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“Please understand me – my walls came falling down” – autistic shutdown – what does it mean for someone on the autism spectrum?

by | Nov 17, 2017 | News & Views | 4 comments

“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 with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), 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 Spectra.blog.

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 adult or child on the autistic spectrum 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.

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

It’s a cliché perhaps, but many people with classic autism and high functioning autism 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.”

 

4 Comments

  1. imelda mc conville

    Oh my goodness!! I have now found some answers about my 24 yr old daughter. She was diagnosed with a Specific language disorder when she was a child but I’ve always suspected she had some degree of autism. She was let down with her diagnosis. I never gave up on her & made her work hard & she is now a classroom assistant. She still struggles with her own feelings & also with how to deal with problems…she totally SHUTS DOWN and wont speak.

    Reply
    • admin

      Thank you, ‘I’! If it helps, shutdown somehow closes down the communication pathways – so it is maybe a case of ‘can’t speak’. Or ‘can’t process and get across what I am feeling’. Sometimes it helps to write things down (as the autist), especially if the problems are too overwhelming. Hoping she can work out her issues – it’s certainly a long journey of understanding! Glad you found the article thought provoking. She’s lucky to have such an involved and concerned parent!

      Reply
  2. Fiona Halloran

    Hi there, I have a 28 year old son who was diagnosed with dyslexia and adhd when he was 12/13 as he was struggling so much at school with inability to focus and function. At the the time the Educational Psychologist said he was ‘on the autistic spectrum’ He was subsequently given some extra help, which did make a difference as he focused on his strength which was sport. I feel my son was hugely let down by the education system but despite this he has continually tried to better his education and qualifications in sport and coaching, but sadly taking countless ‘knockbacks’ along the way, from work colloeagues, managers and sometimes friends! usually stemmed from his social awkwardness and being ‘different’ He tries so hard to fit in with what he sees as the ‘norm’ in society in an attempt to achieve his goals and currently he is trying to complete a course at Uni in Wales.
    He has come home this Christmas (I don’t even know how he managed to get himself home) in such a bad way. We have all been so worried for him. I have just read your blog and I think he is in ‘shutdown’. I had never heard if this before, but he seems unable to function, not even basic daily tasks, finding washing and dressing very hard, taking hours to do. His thought processes are being interrupted and he cannot think what to do next from moment to moment (like he has regressed to being a small child) He goes into frequent trances, sometimes not hearing, when he does answer, his voice is monotone. Sometimes he just stands or sits in one position, not able to move for hours and struggles to even eat a meal. He is also experiencing some physical symptoms, like shaking, sweating and pins and needles in his hands and feet which are always cold. He asked for help, so we took him to be checked out and Dr’s say physically there us nothing wrong. We are not sure now how best to help him without making the situation worse. I feel he has been under extreme pressure at Uni for months and just needs to completely rest and recharge at home being supported, until he recovers? Is there anything else we can do to help him? Your input would be greatly appreciated. Many thanks for reading this.

    Reply
    • admin

      Thanks Fiona. Fifteen years ago not all clinicians and educators were as ‘well-versed’ as they are today – and although the Ed-Psych suggested ASD, was your son actually given a formal diagnosis, e.g. in writing? It would be useful to have, as this could unlock more assistance with his Uni course, in terms of learning styles etc.
      Here at Spectra.blog we’re not medical experts (or experts of any kind, ha ha!) of course, however it does sound as if he may be experiencing signs of autistic shutdown.
      Have a look at these sites –
      https://everydayaspie.wordpress.com/2017/02/05/574/
      https://autismawarenesscentre.com/shutdowns-stress-autism/
      This site has great tips for helping the individual – https://www.autismwestmidlands.org.uk/asset/2017/11/Meltdown_shutdown.pdf
      In our own experience, returning to Uni in his state may not be the best option, as you’ve indicated – “I feel he has been under extreme pressure at Uni for months and just needs to completely rest and recharge at home being supported, until he recovers?” This sounds like the perfect way forward!
      Is there a mentor or tutor at Uni who could assist? Maybe suggest ways of working out solutions?
      Hopefully after some rest and recuperation, and a reduction of stresses / stressors, he may be able to gather his thoughts and read some info on shutdown himself?
      Once he realises it is a temporary reaction to the environment – and that he’s not ill or broken – hopefully he can recalibrate.
      Sending many good wishes Fiona.
      SB team

      Reply

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