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What Does an Autistic Shutdown Feel Like?

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Autistic shutdowns happen when life starts to get too much for us. We’ve overwhelmed our processing skills and our brains begin to close down certain systems to preserve energy.

Open too many windows on your computer, and you’ll find that everything starts to run slowly, the mouse might freeze and all that’s left is to give your computer a full shutdown and restart — after which it’ll act like nothing’s happened. Computers do this regardless of how important the work you were doing was, or what crucial point you were at in your game, or whether you did or didn’t hit save first.

I’ve been autistic all my life, and must have had countless shutdowns as a kid. But the one that really mattered happened at age 16 — the age where expectations about my behavior shifted very quickly. What might have been brushed off as childish or impulsive behavior in a younger teen started to get weird for other people. I began to learn that as an adult, many people find who I am completely unacceptable.

I’d started dating a guy I was really taken with, and we were at a party with some of my friends. The boy in question later turned completely physically abusive, but he started out with little tricks. In this instance, it was telling me that one of my friends had told him that I was nothing but an attention-seeking weirdo (they hadn’t actually said any of this), and that he should break up with me. He told me that he was considering it. Why he decided to raise this at a party I have no idea, but we decided to go for a walk and talk about it. It turned into an argument that was way beyond my social capabilities — I can’t function with conflict. And so I just sat down, in the middle of the pavement, started rocking and said nothing.

Shutdowns are my way of conserving my remaining processing skills and rebooting myself. Usually, a shutdown doesn’t last too long. I’m still able to hear, comprehend and see while I’m having a shutdown. But talking is one of the most complex things my brain does, and so just like you may not be able to analyze a marketing report when you get very upset (I can), I can’t talk when I get worked up. As I can’t regulate my emotions very easily, talking plus conflict plus general burnout will result in either a shutdown or a meltdown.

So what was this boy’s reaction when I had this shutdown? Complete fury. “See! You are an attention seeker!” and stormed off, leaving me, a 16-year-old autistic girl, completely alone in the street, unable to speak.

Shutdowns can seem like diva behavior at best and like we’ve completely lost our minds at worst. Some people find them manipulative. Our minds are still physically present, but because we can’t make eye contact or respond, it seems like we’ve gone mentally AWOL. We may be able to do some talking, but it might be nonsense.

I suppose to the untrained eye, shutdowns can seem outright theatrical. The fact that I’m usually mostly fine about 30 minutes later, just a bit shaken up, adds to the suspicion around undiagnosed autistic behavior. From my perspective, I am seriously unwell when this happens, I’m at my most vulnerable and require support. Some terrible things have happened to me whilst I’m having a shutdown and I’ve been unable to protect myself. The trigger of the shutdown doesn’t need to be a huge thing, like a conflict, either. It could be something very simple and inconsequential to people around us. Maybe we missed a bus, or can’t find our phone.

I’ve heard people talk about autistics like we’re super dramatic for getting so destroyed about such little things, but this is unfair. Small things can set anybody off if they’re feeling mentally unwell enough. Say for example you’re grieving a loved one, and you’ve managed to keep it together and it’s your first day back at work. You go to print off a document and the printer breaks, you start to cry. Everybody knows you aren’t really crying about the printer — you’re crying because you’re feeling extremely emotionally fragile due to your loss. This is something humans generally understand, but autistic people often aren’t afforded this compassion when we get upset about the little things, because nobody sees the private battle we face every day when we face those thousand little things. They just see our demands and anger when our routine changes, or our dramatic meltdowns because there is nothing we want to eat in the supermarket.

I can’t recognize faces or read facial expressions. I can never “read between the lines” of a conversation, and although I say what I mean and never have an underlying message, people never seem to take me at face value. Socializing is scary and unpredictable to me, and so when things I can usually predict change suddenly, it feels like the last straw.

I’ve seen neurotypical people get very upset when they’re around a sensory aggravation, such as if they have a noisy neighbor whose footsteps can be heard at all times of the day. It can make them flat-out angry and act out. Most of the time when autistics are dealing with sensory disturbances, we try to keep it to ourselves. But if we’re feeling burnt out, exhausted, upset and then something awful happens to our senses (for me it’s getting crumbs or bits of dirt stuck to the bottom of my feet, or touching something that’s too dry) of course it’s going to make us react! There’s stuff going on in our day-to-day that others don’t see, sometimes because we aren’t the best at explaining or letting other people into our world.

I can tell when I’m approaching a shutdown or meltdown. I call it autistic burnout. I’ve had too much negative sensory experience, too much social stress, and maybe other stuff is happening too. Talking starts to feel like wading through a swamp and all I want to do is get some alone time and reboot, but I can’t — as adult life rarely affords anyone that, autistic or not.

Rebooting for autistic people might involve some things that would actually burn out other people, such as deep research or work. If we aren’t able to retreat and give our minds what they need, and we drag ourselves to a family party or to the supermarket, the consequences of that may be a shutdown or meltdown.

Autistic people need protection when we’re having a shutdown. The public should be able to recognize an autistic shutdown and so should the police and social workers. I have been arrested for having a shutdown — seriously, I got thrown in jail overnight. (They said that I was drunk, and I was, but are autistic people not allowed to drink?)

If you’re with someone who is having a shutdown, don’t try and make them respond with eye contact or words. Just allow them to be shut down and know that it will be over soon. It’s OK to say “Oh, you’re having a shutdown? That’s fine, I’ll wait here with you, just let me know when you’re ready to get started again and we’ll go home.” You don’t need to make them snap out of it. They may be able to use speech apps or write if they can’t verbally communicate, or nod yes or no.

They will be aware of everything around them, so if people are standing by watching and saying humiliating things, try and protect the autistic person from that. I’m sure you can imagine that it’s really hard to hear someone say derogatory things about you and have no way of defending yourself. Maybe ask the person if they are able to move to somewhere where you’ll have more privacy. If you’re embarrassed, it’s likely that your autistic friend is embarrassed too and isn’t intentionally trying to humiliate you or themselves.

Shouting and screaming at the autistic person will only make things worse. An autistic person sitting down silently with someone else sitting next to them doesn’t look too weird, although it might seem out of place. An autistic person screaming and rocking while you berate them will draw attention to you, and people may rightly recognize you as an aggressor towards a vulnerable person and they may intervene.

Autistics don’t have shutdowns to try and ruin your birthday party, or to get attention, or to scare off your client. We can’t help when and where we experience a shutdown. Also know that if you were having an emotionally distressing experience, it’s likely that we would support you, and we really deserve the same support, because we get treated very badly in a lot of circumstances. We desperately need a break. So if you’ve read this whole article and have decided to recognize and support autistic shutdowns if and when they happen — thank you so much!

Getty image by Marina113.

Originally published: August 23, 2021
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