Select Page
“Please understand me – my walls came falling down” – autistic shutdown – what does it mean?

“Please understand me – my walls came falling down” – autistic shutdown – what does it mean?

“Please understand me – my walls came falling down” – autistic shutdown – what does it mean?

“Please understand me – my walls came falling down”

So, a common question asked of someone who is autistic is: what is the difference between meltdown, shutdown and even burnout? This particular blog article will focus on autistic shutdown.

Firstly, it’s really important to explain that because every autistic person is an individual, they will experience meltdown, shutdown and autistic burnout in different ways.

Too many apps or browsers or programs open

Shutdown, for someone who’s autistic, can be described as feeling like a fairly old computer that’s not equipped with all the modern update software – it simply has too many apps or browsers or programs open. Autistic shutdown is when you need to start closing down your programs to conserve energy, and generally only the most important program (which if you are a mammal, will be the ‘parent program’), is left on. Everything else closes down to a degree, just to conserve your own battery life – as if you keep going at your current level, you will certainly head for an autistic burnout, which we will talk more about elsewhere on

Being in autistic shutdown is self preservation mode – it is a mode that happens with your consent to a degree, as it is something that needs to happen to re-calibrate your body.

Signs of shutdown (for the author of this piece anyway) would include one’s voice getting increasingly monotone; finding it harder to make eye contact with people; throat feeling tight when speaking; general lethargy; becoming panicky, anxious or grumpy; and finding it harder to smile and express emotion.

The glass box

But the overriding feeling of shutdown for an autistic adult or child is one of existing in a glass box – you are one step away from everyone, looking out of your box; if someone asks you how you are feeling, the truthful answer is probably: “I am not.” Because your feelings are one of the programs that have been temporarily turned off, while your body re-sets.

Autistic shutdown can be spotted if you (as the autistic person) know your individual signs and triggers; or if you recognise them in your loved one. Shutdown can last any length of time; it really depends on how you are feeling and what level of self-care you are able to administer, and what challenges are in your life. Coming out of it might simply involve a good chat with a loved one, or removal of some external stress, some good rest, or simply some time-out; e.g. time away from external stimuli, people and interaction. Maybe some ‘duvet days’ in bed. Don’t underestimate the importance of recovery – if a person had a migraine, they’d probably retreat to bed to recover – and this is not dissimilar.

“Shutdowns are a person’s response to reaching crisis point”

The UK’s Autism West Midlands organisation describes autistic shutdown as follows: “During shutdown, a person may either partially or completely withdraw from the world around them. They may not respond to communication anymore, retreat to their room or lie down on the floor. They may also no longer be able to move from the situation they are in, no matter what it is (for example, a shopping centre or a classroom). Shutdowns are a person’s response to reaching crisis point.” Read more HERE.

NB this post was written before the author learned about polyvagal theories. If you can get your head around this wonderful theory of the autonomic nervous system, it helps explain the neurobiology of shutdown simply. There’s lots of information available (look out for Dr Porges’ and Deb Dana’s work). I mention it in this blog, that discusses social engagement and polyvagal theory).

Autistic social engagement challenges can improve – and NOT by masking

A little disclaimer – here at we don’t claim to be experts about Autism; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences.

It’s a cliché perhaps, but many autists love music, for many reasons. What better way to deal with life than to escape within a beautiful song? In the words of Palmer and Kraus’ beautiful ‘Please Read The Letter’: “Please understand me – my walls came falling down. There’s nothing here that’s left for you. But check with lost and found.”


What does happiness mean for autistic individuals, and how do we find contentment?

What does happiness mean for autistic individuals, and how do we find contentment?

What does happiness mean for autistic individuals, and how do we find contentment?

“Clap along if you know what happiness is to you”

I wanted to explore what happiness means for an autistic person. Many clinical psychologists ask that question – what makes you happy? – during their autism assessment.

If you’re seeking some definitions of the word happy, you’ll find descriptions like joyful, cheerful, blissful, exultant and jovial. Which all sound a bit… over the top. Autism, as a spectrum, is of course different for everyone who has the neuro-type. But, of the autistic people that I know, I wouldn’t necessarily describe many of them as exultant and jovial. For many autistic people, their demeanour can appear to be more quietly observant; sometimes serious. It doesn’t mean they wouldn’t describe themselves as happy, of course! Just that the way they communicate can be softer, and more introverted than some ‘neurotypical’ peers who wear their hearts on their sleeves.

Certainly, there can be an autistic ‘mask’, one that we may even be using to subconsciously deceive ourselves as an autistic person, that seems joyful in a slightly manic way. As if we’re somehow trying to prove to ourselves and the people we’re with that we are, indeed, happy!

For anyone whose autism means they have sensory processing issues, on some occasions this can lead them to appearing overtly happy or joyful, especially in young people. Specifically I am referring to issues of hyposensitivity, or sensory seeking, whereby people (notably autistic children) ‘seek’ more sensory stimulation, e.g. jumping, crashing, spinning and bumping into things and people, often accompanied with ‘manic’ behaviours, noises and seemingly-happy laughter. (The UK’s National Autistic Society has more info HERE.)

In adults, this author believes that some autistic people (remembering that self-medication is carried out by people of all neurologies, obviously!) who use alcohol as a way to alleviate their social communication problems can appear ‘the life and soul of the party’; they may seem outgoing, animated even, and seemingly happy. But is this alcohol-enduced state – perhaps similar to the child who uses spinning to change his mental and emotional state – actual happiness?

Satisfaction and ease

After some consideration this author thinks that ‘contentment’ is a good gauge of happiness – for many people, but especially for someone who’s autistic. Defined as ‘satisfaction’ or ‘ease’, this more accurately describes the feeling of ‘balance’ that a person who is autistic feels, when content. Repetitive thinking patterns slowed down? Anxiety reduced? Sense of serenity or calm washing over you (or the autistic person who care for)? Not feeling the need to ‘mask’ and hide your feelings? Smiling seems natural and easy? This is surely contentment.

Although this theory applies to anyone that’s autistic, for autistic people with low support needs, who may be trying to juggle family life, the daily grind and perhaps the workplace (maybe without an official autism diagnosis), contentment is key. If I could offer any advice to someone who cares for an autistic person, especially a child or young person, along the lines of finding happiness, it would be to let them access contentment. This could be by allowing them to engage in (or talk about) their special interest, but equally it could be just sitting at home quietly listening to their favourite music, with minimal conversation. It could be sitting on a picnic blanket in a beautiful outdoor space, without socialisation. Too often, we autists have happiness ‘put upon us’, especially at celebratory times. In any case, if you are seeking happiness as an autistic person, or hoping that the autistic child you care for can become happier, try to work out what it means for you and your family, and think laterally – it may not be the bells and whistles and all-singing-all-dancing happiness depicted in the movies. A quiet, contended mind can be the happiest feeling of all.

A little disclaimer – here at we don’t claim to be experts about Autism; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences.

(Farrell Williams’ jaunty ditty ‘Happy’ may be full of mainly nonsense lyrics, but here’s some sensible advice: “Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth; if you know what happiness is to you.”)