Falling Into Shutdown: An Autistic Journey Beyond Overwhelm

A birds eye view of a woman in a white dress lying flat on her back on the ground

Written by Chantell Marshall aka Shy Little Pixie

“What a curious feeling!” said Alice. “I must be shutting up like a telescope!”

This quote from my beloved special interest, Alice in Wonderland, flashes through my mind when I am falling into shutdown. I see myself shrinking in size, falling down the well of my inner world until I am deeply hidden within my core, curled up in the foetal position in the darkness.

I don’t imagine any of this experience is visible, externally. I am still present in a physical sense, all 157cm of me. It is the essence of who I am as a person that has gone into hiding.

Falling into shutdown is a difficult situation to describe to those who have not experienced it. How do you explain feeling yourself fading away without sounding as Mad as a Hatter? It is a highly unique experience, one which is also very different for each person.

For me, a shutdown occurs when I have pushed myself farther than my capacity level. If I have had to mask intensely, such as during volunteering or in a social setting, a shutdown afterwards is inevitable.

I can guarantee that the moment I start my car to drive home, I will feel myself disappearing. What this means is that I am capable of driving myself home, but it is as though I have switched into automatic pilot – I am present, but only functioning on the minimum level required to literally drive myself home.

Being in shutdown means that my ability to function slows down dramatically, as if the cogs inside my brain are stuck or have run out of oil.

My movements are much slower, my speech becomes quieter, monosyllabic and often disappears altogether. My cognitive ability is delayed, meaning it takes me a lot longer to comprehend what someone has said to me, and to respond. It often feels as though I am caught in a cloud of confusion as I try to find any fragment of clarity amid the fog.

I lose all sense of time and place, and quite often forget to eat or drink; these things just do not occur to me in this state.

All of my senses are more heightened than ever – noise feels excruciating, light burns my eyes, smells and taste are too intense, and touch makes me startle.

The biggest difference between Alice’s quote above, and my own experience is that I am not curious (and perhaps this is my downfall!) – I am detached, numb, exhausted, teary, and very overwhelmed.

I feel like a clockwork white rabbit, hopping slower and slower, until I stop altogether – completely unwound.

For most of my life, these episodes scared me.

I would desperately try to ‘keep pushing’ through the invisible mud I felt running through my bones and within the neural pathways of my brain. It was the old, “Feel the fear and do it anyway” motto, which was so prevalent within society at that stage.

I was scared because I had no context to explain what was happening to me, no language to even attempt to articulate what I was feeling. For someone like me who adores words, this was terrifying.

My only conclusion, as an adolescent, was that I was having a ‘nervous breakdown’, and I pictured myself being hauled off to a locked institution for the rest of my life.

I was ‘broken’, or so I felt during these shutdowns.

As I became an adult and engaged in mental health services, I learnt to describe shutdowns as ‘depression’. I knew this didn’t quite fit the criteria that counsellors had outlined, but it was all I had to cling onto – and so, I clung on tightly to this answer each and every time I felt myself shutting down.

When I finally received my Autism diagnosis at 41 year’s old, I learnt about shutdowns and realised how different they were to depression (which I also have). A shutdown is like pure exhaustion, mentally, physically, emotionally. I am often teary and sad, but this is due to my body and brain being overloaded with social and sensory input. Within a few days, I am able to function better, and therefore, I am no longer sad.

It is important for me to emphasise here that shutdowns are not a pleasant experience.

Falling into a shutdown is like your whole being ‘malfunctioning’ when everyone else around you is still operating as usual.

I often feel myself fading after about two hours, which means that my efforts to be friendly are then replaced with a blank expression, glazed eyes, soft speech and complete withdrawal.

I have had people say to me, “Are you okay? Has something happened? You seem different all of a sudden?”

I have learnt through therapy that resistance is futile – the more you fight back against a shutdown, the deeper you will fall into it, and the longer it will last before you are able to emerge from it. There will always be tasks that are non-negotiable, such as caring for your child. Everything else though, should be postponed. It is more important for you to give yourself permission to rest than it is to attend a meeting or host a family BBQ.

It is also important to listen to your inner voice and to your body. Care for yourself as you would care for a child in shutdown:

  • Cushion yourself with blankets and comfort items;
  • lower the lighting;
  • wear your ear defenders;
  • order meals in, or indulge in your favourite food (strawberries!!);
  • watch your familiar shows;
  • use a diffuser for soothing smells;
  • engage in gentle yoga or stretching;
  • limit communication, and utilise the option of writing/texting instead of speaking;
  • and give yourself the love that you deserve to help your essence build itself up once more.

In reference to my dear Alice, I would like to finish with this quote, as a final thought on the connection between masking and shutdowns:

“But it’s no use now,” thought poor Alice, “to pretend to be two people! Why, there’s hardly enough of me left to make one respectable person.”

This is what falling into shutdown feels like for me – I have tried so hard to meet social expectations that I have erased the essence of myself in the process. And the only way for me to find my essence again is to rest.

Chantell Marshall is an Autistic advocate with Complex PTSD and ADHD. She has previously written for Reframing Autism on her experiences of Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria and Autistic social anxiety.

To read more of Chantell’s writing, find her under the name of Shy Little Pixie on Facebook and Instagram.


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