happening regularly in a specific environment, the environment may be a mismatch for the individual, and a change may be necessary. You would never expect a saltwater fish to thrive in a freshwater aquarium. The saltwater fish needs something different from what the freshwater fish needs. This doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the saltwater fish – it just needs a slightly different environment to thrive.
Practice Stress Management Strategies
Practicing stress management strategies can help minimize the frequency and severity of shutdowns. That way, if you feel yourself becoming stressed, you can try using strategies like deep breathing to calm yourself down before the stress hits a critical point. Ideally, you are practicing these techniques in safe environments so they become second nature and can be easily employed when you are stressed.
Create a Shutdown Plan
Creating a “shutdown plan” for situations you can’t avoid that are known to trigger shutdowns can help tremendously. This plan might include identifying early signs of a shutdown, preparing a comfortable and safe space for when shutdowns occur, and developing communication strategies for when verbal communication may not be possible.
I recently helped a client identify the precise level of overstimulation that indicated a shutdown plan needed to be implemented at work. We created a step-by-step list of things to do in the situation that was triggering regular shutdowns, and I even had the client put the list in their phone so they could pull it out in the moment and not have to remember the steps.
If it took more than 10 minutes to bring their stress level down, the plan included communication with the appropriate person so they didn’t wonder where my client had disappeared to. And if it took more than 20 minutes to feel less stimulated, there was a plan for physically leaving the building.
Just having a plan in place for what to do if things go wrong can significantly bolster your confidence going into known stressful situations. Always have a back-up plan for escaping situations that are known to be stressful, and make sure to communicate it to people you will be with so if you need to execute it, they won’t wonder what is happening, and they may even be able to help you execute the plan.
An Important Tip About Patience, Understanding, and Empathy
Showing patience, understanding, and empathy is arguably the most important part of supporting someone during an autistic shutdown. Remember that an autistic individual experiencing a shutdown is doing so because they are responding to overwhelming circumstances. Respond in turn with kindness and reassurance while offering support without adding to their current high levels of pressure.
Professional Help and Resources
If someone experiences frequent shutdowns, particularly if these episodes lead to withdrawal from regular activities, cause distress, or last for extended periods, it may be helpful to seek professional help.
Cognitive behavioral therapy with a neurodiversity-informed and -affirming therapist can help with identifying triggers and developing coping strategies. If trauma is present, working with a therapist on processing the trauma can be a life-changer. Another helpful option is occupational therapy, which helps people manage sensory challenges that might contribute to shutdowns.
A skilled autism life coach can also provide help and strategies for identifying situations that are frequently triggering shutdowns and create plans for managing and coping with shutdowns more effectively.
If social situations are causing extreme stress, social skills coaching through PEERS or an autism life coach to build both skills and confidence can lead to huge breakthroughs. In some cases, medication may be recommended, although this is usually considered after other interventions have been explored.
When looking for help, remember that it's important to tailor strategies and interventions to the individual's specific needs and circumstances. What works for one person might not work for another, and the goal should always be to enhance the individual's well-being and autonomy.
Living with autism involves navigating a world that is often not designed to accommodate neurodiverse needs. The challenges are many, and they manifest in various ways, including autistic meltdowns and the less understood, but equally impactful, autistic shutdowns.
Autistic shutdowns are often invisible crises. They are subtle but deeply felt, often causing the individual to withdraw in a protective cocoon that shields them from further overwhelm. Recognizing autistic shutdowns is crucial for anyone looking to support autistic individuals, whether you're a family member, friend, caregiver, supervisor, colleague, or even the person who experiences these states.
Understanding the signs of an autistic shutdown is essential for early intervention, whether it involves moving to a quieter space or utilizing other coping strategies. Creating an individualized shutdown plan, tailored to recognize the signs early and to manage the situation effectively, can be an empowering step for autistic adults. It brings not only relief but also a sense of control over an aspect of their life that might otherwise feel overwhelming.
It's also essential to remember that the goal of understanding and managing autistic shutdowns is not to "fix" the individual but to make the world more accommodating and sensitive to their needs, like the needs of a saltwater fish in a saltwater aquarium. This can only happen through awareness, education, and the empathy that comes from understanding that people experience the world in many different ways. Empathy and informed support can make all the difference in the world to someone who is struggling with an autistic shutdown.
If you find that autistic shutdowns are impacting your life or the life of someone you care about in a significant way, don't hesitate to seek professional support. Therapists, life coaches, and occupational therapists with expertise in neurodiversity can offer invaluable coping strategies and resources.
In closing, remember that autistic individuals, like everyone else, have a range of experiences and responses to the world around them. The more we can understand these, the better we can support the autistic people in our lives in a manner that respects their neurodiversity and enriches their well-being.