Autistic Shutdowns: A Guide for Neurodivergent Adults

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How much do you know about Autistic Shutdowns?

If the answer is not a lot, don’t worry! We’ve got plenty of information and resources for you in this guide for Autistic Adults.

What are Autistic Shutdowns?

First and foremost, Austistic shutdowns are a normal part of life for many Autistics. If they’re something you experience, just know they’re definitely nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, they may be critical to your mental health! Read on to find out more.

Shutdowns are a unique experience when an Autistic becomes overwhelmed and goes into a mental “shutdown” mode. Some Autistics refer to it like “sleep” mode on a computer. During this mode you may have little to no energy, dissociation from thoughts and feelings, and an intense need to be alone.

It happens when an Autistic is emotionally or sensorily overwhelmed and they need to reset and protect their mind. Some Autistics know when a shutdown is coming on while others only realize it in the midst of the shutdown.

While some can view this process as negative, Autistic shutdowns can serve an important function in protecting a Neurodivergent’s mental health. We’ll talk more about that in the coming sections.

What causes a Shutdown?

Some common causes of an Autistic shutdown:

What happens during a Shutdown?

Since no two Autistics are the same, Autistic shutdowns can look different from person to person. However some of the commonalities are:

  • Assuming a Monotone voice
  • Staring
  • Becoming unresponsive to others
  • A feeling of being “far away”
  • The inability to speak or move
  • Robotic body movements if movement can happen at all
  • A feeling of heaviness in the limbs
  • Wanting to be left alone
  • Difficulty forming thoughts or no thoughts at all
  • No energy
  • From the outside, behavior may seem unrecognizable-like you’re a different person

What do Shutdowns have to do with Neurodivergent Mental Health?

Autistic shutdowns are an escape from overthinking. They provide a deep rest and reset for Autistic brains which is essential to their mental health.

Here’s why:

Most of the time, Autistic brains are on overdrive. Cataloging, searching for patterns, rehearsing social scripts, remembering to mask, you name it. As you can imagine, this is all really exhausting. Add in outside pressure in the form of expectations and daily demands and you have a recipe for a meltdown.

In essence, Shutdowns are a coping tool many Autistics use to circumvent painful meltdowns and preserve their mental health.

Mental health treatments/therapies that are not neuro-informed can cause meltdowns by pressuring the Autistic patient while they are in shutdown mode. Classic therapy techniques should not be attempted during this time as they 1.) won’t have any effect and 2.) can be really harmful. How so? Meltdowns are an incredibly vulnerable state for any Neurodivergent and can lead to increased black and white thinking, intense negative self talk, and even suicide. All incredibly quickly.

If you’re consistently having shutdowns that last a long while or shutdowns that often turn into meltdowns, that may mean a change of environment and stressors are needed.

Shutdowns Present Unique Challenges for Autistic Adults

As I mentioned in our Neurodivergent Meltdown Guide, adults who experience shutdowns face some unique challenges. Mainly due to misunderstanding of Neurodivergence.

Adults are expected to endure a lot. And when they can’t endure, boy do people have lots of opinions – most of them negative. The misunderstanding of shutdowns specifically can cause great stress to an Autistic Adult.

Shutdowns and Work Burnout

Autistic adults working a difficult job might not feel able to shutdown, which leads to emotional damage in the form of Autistic burnout.

Autistic or Neurodivergent Burnout happens after a prolonged period of stress. It’s differentiated from traditional burnout because the process is influenced by more factors than stress. These factors include having to mask, not being able to access Neurodivergent processes like stimming, and repeated meltdowns from sensory and emotional stress.

Burnout is a serious mental health emergency that takes months to recover from. It is an increasing problem for Neurodivergent people with 20% of Autists experiencing burnout at least once in their lifetime according to an NIH funded study.

Shutdowns and Relationships

Those Autistics in relationships may be accused of stonewalling or “checking out” when it comes to arguments or difficult moments.

To be clear: Autistic shutdowns are NOT the same as the concept of stonewalling. Stonewalling is a poor communication tactic used to influence someone else’s behavior (i.e. refusing to communicate to get the other person off their back).

Shutdowns are literally life saving processes that have no other goal but to keep the Autistic safe and sane. Confusion of the two terms has amplified the stereotype that Autistic people are manipulative, abusive, or uncaring.

And yes, Autistics can also stonewall just like anyone else. But the processes and presentation are very different. Knowing the difference can tremendously help your Autistic partner and increase trust in your relationship.

Shutdowns and PDA as an Adult

Pathological Demand Avoidance is an Autistic trait or “profile” where the brain perceives any request, big or small, as an overwhelming threat. This can make an Autistic person shut down physically and mentally. This is often a difficult thing to deal with as an Autistic adult with a career and other responsibilities.

The good news is that there are lots of affirming PDA strategies out there to help Autistic adults. A great place to start is with the PDA Society, a non profit that provides self help strategies, workplace accommodation guidance, and peer support for PDAers.

How Should Shutdowns Be Handled?

For Autistics:

  • Sleep, sleep, sleep. A long rest is preferred but any bit of sleep helps.
  • As you’re coming out of the shutdown, you might experience an “emotional hangover.” In this case go easy on yourself and do recharging things like watching a movie or playing your favorite game.
  • Lean into the shutdown, it won’t last forever and you’ll feel better once it’s done
  • Watch out for what Samantha Craft, an Autistic blogger, refers to as “Implosive Thoughts” before and after the shutdown. It is similar to the shame spiral described in our Meltdown article.
  • Get to a safe space where you can lay down, preferably a sensory friendly place where you can be alone or with a person you trust.
  • Take the time you need before re-engaging. Practice some Neurodivergent affirming self care.

For Partners, Friends, Family, Bosses, Teachers, etc.

  • Leave the Autistic person alone. If you’re worried about them, check in gently every once in a while. Bring them food and water.
  • Give them time. After a shutdown, Autistics will probably need a lot of time and space to recover. It can take up to a few days. It’s nothing personal.
  • Understand why the shutdown happened and try to reduce any triggers you may be responsible for.
  • Do not push them to “snap out of it.” Doing so may harm them.
  • Don’t touch the person unless they give their express permission. Ask before touching.
  • Educate yourself on Autistic processes and traits. Understand the signs of Autistic shutdowns and meltdowns.

Can Autistic Shutdowns be Avoided?

The short answer is maybe.

Like Meltdowns, Autistic Shutdowns are going to happen. It’s a fact of Neurodivergent life.

That being said, I’m sure many of us would prefer not to get to the point of needing a shutdown. As an Autistic, here’s a few things you can do to avoid shutdowns.

Practice Setting and Keeping Boundaries

Boundaries are super important to Autistic mental health. Sadly, many Autistics have been taught that their boundaries don’t matter. Simply because the world doesn’t understand them.

But I’m here to tell you, they definitely matter. Big time. Setting boundaries on your space and time specifically will help a lot.

What helped my husband, Bruce, was working with a therapist on how and when to set boundaries.

Here’s some of the boundaries Bruce has found helpful:

  • Ask for breaks during a fight or emotionally intense moments. If the other person doesn’t adhere to them, keep reasserting the boundary and get somewhere away from that person if possible.
  • Assert your need for space and be specific about the kind of space you need (i.e. “I’d like you to be here but in a low pressure way” or “I need some time completely alone to play games and recharge.”)
  • Assert your need not to be touched. Many Autistics can’t stand to be touched if they are entering sensory or emotional overwhelm.

Identify Warning Signs

The shutdown process is largely automatic with many Autistics unaware of it happening. However, as related to me by Bruce, there are warning signs.

Warning signs:

  • A sudden tension headache or “brain squeeze”
  • Feelings of confusion or “drifting”
  • Dissociation
  • Feeling cut off from emotions
  • Sudden fatigue
  • Increased anger or irritability

Understanding and watching for these signs can help you know that it’s time to set a boundary. Most often a good break from the task at hand will help you circumvent a shutdown. Get something to eat, take a nap if you can, and spend a little time indulging in a hobby before getting back into it.

Sometimes even with the warning signs, a shutdown is inevitable. In this case it’s good to use the signs as cues to get yourself somewhere comfortable and safe.

Make Sure Your Workplace and/or School Provides Accommodations

It’s not all your responsibility to manage your shutdowns. Workplaces and schools are required to provide reasonable accommodations.

Talk to HR about what kind of accommodations you might need. You don’t necessarily need an Autism diagnosis to receive accommodations. However you may need to be able to prove with prior documentation that your mental health will be impacted if you are not given accommodations.

These accommodations are things like:

  • Being allowed to take a break when you’re overwhelmed
  • Having access to visual time-tables, schedules, and instructions
  • Requesting clear communication from higher ups when giving instructions
  • Being forewarned of organizational changes
  • Having changes be implemented sequentially and mindfully
  • Requesting your work environment be sensory friendly according to your needs (a place with no loud music or noise that’s relatively free of interruptions for example)
  • Requesting more time on project deadlines

And many more. Find out more about reasonable accommodations in this PDF from the National Disability Authority. And find out more about the accommodation process under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in general here.

Wrap Up

As stated previously, Autistic Shutdowns happen.

Autists- if you take away anything from this article, just remember that there’s NO shame in shutting down. It’s a natural and important part of Neurodivergent life, even if it goes against what’s typical.

Allistics – if you take away anything from this article, just know that shutting down is not malicious, manipulative or controlling. And that there ARE many ND affirming ways you can support your Autistic friends and family. Those strategies may seem strange to you at first. But if you follow them, you will find that your loved one’s life (and yours as well) will be much happier for it.

Much Love,

MB

Looking for a place that’s safe to ask questions, vent, and connect to other Neurodivergents without fear of being misunderstood? Please feel free to join MSB’s Neurodivergent Learning and Life Skills group on FB. We’d love to have you!

Want more awesome (and illustrated) Neurodivergent Mental Health content? Follow My Soul Balm-Neurodivergent Mental Health on Facebook!

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3 thoughts on “Autistic Shutdowns: A Guide for Neurodivergent Adults”

  1. Pingback: How to set Boundaries as a Neurodivergent Adult - An ND Life Guide

  2. Shutdowns have been happening to me lately while I’m shopping. I don’t know why suddenly in my mid 30s I can’t handle it anymore. Maybe I’m out of practice from the pandemic. or over stressed because of the current state of the world. I go into a dreamlike space in my head. Things don’t feel real, I’m confused, tired, can’t focus my eyes well or make decisions. It’s really surreal. I don’t like shopping without my partner anymore because he is super helpful in reminding me what we’re doing and getting us back home without leaving my brain at the store.

  3. For me, when I am on autistic shutdown mode due to trigger by overwhelm or stress, I felt simplified to refer to Apple’s thermometer icon due to trigger by overheat.

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