Shutdown

What is a shutdown
IN BRIEF

Shutdown is when an autistic person is no longer able to interact or move as usual. Some people describe it as feeling like being in a dream or moving through jelly. Usually, this happens when the autistic person has exceeded their limits. It's not the person's fault and they can't stop being in this state. You have to wait for it to pass and this usually requires that they get some rest (a quiet place, a quiet activity).

Shutdown is one of the possible consequences of sensory or emotional overload in autism. It occurs when the autistic person has tried to compensate for too long in a maladaptive environment. Shutdown is experienced as an emotional and sensory explosion or implosion from within. The autistic person in a state of shutdown may seem slower, as if they are trying to move through jelly. They may not respond to their name, have difficulty communicating in their usual ways, or they may communicate very slowly and with less variety. The person in the shutdown state may also simply drop to the floor or remain static. Some people in this state will use stims (self-stimulation) such as moving their hands, rocking back and forth, holding the end of their sleeve in their hand, and so on. As this is an intense emotional state, autistic people in the shutdown state will often cry at the same time, or hiccup or cough. These are indicators of emotional malaise.

There’s no point in telling an autistic person in a state of shutdown to “try harder” or “don’t make a fuss over nothing”. If the person could just wave a magic wand and stop the crisis, they would have done so by now.

How to help

There are things people who witness a shutdown can do to help the autistic person get through the implosion that’s going on. You have to be patient! Everything will be slower. But if the autistic person is able to communicate, it’s possible to ask them directly what might help. If the person doesn’t answer, speaks very slowly or stutters, this is normal. Don’t assume that the person is doing it on purpose.

Generally speaking, shutdowns occur because the autistic person has been overloaded and needs a suitable environment in which sensory stimuli are not aggressive, and where the person can follow their usual routine. In these circumstances, it is generally possible to offer the person in a state of shutdown a quiet place to rest. The person may wish to stop doing the activity they were doing when the shutdown began, or they might continue it at their own pace.

Different needs about being accompanied or not during a shutdown

Every autistic person is different, and every autistic person who experiences shutdown will have their own way of dealing with it. Some people may need to be alone. Others may need to be accompanied. It may seem like a good idea to offer physical contact to someone who seems distressed and crying. However, for many autistic individuals this might make their shutdown more painful. So it’s vital to ensure that you have the person’s consent before any physical approach. Above all, don’t insist if the person doesn’t want comfort that involves being touched. Some autistic people in a state of shutdown might prefer contact with a soft object such as a stuffed animal or blanket, or seeking reassurance from their pet (if the animal is willing – cats don’t always consent).  Finally, some autistic people may prefer physical contact from other people for reassurance during a shutdown.

Caution

Not all hugs are created equal! Surface touches and movements can place the person in sensory overload. So, as a general rule, if you agree to hug someone and you've never discussed their preferences, opt for a firm hug (in proportion to the size of the person being hugged) and don't caress.

Please note

No one is obliged to give or receive a hug.

The aftermath of the collapse

Autistic people who experience overload can also enter a state of meltdown. Meltdown is a sensory and emotional explosion that manifests itself in externalized behaviors. Meltdown is a state that brings with it many sensations and emotions. Sometimes autistic people in a state of meltdown experience a shutdown immediately after the collapse or in the hours or days that follow. This is quite normal.

When I'm in a state of meltdown, especially if it happens in public, I need "firm hugs". I think my brain has registered somewhere that if someone gives me a "firm hug" it means there's at least one person who doesn't judge me and accepts that I'm in that emotional state. It’s a sign of possible safety. I've accepted hugs from strangers or people I don't know very well. Except that I have my own criteria, and if several people offer me a hug, I'll choose one person based on two criteria: their height (I'm small, so I'm looking for a strong hug from a small person) and the amount of clothing they're wearing (because it's weird to feel someone's skin).

Emotions after shutdown

The autistic person may experience negative emotions after the state of shutdown, especially if it happened in public or if someone around them has expressed judgment. The person may then feel humiliated, embarrassed or have lower self-esteem. However, there’s no shame in experiencing a state of shutdown. It’s a sign that the body has exceeded its limits. You can try to understand what happened before the shutdown in order to prevent it from happening again.

When going beyond yourself leads to shutdown

As a human being with goals and dreams, it’s normal to try to “surpass oneself”. To do this, it’s normal to try to get out of one’s comfort zone at school, at work, in one’s social and family life, in one’s passions and specific interests. Exceeding your comfort zone for too long, too far or too fast can lead to a state of shutdown. We often hear the phrases “get over yourself” and “get out of your comfort zone”. And it’s true that it’s good to try to get out of your comfort zone to achieve your goals. So it can be frustrating and humiliating to shut down during or after stepping out of your comfort zone to do something you really love (like a sports class, or going to a show).

When a shutdown happens after or during the process of leaving the comfort zone for one’s own goals, it’s possible to learn something from it. Firstly, it probably means you’ve gone further in your goals than before. Secondly, you’ve just discovered a new limit. It’s good to know your limits. It helps us learn how to get out of our comfort zone without hurting ourselves. As Boucar Diouf used to say, no one can “surpass himself”; it’s physically impossible. It’s important to remember that nobody can go faster than themselves. This is as true for autistic people as it is for neurotypicals. However, everyone can go further, but only at their own pace.

Catherine Bouchard-Tremblay

Science popularizer