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,


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17 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.

  4. I can somewhat empathize from the ND’s perspective that “shutting down is not malicious, manipulative or controlling.” However, from the NT’s perspective, the shutdown literally does that to a conversation when the NT is asserting a desire for the relationship. The effect, probably not intended, is to control the situation so the NT does not get what their asking for or even a conversation about it. The conversation is over. So irrespective of intent, the NT feels unheard, manipulated, and controlled because their feelings go unaddressed. We give up.

    1. Hi Steve, thank you for this comment and perspective. I can empathize how hard that experience is because my husband has shutdowns and it feels like a brick wall coming down over an important conversation every time it happens. It is enough to make someone want to give up so I hear you, your feelings are valid.

      From my experience it’s all about timing, mutual acceptance and environment. My husband has an easier time talking about hard things when he feels safe and not demanded of. Through our marriage, I’d try to get him to engage on my terms which deeply hurt him. At the same time, it hurt me to feel so pushed away.

      It’s helped us to walk and talk about hard things. Something about movement keeps the shutdown away. And if it’s just not possible to talk because of life stresses or overwhelm, we try to table it for a time where we’re less stressed.

      It also really helps the ND/Autist to be able to clearly define their boundaries. That’s part of their work in this equation. Individual therapy really helped my husband be able to say what he wants and that’s in turn helped us understand each other better.

      So I hope this helps a little. I understand where you’re coming from, it can be really difficult to bridge a communication gap when speaking two different processing languages.

      But don’t give up! NDs and NTs alike need to feel connected, supported, and loved from friends, partners and parents. It takes a little extra work on the communication front (from both sides) but it’s so worth it once the communication gap is closed.

      Here are some resources that might be helpful:

      Learning about how demand avoidance can affect the course of a conversation

      NeuroClastic is one of my favorite ND education groups. Here is a great piece from them on ND/NT communication and Relationships

    2. Although I can understand how you can feel this way, like you’re being manipulated to “not get what you want.” You’re blaming the vacuum cleaner for not wanting to clean, because the electricity went out!
      As an autistic person that experiences non-verbal shutdowns, sometimes lasting days. I can assure you that it is most definitely NOT in any way a tool being used to manipulate you in any way. It is scary, exhausting, and embarrassing to be locked inside myself, unable to process anything, unable to speak, and often feeling brain dead. Just help me to get through the shutdown first. Then I can process it and process the original problem, and start to discuss it all and reach an agreement with you so we can resolve the issue and both have closure.

      So yeah, sorry that you feel that we’re trying to “control the situation so the NT does not get what their asking for or even a conversation about it” Personally I feel like you are being completely selfish!

    3. I recently experienced this with a new friend and decided to let go as a potential long-term friendship. As understanding as I am I felt like this was too one-sided and a the feeling of being unable to form a connection felt forced. As I read this article it has validated on my end what I needed to know. I can’t imagine being in a marriage with such an avoidant type of shutdown. To the people who decide to be in a romantic relation you are truly exceptional mates.

      1. while I do understand where you’re coming from, it’s very hurtful to call people who date autistic people “exceptional”. it’s also both incorrect and insulting to call shutdowns “avoidant.” a shutdown is an uncontrollable response to emotional and sensory overwhelm – it has nothing to do with avoidance. i do understand how it can look that way, but as the article states it is not about manipulation and it is not intentional. i would suggest you consider shutdowns the way you might a panic attack – if you’re having a conversation with someone and they start hyperventilating and crying you would understand that they’re not in control of that and you would give them space to calm down before trying again to have that conversation – i least i hope that’s how you’d react. shutdowns are the same, they just look different from the outside. the person experiencing it is in great emotional distress. it’s really hurtful to say that people who are willing to date us are somehow exceptional, as if there’s something wrong with us and we’re a burden on “normal” people.

  5. I am having the very challenging issue of my husband experiencing shutdown at the worst times, usually involving crises with our two autistic boys, ages 6 and 3. For example, our boys and I had strep throat and my husband did not. The 3-year-old was up repeatedly through the night, and my husband was trying to care for him some of the time (as was I while sick)… my husband had a shut-down and ultimately hid in the house, leaving very sick me to deal with both sick kids without him present for hours. Despite having a shutdown like this, how is this acceptable?

    1. Hi Alana, first I want to say I hope you and your boys feel better soon.

      I understand this it’s terribly frustrating to feel like your husband abandoned you when you really needed his help. I would have a hard time with that too.

      Has this happened before? Have you been able to speak with him about the reasons behind his shutdown and what accommodations he might need (or what accommodations you need)?

  6. I believe my ND partner of 2 years ( who I believe is my soulmate and the love of my life) is going through a meltdown. He participated in a breathwork session which resulted in an intense emotional reaction- crying, shaking, regrets over past events etc. since then he has not spoken to me. Being NT and INFJ I thought it was all my fault or that he had found out is really gay or loves someone else. It was killing me not hearing from him or knowing if he is ok. So I rang. He said he was extremely tired, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t socialise but still had the same feelings for me. He said he needed to talk with me so we have a meeting tomorrow to discuss. I spoke with my best friend who is also ND and she explained what is likely happening. How do I present? How can I help? Do I wear plain clothes? Do I/ do I not hug him? Do I take food? ( I am vegan and he is not so is my food too weird for him?). Being INFJ I thought I understood people but this has got me so scared. I love this man. My nature is to help and love but I fear I might overwhelm him and make things worse. Losing him would absolutely break my heart. What. Should I do? Any advice from ND people would be very very much appreciated.

    1. Hi Anne,

      First I want to say that it’s great that you are being so considerate of your partner’s feelings and needs. That’s great!

      In regards to what to do: take it step by step and give him as much space as he needs to process.

      I’d say take a moment to sit with and soothe your own anxiety from the situation before meeting with him.

      Listen to his needs and don’t pry for information. He may not want to talk long because it’s hard to speak through a shutdown sometimes, that’s okay-it’s nothing personal and doesn’t mean he’s going to leave you or is mad at you.

      In terms of food if you know any of his safe foods or snacks I would suggest bringing that over instead of anything new or different.

      And again, take it step by step. Coming out of a shutdown can be a process. Try to self care for yourself as much as you’d care for him-that’s really important too. Wishing you the best!

  7. Thank you. I keep a personal guide for depressive episodes, autistic burnout, and autistic shutdowns on my phone to help me identify and help myself when one hits. This page has really helped.

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