All About Autistic Shutdowns: A Guide for Allies

Reframing Autism - All About Autistic Shutdowns A Guide for Allies

Autistic individuals frequently experience stress and overwhelm as part of their daily lives.

Simply navigating a culture and environment that do not align with their needs can be a source of constant stress, often resulting in sensory and emotional overload. This stress can originate from various factors, such as anxiety-inducing social scenarios, unwelcoming work environments, or excessively stimulating surroundings.

Moreover, it can manifest in manners that may appear perplexing to those who are neurotypical.

One of such results of chronic stress, overwhelm or sensory overload is an Autistic shutdown.

What is an Autistic shutdown?

An Autistic shutdown refers to the condition in which an Autistic individual retreats from their surroundings. This shutdown is often a coping mechanism triggered by an overload of sensory or emotional stimuli, or simply due to exhaustion from excessive processing of stimulation.

A shutdown signifies a discrepancy between the individual’s requirements and the environment they are functioning in.

When an Autistic person is attuned to their own needs, they may consciously initiate a shutdown as a means of self-protection. Alternatively, it can occur involuntarily as a response to feeling overwhelmed.

Essentially, the shutdown shields the Autistic individual’s nervous system from stimuli that are perceived as excessively intense or overpowering. During these episodes, the person may become unresponsive, withdrawn, or exhibit signs of extreme fatigue.

Being able to identify the typical causes of a shutdown is crucial in effectively managing and potentially avoiding them altogether.

These triggers may differ from individual to individual, but commonly involve elements like sensory overload, overwhelming social situations, stress, anxiety, sudden disruptions to routine, a succession of minor distressing incidents, and other factors.

Meltdowns vs. shutdowns

Autistic individuals may display signs of distress when they are overwhelmed by chronic stress. This can manifest in both internal and external ways. One common external expression is an Autistic meltdown, which can be quite dramatic and easily noticeable.

For those who are not familiar with Autism, these meltdowns may appear to come out of nowhere.

Unfortunately, meltdowns are often misunderstood as tantrums by those who are not familiar with the challenges of Autism. It is important to recognise that a meltdown is not a result of bad behavior, but rather a response to sensory overload, emotional overwhelm, or intense stress.

An Autistic shutdown, on the other hand, is different.

Autistic shutdown, the lesser-known counterpart of the Autistic meltdown, is often overlooked by many individuals due to its internal nature. Shutdowns are a more ‘muted’ reaction to intense overload, overwhelm or stress. This internal expression of distress is frequently unnoticed by those around the neurodivergent person. Despite its invisibility, an Autistic shutdown is equally distressing for the individual experiencing it and can significantly impair their overall quality of life.

Further reading:
Learn more about meltdowns – All about Autistic Meltdowns: A Guide for Allies

Autistic burnout vs. shutdowns

Burnout, although related to shutdowns and meltdowns, is distinct in nature. While shutdowns and meltdowns are immediate reactions to stimuli, burnout is characterised as a continuous state.

In a 2020 study conducted by the Academic Autism Spectrum Partnership in Research and Education (AASPIRE), Autistic adults were examined to understand how they describe burnout. The study identified chronic exhaustion, loss of skills, and reduced tolerance to stimulus as the primary features of burnout.

One participant shared their experience, stating that existing in the world as an Autistic individual is incredibly draining.

Burnouts can arise from significant life changes such as relocation, the loss of a family member, or starting a new school.

However, burnout, along with temporary shutdowns and meltdowns, can often be the culmination of daily stressors, particularly masking.

Masking refers to the act of concealing one’s Autism. In the AASPIRE study, a majority of participants identified masking as a significant factor contributing to burnout. One participant described it as the accumulation of “psychic plaque” in the mental and emotional well-being, similar to the buildup of physical plaque leading to heart attacks or strokes.

Furthermore, the participants emphasised that a lack of support can trigger or exacerbate burnouts. Some individuals required formal support such as disability services or therapy, while others simply sought more understanding from their loved ones.

During burnout, individuals may struggle to perform certain skills as effectively as they once did and become more susceptible to sensory overload, resembling a shutdown. However, burnouts persist for much longer durations, spanning weeks, months, or even years.

Additionally, shutdowns and meltdowns are more likely to occur during burnout due to the individual’s diminished ability to manage anxiety.

Further reading:
Learn more about burnout – Navigating Autistic Burnout: Self-care Strategies to Recover and Recalibrate

What does an Autistic shutdown look like?

Identifying an Autistic shutdown in real-time can pose a challenge due to the subtle and individualised nature of the signs. However, once you familiarise yourself with the typical physical, emotional, and behavioural indicators, you will be better equipped to recognise and address these episodes, whether you are the one experiencing the shutdown or a supportive person in their vicinity.

It is crucial to have a grasp of the indicators of an Autistic shutdown in order to intervene early, whether it entails relocating to a more tranquil environment or employing alternative coping mechanisms.

It’s not always easy to tell when a shutdown is about to happen, but if an Autistic person is feeling overloaded, it’s helpful to understand the root cause.

1. Physical signs of an Autistic shutdown

Physical manifestations of withdrawal can be observed in Autistic individuals during a shutdown. These manifestations may present as fatigue or an excessive display of tiredness, reduced motor coordination, or a deceleration in movements. Some individuals may become unresponsive and completely cease verbal communication, while others may restrict their speech to brief one or two-word responses. The inability to provide coherent answers to questions is a clear indication that a shutdown is underway.

2. Emotional signs of an Autistic shutdown

Individuals going through a shutdown may appear detached or distant on an emotional level. They might struggle to articulate their emotions or exhibit an unusually passive demeanor. This behavior can occasionally be misinterpreted as apathy, but it is crucial to recognise that this emotional withdrawal is a coping mechanism in response to feeling overwhelmed, rather than a genuine absence of emotion or care.

3. Behavioural signs of an Autistic shutdown

In terms of behavior, individuals may exhibit a withdrawal from activities they typically find enjoyable, display a diminished responsiveness towards social interactions, or demonstrate a decreased interest in their environment. They might seek out a calm and less stimulating setting or engage in self-soothing actions, such as stimming.

That being said, it is crucial to bear in mind that these indicators do not serve as conclusive evidence of an Autistic shutdown, and they can also differ among individuals. Instead, they imply that something is happening and should be taken into account in relation to the person’s typical behavior and recent encounters.

Warning signs of an Autistic shutdown

The shutdown process is almost entirely automatic, with many Autistic people unaware of it happening in the moment. However, there can be warning signs that the Autistic person may experience.

Signs of an incoming Autistic shutdown may include:

  • A feeling of confusion
  • Dissociation
  • Sudden fatigue
  • A sudden tension headache
  • Increased anger or irritability
  • Feeling cut off from or numb to emotions

Understanding and watching for these signs can help warn that someone may be about to experience a shutdown. If you can, try to help them circumvent the shutdown by removing them from a stressful situation that may be triggering the tension, taking a walk with them, fetching them a drink of water or a snack, encouraging them to take a nap, or indulging in an enjoyable hobby with them.

However, sometimes even with warning signs, a shutdown is inevitable. It’s important to remember that shutting down is not a conscious choice by the Autistic person, but an involuntary and self-protective response to overwhelm.

Autistic shutdown triggers

Some specific triggers for a meltdown in an Autistic person – child or adult – may be:

  • Sensory triggers
  • Stress
  • Unmet needs that the person is unable to communicate
  • A disruptive work, school or home environment
  • Inconsistency or change in routine
  • Lack of sleep
  • Life changes such as marriage, births, moving house, changing jobs etc.
  • Co-occurring mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression
  • Hormone changes
  • Chronic pain, illness or other disability
  • Reactions to new medications
  • Lack of control over an element of life

Sensory stimuli (meaning any kind of sound, touch, taste, sight or smell) is one of the most common shutdown triggers. Some more specific examples of sensory triggers that could cause or contribute to an Autistic shutdown are:

  • Auditory input (sounds) such as machines, animals, voices, or music

  • Tactile input (touch) such as the different textures of clothing, or being touched by people, or touching/stepping in an unwanted texture

  • Visual input such as patterns, busy places, or lights that are too bright

  • Olfactory input (smell) such as the smell of food, perfume, people, or animals

  • Gustatory input (taste) such as the flavor of foods, drinks, and medicines

  • Input from movement, such as travel or exercise, that is too much or too fast

Cognitive stimuli is another common Autistic shutdown contributor. When the brain becomes overwhelmed with too much information at once to process, anxiety during an activity (or in anticipation of an activity), or being subject to too many forms of information at once (e.g. multiple people talking, or talking while showing diagrams and images), sensory distress leads to dysregulation, which then gives way to a meltdown.

Research suggests that this may be because Autistic brains, unlike neurotypical brains, do not acclimatise or “get used to” some stimuli, so the feeling of threat/anxiety/distress remains at a high, rather than a downward gradient as we might see in a neurotypical brain.

It’s important to note that Autistic shutdown triggers are often the same as Autistic meltdown triggers. The response – and whether it leans towards a meltdown or a shutdown – will depend on the individual.

Many Autistic people report a that “snowstorm” of meltdowns occurring often predicts an incoming shutdown for them.

For instance, an Autistic person may be experiencing repeated meltdowns every day due to an ongoing work or personal stressor. After several concurrent days of meltdowns, the already severe level of overwhelm reaches a critical tipping point, and the Autistic person then experiences a shutdown.

However, this isn’t always the case. Some Autistic people have never experienced a meltdown but have experienced a shutdown, and vice versa.

As with all individuals, the way an Autistic person responds to overwhelm is dependent on a wide variety of factors, including but not limited to their overall mental health, personality traits, upbringing, attachment style and any pre-existing trauma that they may have experienced.

The impacts of Autistic shutdowns

Autistic shutdowns can significantly influence different aspects of daily life for the person experiencing them, and generally are an exhausting experience. Ongoing stress can lead to not just shutdowns, but full-on burnout and possible depression. Presented below are several domains that may be impacted.

1. Emotional health

Regularly experiencing shutdowns can have a significant impact on one’s emotional well-being, resulting in heightened levels of stress, anxiety, and a sense of isolation. These persistent challenges can gradually give rise to (or exacerbate) depression and various other mental health difficulties.

2. Physical health

Some individuals may encounter physical symptoms either during or following a shutdown, including migraines, gastrointestinal issues, or overall exhaustion, all of which can further hinder their ability to carry out daily activities. In rare instances, certain individuals may even encounter significant difficulties in their mobility or in vacating their premises during a shutdown, thereby hindering their capacity to participate in almost all aspects of their daily routines.

3. Communication

Shutdowns can greatly impede communication capabilities, be it verbal expression, decision-making, or even sending a simple text. In certain cases, the ability to think coherently and logically can be severely compromised, rendering communication difficult or even impossible.

4. Sensory processing

During a shutdown, individuals may experience an increased sensitivity to sensory stimuli, causing previously manageable environments to become overwhelming. This heightened sensitivity can significantly impact their ability to function effectively in a range of settings, including grocery stores and public transportation.

5. Household management

During a shutdown, routine responsibilities such as preparing meals, maintaining cleanliness, and handling financial matters can transform into overwhelming obstacles. Additionally, the ability to effectively parent may be affected, as the emotional and cognitive capacities required to nurture a child may be temporarily out of reach.

6. Social interactions

Shutdowns have the potential to disrupt social engagements and pose challenges in maintaining interpersonal connections. In the event of a shutdown happening amidst a social gathering, for instance, the person might feel compelled to retreat, resulting in potential misunderstandings or strained dynamics.

7. Work and/or school performance

In professional or academic environments, shutdowns can pose difficulties in maintaining focus, actively participating in tasks, or even being physically available. Consequently, this can result in reduced efficiency and notable miscommunications with peers or instructors, potentially impacting one’s professional growth or academic achievements.

8. Self-care

During a period of shutdown, even fundamental self-care activities such as nourishment, hygiene, and personal grooming can become burdensome and difficult to manage.

Autistic shutdowns and neurodivergent mental health

Autistic shutdowns serve as a means to escape from the constant overthinking that can impact Autistic individuals. Whilst involuntary and often scary, these shutdowns offer a much-needed respite and reset for their brains, which is crucial for maintaining their overall mental well-being.

The minds of Autistic individuals are often in a state of hyperactivity, constantly engaged in tasks such as categorising information, searching for patterns, practicing social interactions, and concealing their true selves.

As one can imagine, this constant mental exertion can be incredibly draining. When external pressures and expectations are added to the mix, it becomes a perfect storm for a meltdown. In essence, shutdowns act as a valuable coping mechanism experienced by many Autistic individuals to prevent overwhelming meltdowns and safeguard their mental health.

Further reading:
Finding the right mental health support is crucial – Guidelines for Selecting a Neurodiversity-affirming Mental Healthcare Provider

How to support someone during an Autistic shutdown

If you have a connection with an Autistic person as a friend, family member, or caregiver, it can be incredibly beneficial to understand how to respond when they experience an Autistic shutdown. It is crucial to keep in mind that each Autistic individual is distinct, meaning that what may be effective for one person may not be for another. Nevertheless, here are a few overall approaches you can employ if someone you are acquainted with is going through a shutdown.

In the event of a shutdown, it is crucial to prioritise the safety and well-being of the individual. This entails gently guiding them to a serene and less stimulating environment, using a composed and reassuring tone while communicating, and respecting their personal space by refraining from any physical contact without their consent, as touch can sometimes exacerbate the situation.

Additionally, don’t pressure them to talk or communicate: It is important to refrain from pressuring individuals who are going through a shutdown to communicate or participate, as they may not have the capacity to do so. It is crucial to recognise that their lack of responsiveness or distance is not intentional, but rather a result of their brain attempting to manage an overpowering situation.

When it comes to long-term strategies, try to reduce the exposure to chronic stressors.

If you are aware of the factors that cause stress, you can strategise to minimise exposure to them. In situations where it is impossible to avoid these stressors, make an effort to limit the duration of the Autistic person’s presence and help them prepare in advance by carrying items such as ear plugs or sunglasses to mitigate sensory sensitivities. These tools can help reduce the intensity of sensory inputs and promote a more comfortable experience.

If there are frequent shutdowns occurring in a particular setting, it could indicate that the setting is not suitable for the individual, and a modification might be required.

Just like a saltwater fish cannot be expected to flourish in a freshwater aquarium, the needs of a saltwater fish differ from those of a freshwater fish. This does not imply any fault with the saltwater fish; it simply requires a slightly different environment to thrive.

Additionally, helping the Autistic person to practice stress management techniques can effectively reduce the occurrence and intensity of shutdowns. By doing so, you can proactively help them to employ strategies such as deep breathing to alleviate stress before it reaches a critical level.

It is advisable to practice these techniques in secure environments, allowing them to become ingrained habits that can be readily utilised during times of stress. Trying deep breathing for the first time during the midst of a shutdown may not be effective or helpful… but if the Autistic individual has had the benefit of practicing deep breathing beforehand in a safe environment, while fully regulated – and they feel confident that they know how to do it – then they are much more likely to be able to self-soothe by deep breathing during a shutdown.

Creating a shutdown plan

You may also like to create a “Shutdown Plan” with and for the Autistic individual. Having a well-thought-out “shutdown plan” can be extremely beneficial in managing unavoidable situations that often lead to shutdowns.

This plan could involve recognising early indicators of a shutdown, setting up a secure and comfortable environment for such instances, and devising alternative communication methods for situations where verbal communication becomes challenging.

You might like to create a step-by-step list of things to do in the situation that is triggering regular shutdowns – this means that the list can be pulled out and referenced at a moment’s notice, and can serve as a helpful grounding touchpoint during the panic and overwhelm of a shutdown.

Developing a personalised shutdown plan, specifically designed to identify the signs promptly and effectively handle the situation, can also be an empowering measure for Autistic people. This not only provides relief but also instills a sense of mastery over a potentially overwhelming aspect of their lives.

Having a well-thought-out strategy in case of unexpected challenges can greatly enhance your self-assurance when facing known stressful circumstances. It is crucial to always have a contingency plan in place for navigating stressful situations and effectively communicate it to those accompanying you. By doing so, not only will they be aware of the plan’s execution, but they can also provide assistance if needed.

Further reading:
How to support an Autistic person as professional – A Professional’s Guide to Supporting Autistic Clients and Patients

Recovery time

In the event of a shutdown, it is common for Autistic individuals to eventually recover (just as they would for a meltdown). However, the duration of the recovery process can vary depending on the cause of the shutdown, the level of overwhelm experienced, and the proximity to the triggering factor.

To ensure the well-being of the Autistic person, it is advisable to give them some space during a shutdown.

Allowing them to be alone for a period of time enables them to gradually reduce stress and facilitates a more natural recovery, minimising the risk of another shutdown. If they experience multiple shutdowns, it is important to identify strategies that aid in their recovery. This could involve engaging in activities they enjoy, utilising stimming techniques, or providing them with a calm and reassuring word or touch. The latter can be particularly beneficial, as it offers easily tangible support to them during times of heightened stress or anxiety.

The importance of empathy and understanding

Autistic shutdowns can be silent emergencies, concealed yet profoundly impactful. They manifest subtly, compelling the individual to retreat into a safeguarding cocoon that shields them from overwhelming stimuli. Identifying these shutdowns is imperative for anyone seeking to provide assistance to Autistic individuals, be it a family member, friend, caregiver, supervisor, colleague, or even the person undergoing these states.

Exhibiting patience, comprehension, and compassion is arguably the utmost crucial aspect of providing assistance to someone going through an Autistic shutdown. It is essential to bear in mind that an Autistic person experiencing a shutdown is doing so as a response to overwhelming circumstances. In response, it is vital to demonstrate kindness and reassurance, while simultaneously offering support without exacerbating their already heightened levels of stress.

Never shame them, blame them, or chastise them. Shutting down is not a conscious choice, or a flick of a switch, or an attempt to manipulate a situation with behaviour. It is largely out of the Autistic person’s control, and while they may sense it coming and sometimes may be able to self-soothe or co-regulate enough to stave off a shutdown, it is still not a conscious choice.

No Autistic person would ever consciously choose to shut down. It can be scary, overwhelming, panic-inducing and embarrassing. An Autistic person experiencing a shutdown is an Autistic person who has been pushed past their limit, and they need compassion, support and importantly, non-judgement.

It’s also important to know that shutdowns can be helpful to Autistic people. While they can take a few minutes or hours to recover from, they can also help to block out stresses and strains. Do what you can to help and they’ll feel better for it.

Empathy and well-informed support can truly have a profound impact on someone grappling with an Autistic shutdown.

It is crucial to bear in mind that the objective of comprehending and handling Autistic shutdowns is not to “repair” the person, but rather to create a world that is more inclusive and considerate of their requirements. This can only be achieved through raising awareness, providing education, and fostering empathy towards the diverse ways in which individuals perceive the world. 

Autistic individuals, like all individuals, possess a variety of experiences and reactions to the world surrounding them. By comprehending these diverse experiences, we can enhance our ability to provide support to Autistic people in a way that acknowledges their unique neurological makeup and enhances their overall well-being.



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The Reframing Autism team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we have the privilege to learn, work, and grow. Whilst we gather on many different parts of this Country, the RA team walk on the land of the Birpai, Awabakal, Wattamattagal, Whadjak, Amangu, Bunurong and Kaurna Yarta peoples.

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