Last month I posted a huge post all about meltdowns and autism. I talked about what a meltdown is and what it isn’t, what meltdowns are like, and tips for how people can be helpful and supportive.
In it, I also mentioned that I’d like to write a post about shutdowns, which are neurological events that are similar to meltdowns but look very different. Many autistic people are prone more to shutting down than to melting down when they’re overloaded, so this is a good topic to discuss as well. I highly recommend you read that post as well as this one, as there is important information in there that I won’t re-state in this post.
This post will be considerably shorter than the one on meltdowns, though much of the info is actually interchangeable. This is due to the fact that I personally tend to have external meltdowns rather than inward shutdowns. There may have been a few times that I remember where I have experienced something similar to a shutdown, but it’s almost always been right before a really bad meltdown. In any case, I’m working less off of personal experience for this piece and more off of information I’ve gathered from autistic people who do frequently experience shutdowns.
What is a shutdown?
A shutdown is essentially just an internalized meltdown. Both are involuntary neurological events caused by an overload to the sensory/emotional processing centers of the brain. However, rather than exploding as in during a meltdown, the person implodes. The cause of a meltdown and a shutdown are the same: the brain’s ability to process incoming sensory/emotional information is surpassed, and so the brain frantically starts trying to re-regulate itself with a neurological hard-restart. It’s a little bit like if a computer is running more tasks than its amount of installed RAM can handle, and so it runs an emergency shut down and restart. Meltdowns and shutdowns are different tactics employed by the brain to deal with the same thing. A shutdown is (and this is a huge generalization) a more “passive” approach to re-regulation than an external meltdown, whereby the brain attempts to better handle the overwhelming flow of incoming information by isolating itself from the environment and perhaps even different parts of the brain from one another.
A shutdown essentially leaves someone in a catatonic state or close to it. The person may appear completely dissociated from the environment and withdrawn, not responding to any sort of stimuli. It may look like the person is zoning out, suddenly exhausted or falling asleep, or the person may be in a more obviously “distressed” position. The person is likely to be unable to speak or move during a shutdown, and will likely to be unable to access any “skills” of any sort during a shutdown. Despite what it may look like, a person experiencing a shutdown is probably in a lot of sensory and emotional pain, and is of course incredibly overwhelmed. Shutdowns are very scary because, like with an external meltdown, it’s an almost complete loss of control of one’s body. A person cannot control a shutdown, it is certainly not a choice or some sort of behavioral problem.
Shutdowns can of course have varying severities just like meltdowns, and they also may last different periods of time. Some people report having only very brief shutdowns, and if removed from the overstimulating situation they may recover very quickly. Other people report that they have had shutdowns that have gone on for even days at a time, with effects that linger on for weeks afterwards. Many report being unable to do basic things during or in the after-effects of a shutdown, including things such as speaking/using an AAC method, performing self-care tasks (including things like eating), or even being able to move much at all.
Cynthia from the blog Musings of an Aspie wrote a good post on what shutdowns are like for her, if you’d like to hear a first-hand account of what shutdowns are sometimes like. You can read it by clicking here.
I will re-state again that shutdowns, like meltdowns, are involuntary neurological events that cannot be controlled by the person experiencing one, and as such they are not “behavioral problems.” A shutdown is not laziness. A shutdown is not stubbornness. A shutdown is not being disrespectful. As with meltdowns, trying to reward someone for not having shutdowns or punish someone for having shutdowns is incredibly cruel and utterly pointless.
Also like meltdowns, shutdowns are not something that can be stopped once they’ve started. Therefore, the best way to deal with shutdowns is to prevent them in the first place. Strategies that help autistic people avoid meltdowns can also be used to help autistic people avoid shutdowns. Because shutdowns are caused by overload, knowing and recognizing one’s sensory needs and tolerance-levels are important so that potentially overloading situations can be avoided. Simple accomodations such as ear-plugs/headphones/ear-defenders, sunglasses, and sensory-friendly clothing can help reduce potential overload that might contribute to a shutdown. Signs of an upcoming shutdown, like sudden tiredness, may help a person know to get out of an environment that is causing them overload
Shutdowns are a sign of extreme sensory distress and overload. If someone is having frequent shutdowns, this is a sign that something is not working for them within their sensory routine. This could be a sign that something should be re-evaluated to better fit with that person’s neurology.
How non-autistic people can help someone through a shutdown:
As I wrote in the post about meltdowns, much of what neurotypical people seem to instinctively try to do to make someone feel better will actually have the opposite effect on an autistic person in sensory distress. Here is the same list of things people try to do to make a shutdown better that actually usually makes everything way worse:
- Touching the person experiencing the shutdown.
- Trying to distract the person experiencing the shutdown.
- Berating the person experiencing the shutdown with questions (like asking “are you ok?” over and over again).
- Trying to talk to the person experiencing the shutdown
All of these methods add more sensory input into the system, which does not help someone recover from sensory overload. Now, some autistic people do find very specific kinds of sensory input to be soothing during a shutdown, so I bet there are a few autistic out there who would like a hug (or weighted blanket) during a shutdown. But mostly, doing the above is like noticing that a bucket is overflowing, and then pouring more water in it to try to get it to stop.
If the person experiencing the shutdown can safely be helped to a less overwhelming location, this is generally a good thing to do. It’s also likely generally much easier to move a person experiencing a shutdown than experiencing a meltdown because even though a person having a shutdown may have trouble moving on their own, it is self-contained whereas a meltdown is not.
Demands and expectations should not be put on a person experiencing a shutdown or a person who has recently recovered from a shutdown, as this will only make things worse by adding more on top of a person who is already overloaded. The likely best thing to do is simply to make sure they are in a safe space and then leave them alone to give them space and time to recover naturally.
I hope this post has been helpful in helping you understand the internalized cousin of the meltdown: the shutdown. The goal would be that with this information you can better support yourself or the autistic people in your life that may experience shutdowns.