Earlier this year I was part of a team to set up a celebration event for a charity that invited hundreds of guests. The venue featured family friendly activities at the outside area with space indoors to get drinks and breaks. Most of the morning was spent on us putting down signs to direct people and indicate where each activity was. It was a hot day & with heat being one of my main sensory sensitives I felt this quite intensely. The morning and early afternoon preparation in itself lasted several hours with guests arriving around 2pm. I had offered to help around the reception area where guests would sign in and get a token for ice cream or a drink. After completing all the initial prep work, guests were flooding into the event with the reception and outside area becoming so busy and active. It did not take long before I started to feel disconnected from my own body. Things were moving and happening around me. Words were said by many people and I did not take any of it in. The majority of that afternoon became a blur to me.
This is the experience of an Autistic shutdown, which presents like the freeze response that all humans have. There are other crisis responses such as elopement (also known as flight) where we leave a situation that is threatening or intense. Sometimes we might go into a fight response, known for us as a meltdown, where we may lash out or display strong emotions. A shutdown is more of an internal presentation and not as obvious for people around us to notice, but it can be equally as distressing. I still experience meltdowns too, usually privately, such as when I am home or when I’m in my car leaving a place. However, as I understand more about crisis responses and the way Autistic people can respond, I believe I go through shutdowns more frequently. Examples such as my story from above can be fairly common when I am under pressure or in environments with a lot of sensory or social input for too long. During some work I’ve done in social groups for Autistic children I can now see in hindsight that I have definitely went into shutdown during these. If my day is already packed with work and tasks for me to focus on & then I am pulled into a highly social, loud and bright environment then I can become overwhelmed quickly.
When starting to feel a shutdown in groups like these, I may not process words others are saying. One time a parent called my name across the hall just to say “hello” and it took her several times of repeating it before I was able to acknowledge her. Our face during a shutdown can look flat. We may appear as if we are disengaged or staring into space but this is because we are not really here. It is as though our mind and body are not connected during these moments. Dissociation can occur when we are in shutdown and groups of people become blurry. This may occur through days or weeks of build up or it may happen on a particular day. A shutdown can cause myself and many Autistic people to lose our ability to speak (similar to situational mutism). When I am shutdown to the point of not being able to speak words I also can’t be around other people anymore. I am not able to process their words & I would be better if the talking stopped completely.
Something which would have helped me growing up when going home from school would be the understanding that I can become unable to speak when overloaded. Many Autistic people can come home from school or work so exhausted (perhaps due to masking most of the day) & explode with a meltdown or retreat into a shutdown. Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) is not just important for nonspeaking Autistic people but it can be beneficial to all of us. Nowadays, I have learned to make a rule with people I live with to not speak to me when I first come home. It is best for me to go to them when I am ready & if there is a question they need to ask, they can just text me instead. Messaging rather than receiving constant mouth words would give me space and allow me to respond to people when I am ready. It is an easy adjustment that I wish was more accepted in society. The pressure on using mouth words as the main form of communication and the enforcement of norms such as “being social” is harmful to so many people. There is a lot of guilt and shame we can feel for upsetting or making other people angry during our crisis responses. It is not our fault though and we need people to understand why this happens to us.
Earlier this week I also went through a shutdown. I had hyperfocused for hours on tasks & was eagerly waiting to hear back from people to confirm details about my current projects in order for me to progress onto my next steps. My mind was unable to give me a break before I then had to transition into activities later in the afternoon with a group of families and children. Around halfway through this activity I began to enter into a shutdown. I felt spaced out and wasn’t able to take in what was going on around me or speak anymore to people. Following this, I had online training to attend upon returning home. Halfway through this online session I ended up laying down on the laminated floor and couldn’t move for several minutes. My body was frozen & I was completely exhausted from the day. I have noticed this pattern of shutdown or situational mutism (not being able to speak) occurs if I deliver training to people for several hours and then have another big activity or meeting to participate in later. My body and mind do not cope well with all of this in a single day.
Obviously there are many aspects in the current world that make Autistic people more susceptible to activating crisis responses like meltdowns or shutdowns. We tend to have monotropic minds, making the constant transitions and change of focus in life really distressing. There is so much sensory and social information everywhere we go. I do think it is important for us to reflect after we experience these responses and look at the ways we can reduce this happening to us. I work with great non-autistic people who are very accommodating & I feel I am getting better at developing my self-advocacy skills. I am more comfortable asking others for what I need & putting things in place at work and my personal life to avoid myself getting overwhelmed like this too often.
Thankfully there are things which help us when experiencing a shutdown. We may end up in one as a result of sensory overload, so looking after our sensory needs can help a great deal. One way I was able to regulate during the celebration event I mentioned at the start was finding this area inside the venue where I walked back and forth between a door that provided me with a breeze of cool air. This sensory input I received allowed me to regulate myself and calm my nervous system. A shutdown makes us crave our own space and we need to be allowed to leave the situation we are in. Having a designated quiet or safe space in workplaces, schools or events can help us recover from the overstimulation. I hope writing this piece can help other Autistic people to find ways of coping or supporting themselves during a shutdown. It is ok for us to recognise our limits and that these are neurological responses. We are not bad people for experiencing meltdowns or shutdowns.
To go along with this, I created a few infographics looking at Autistic shutdowns & some ways to support ourselves during this.
Image description: orange background with text “What can help during a Shutdown” with examples of these. Green and yellow Autistically Scott Logo appears at top right with a gold background.
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