“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 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 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).
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog 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.”
Also published on Medium.