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What I Want You to Know About How Autistic Shutdowns Affect Me

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Since being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) last year, I’ve tried to learn more about it — and I found there are terms for how I feel and act in certain scenarios.

Three “autism terms” that really struck a chord with me are “shutdown,” “masking,” and “stimming.” All of these have occurred regularly throughout my life, but until recently, I didn’t realize there was a word for them.

In fact, a shutdown affected me this past weekend.

I was at an event with great music and people. Originally I booked for two days, but considering my mental state, I decided to roll it back to one day.

In the end, I was there for under three hours — before any band came on. I was feeling overwhelmed by all the people and the need to socialize. They are an amazing group of people, but I find most social occasions challenging and mentally draining. I live on my own, so suddenly meeting lots of people is exhausting for me.

So I went back to the car for a rest, but then I felt trapped inside my body and couldn’t drag myself back to the event. I just ended up driving home, and once I was home, the intense stress ebbed away.

I have over 30 years’ worth of examples like this. I have shutdowns on nights out with friends, at parties, at concerts, and even on holidays. I had assumed this was part of my depression and anxiety, but it was not an exact explanation of what I felt at the time.

I then recently read about autistic shutdowns. One site says, “If meltdowns are equivalent to the fight response, then shutdowns are similar to the freeze response. They are often the result of situations with high demand.” The site also explains that this high demand can involve social situations, situations that involve a lot of thinking, a lack of sleep, emotional situations, or situations that are active.

The website also compares a shutdown to a computer trying to turn on without enough power. Autistic people may be less able to process what’s going on when they are in a shutdown, so they may have a hard time communicating.

Social occasions are probably the most common cause of my shutdowns, though the other situations do occasionally affect me too. I’ve found that the more I read about shutdowns, the more the descriptions perfectly explain my experiences.

Sometimes when I shut down, I need to move to a safe place. At the concert, though, I felt like my response was more intense, and I thought I needed to return home as soon as possible. Home is the only place where I feel comfortable and can finally relax.

I couldn’t find much online about the sudden need to be at home, so I wondered if I was alone in this response. I asked a question on The Mighty and found out that a lot of people experience the same responses.

Perhaps now that I have a name for my response, I can start looking at how I can help manage it. One of my favorite singers, Millie Manders, has a song called “Silent Screams” — which is a good analogy to how I feel in a shutdown.

She sings, “In a glass box staring out/My words fall silent all around and you can’t hear me scream for help/My mouth unmoving drowns me out.”

Getty image by Marcos Calvo.

Originally published: March 29, 2023
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