Autism 101- Shutdowns

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Leading on from the previous post, I’d like to talk to you about shutdowns and autism.

So what exactly is a shutdown?

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A shutdown is basically an episode where the brain briefly stops processing and making sense of information in response to stress or sensory overload.

The lights are on, but nobody’s home.

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These episodes are much more discrete than meltdowns, and can often go unnoticed by the outside world.Β Sometimes meltdowns can turn into shutdowns and vice versa.

So what does a shutdown feel like?

Like meltdowns, shutdowns can manifest differently among autists. Some people go completely limp and unresponsive, some withdraw completely from those around them, some even become really sleepy and nod off.

For me personally, a shutdown is like entering a state of shock. You might struggle to move (as discussed in my diagnosis story), formulate sentences, or even think. It can be a completely overwhelming experience. When I first started to become aware of them as a teenager, I had no idea what was going on; I just knew that I felt, for lack of a better word, “wrong”.

Like meltdowns, in my experience, shutdowns can be either mild or severe:

Mild shutdowns tend to happen in social situations, especially in confrontation. Someone throws me off or says something that I hadn’t anticipated…aaaannnd my mind freezes up. I go limp and say nothing, whilst the other person talks on oblivious. To an outsider it looks like I’m just listening or defeated by an argument; in reality, my brain can’t formulate the words to respond.

The minute the conversation ends my brain reboots and suddenly all that I could or should have said comes rushing back- great timing! πŸ˜›

Severe shutdowns, like meltdowns, are brought on by serious stress, or a shock. Think of your brain like a computer that’s been attacked by a virus. The system get’s overwhelmed by the attack and needs to shuts down to recover. When this happens, it feels as though I’ve been locked out of my own brain.

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However, unlike a meltdown situation, I’m locked out yes, but the brain hasn’t been hijacked. I’m not in a state of total control, but I’m not out of control either- a little bit purgatorial in nature.

It’s a very odd sensation.

I find myself in an overwhelming situation and fail to react. I know that I don’t feel right about the situation, so I try to break down what happened and process. However, when I go to think about the event, it’s as if a firewall has gone up and all of the files in my brain have been encrypted. You keep trying to access your files so you can run a scan to diagnose the problem, but your brain keeps locking you out.

It feels sooo weird, like my mind is flashing this giant ‘NOPE’ sign at me every time I try to think! πŸ˜›

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^^^accurate representation of my “access denied” face πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

During a particularly bad shutdown, I once spent about 5 minutes of going “um…ah… what it is… er…you see…uh” down the phone to my mother before I could coherently form a sentence to tell her what had happened. My mind simply refused to let me go there!

But why do shutdowns happen?

There’s not a lot of information out there as to the biological cause of shutdowns, but experts seem to think that it is the result of an abnormal stress response like the meltdown, possibly linked to the high and persistent levels of stress hormones in autism. Some have theorized that the shutdown is almost a preventative form of meltdown wherein the autist shuts down to prevent further sensory input and injury- like playing dead to avoid a fight.

Shutdowns can be difficult, but you just have to give them time to pass πŸ™‚

Top Tip: Like a meltdown, you can sometimes speed up a shut down through music. Animals are also particularly good to release the hold of a shut down. My dogs always seem to sense when something’s wrong with me- a concerned look from them will often get the waterworks flowing πŸ™‚

Remember- your brain needs time to recover after a stressful incident- there’s a reason you need to leave your computer a few minutes rest after a reboot πŸ™‚ πŸ˜‰

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Enjoy the bank holiday weekend! πŸ™‚

Aoife

10 thoughts on “Autism 101- Shutdowns

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  1. Well written definition of a shutdown. I really struggled to explain this to my healthcare professionals and GP when I experienced them. I’ve had some minor shut downs over the years and some major ones. The way I’ve always described them to myself is feeling like the plug has been pulled from the computer where you feel completely incapable and unable to think, move act or do anything. I was running on a shut down for a few days once and I couldn’t string a sentence together, calculate simple maths in my mind. It’s scary when you first go through them. You’re right though the only thing you can do is to let them pass. It’s your mind and body’s way of telling you that’s it you need to stop. I find taking extra care of yourself after a shut down helps the recovery. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much Aoife for this very clear explanation. It all clarifies as well as comfirms my understanding of my teen age daughter ‘s “wall” as I call it. As no information goes in or out when this happens to her. I’ve always believed she shuts down in order to process and make sense of all the conflicting information she has cumulated. Just like a computer jams if you click impatiently on the mousse. We usually leave her be when she hits the “wall”and let her come out on her own. I will consider soft music next time. Thank you for giving parents, siblings,friends and carers a larger understanding of their loved ones on the autism spectrum. Xoxo

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Just a quick recommendation on the music- try John Williams ‘A window to the past’ from harry potter and the prisoner of Azkaban (the emotion in that piece is amazing), or try to find music that verbalizes what she might be feeling (I have a mental stock of go to songs for different situations) πŸ™‚ I find that sometimes hearing a lyric that sums up what I’m struggling with can be just the thing to move past the shutdown πŸ™‚

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