October 24, 2021

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Autism Shutdown: The Causes and How to Manage It

Have you ever felt so exhausted you wished you could just reboot like a computer? We all get tired, but we can usually wait for a free moment to recharge. Sometimes, though, an overheated computer will turn off without warning. This is similar to what some people with autism experience when they get overwhelmed—a shutdown.

Shutdowns are related to meltdowns. In both situations, an autistic person’s brain becomes so stressed that he/she can’t control his/her reaction. In the case of a meltdown, he/she may cry, scream, hit, and kick. 

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Managing Autism Meltdowns, Tantrums and Aggression

Shutdowns aren’t as explosive as meltdowns, but they’re still hard for a child to experience and for parents to understand. Let’s discuss what exactly a shutdown is and how you can help your child manage one.

What does autistic shutdown look like?

Just like an overworked computer might shut down to protect its circuitry, some people shut down to handle a situation that’s become too much. When your child has a shutdown, he/she isn’t ignoring you or misbehaving—his/her system is entering survival mode because of overwhelming stress.

Signs of a shutdown

  • Extreme exhaustion: the child may be very lethargic, try to lie down, or even fall asleep right where he/she is
  • Retreating somewhere else: he/she may try to leave the area to go somewhere quieter, darker, less crowded, etc.
  • Inability to move: alternatively, his/her body could go completely still. He/she may look like he/she is “zoning out”
  • Unresponsiveness: the child may not respond when others try to communicate with him/her
  • Irritability: he/she might be in a worse mood than normal if he/she does respond
  • Loss of skills: the child may start to forget simple tasks or behaviors he/she is normally good at. For example, someone’s verbal skills can regress during a shutdown

Let’s look at an example of what a shutdown looks like in one child with autism. Shutdowns and Stress in Autism by Ingrid M. Loos Miller and Hendricus G. Loos is a case study of a six-year-old autistic girl. She began homeschool after struggling in kindergarten, and the researchers were able to observe her shutdowns in the homeschool environment.

This girl experienced shutdowns when asked to do a difficult academic task. She would become distracted and try to avoid it, then try the activity again when the researchers offered her a toy—but even though she wanted to finish the task, she “seemed disoriented … and could not continue.” 

If the researchers kept pressing her, she would go limp in her chair, stop speaking, and eventually fall asleep for as little as 10 minutes or as long as two hours. She would be able to finish the activity when she woke up, but be quicker to shut down for the rest of the day.

Every autistic person is unique, so your child’s shutdowns could look different. But it’s important to note that this little girl wasn’t just trying to avoid something. A shutdown is an involuntary reaction.

What causes a shutdown?

Sensory overload is a common reason for a meltdown or shutdown. Kids with autism tend to experience lights, sounds, smells, and sensations differently than neurotypical children. Many struggle with hypersensitivity, which means they experience their senses more intensely, sometimes to the point of physical pain.

If you were surrounded by blinding lights or piercing noises, you would become overwhelmed, right? For some autistic children, a loud school cafeteria or a crowded store can cause just as much anxiety. Too much sensory input can result in a shutdown.

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Children with autism also tend to be very attached to routines. Unexpected events or sudden changes in plan may cause a lot of stress, leading to a shutdown.

Autistic people may find themselves shutting down in social situations. They don’t navigate the unspoken rules of conversation as naturally as neurotypical people, so their brain has to work extra hard. The six-year-old girl in the case study only shut down when pressured by others, never when she played alone.

The root of a shutdown won’t always be obvious. Sometimes, whatever happened might seem minor. But have you ever had bad days when the smallest thing was enough to send you over the edge? That’s what meltdowns and shutdowns can be like, and they can be worsened by something called autistic burnout. 

Autistic burnout vs autistic shutdown

Burnout is related to both shutdowns and meltdowns, but it is different. A meltdown or shutdown is an immediate reaction to stimuli, while burnout is more of an ongoing state.

A 2020 study by the Academic Autism Spectrum Partnership in Research and Education (AASPIRE) analyzed how autistic adults describe burnout. The main characteristics of burnout are “chronic exhaustion, loss of skills, and reduced tolerance to stimulus.” One participant said: “I’ve had people say to me many times over the years ‘But WHY are you so tired?’ … The brutal truth is that for an autistic person simply EXISTING in the world is knackering…” 

A person in a burnout might find him/herself unable to perform some skills as well as he/she used to and be more prone to sensory overload. This sounds a lot like a shutdown, but burnouts last much longer—for weeks, months, or years.

Shutdowns and meltdowns are also more common during burnout because the person has a reduced ability to manage his/her anxiety.

What causes burnout?

Burnouts can be triggered by major life changes, like moving, a death in the family, attending a new school, etc. But oftentimes, burnout, as well as short-term shutdowns and meltdowns, can be the culmination of daily life stressors—especially masking. 

Masking is when a person with autism tries to “hide” that they’re autistic. The majority of the people in the AASPIRE study listed masking as a significant contributor to burnout. One said: “The metaphor I use is that long-term … masking leaves behind a kind of psychic plaque in the mental and emotional arteries. Like the buildup of physical plaque over time can result in heart attack or stroke, the buildup of this psychic plaque over time can result in burnout.”

The participants also said that a lack of support can cause or worsen burnouts. Sometimes, the support needed was formal, like disability services or therapy. Others felt like they just needed more understanding from loved ones.

What to do if your child has shutdowns

The best thing you can do for your child is provide patience and support. Shutdowns are nerve-racking for you, but also for the person experiencing them. Do what you can to be a source of comfort instead of more stress. Don’t panic, ask too many questions, or go overboard trying to comfort him/her.

Watch out for what triggers your child’s shutdowns and avoid it as much as possible. If it’s something that can’t be totally avoided, like social interaction, try to find a way to make it less stressful. For example, you can keep socializing brief and gradually work up to longer visits. Provide an opportunity for your child to take a break and alternate the trigger activity with a fun one.

Some kids show a specific sign before shutting down, so watch out for that, too. The girl in the case study, for instance, rubbed her eyes when overwhelmed.

If you see a shutdown coming on, or if it’s started, remove your child from the environment if you can. Go to a side room, outdoors, out to the car—anywhere that’s calmer and quieter. 

What you do next depends on what your son or daughter wants. Some kids want to hold hands, hug, or chat while they recover from overload. For others, any extra sensory input is too much, and they would rather have space to be alone while they process.

Sometimes, special interests can be helpful. A favorite stuffed animal, fidget toy, book, or other belonging might comfort your child and redirect his/her thoughts. 

If he/she has functional communication, have a conversation later when he/she is less emotional. Ask him/her how you can give support during an incident. Your son or daughter probably won’t be able to articulate what he/she wants from you in the middle of a shutdown, but his/her opinion is important, so be sure to follow up when he/she is ready to talk.

Download your FREE guide on 

Managing Autism Meltdowns, Tantrums and Aggression

Lastly, don’t pressure your child to mask too much. Obviously, behaviors that harm your child should be changed—but some things that aren’t necessarily seen as “normal,” like stimming, are just part of who he/she is. Life as an autistic person can be difficult, but the stigma makes it even more so. Constantly masking without breaks can create shutdowns now and burnout in the long term.

Conclusion

Autistic shutdowns are an exhausting experience. Ongoing stress can lead to not just shutdowns, but full-on burnout and possible depression.

It is possible to manage these incidents. The six-year-old girl in the case study showed lots of improvement after two months of “low-stress” homeschool. She was able to do schoolwork for longer periods, and “shutdowns were virtually eliminated.”

Every autistic person is unique, so each will respond better to different methods for processing anxiety. Talk to your son or daughter’s doctor, therapist, and teachers about managing shutdowns. 

As the parent, it’s important to stay calm when a shutdown happens and accept that your kid needs a little extra support to handle what life throws at him/her. Showing compassion for meltdowns and shutdowns goes a long way.

References

Autism West Midlands. (2016). Meltdown and shutdown in people with autism. Autism West Midlands. https://autismwestmidlands.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Meltdown_shutdown.pdf

Loos Miller, I. M., & Loos, H. G. (2015). Shutdowns and Stress in Autism. Autism Awareness Center Inc. https://autismawarenesscentre.com/shutdowns-stress-autism/

Melbourne Center for Women. (2019). Understanding ‘Shutdown’ and the Autistic Spectrum. Melbourne Center for Women. https://melbournecentreforwomensmentalhealth.com.au/articles/170

Raymaker, D. M., Teo, A. R., Steckler, N. A., Lentz, B., Scharer, M., Santos, A. D., Kapp, S. K., Hunter, M., Joyce, A., & Nicolaidis, C. (2020). “Having All of Your Internal Resources Exhausted Beyond Measure and Being Left with No Clean-Up Crew”: Defining Autistic Burnout. Autism Adulthood, 2(2), 132-143. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7313636/

Autism Parenting Magazine aims to deliver informed resources and guidance, but information cannot be guaranteed by the publication or its writers. Our content is never intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician with any questions you may have and never disregard medical advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read on this website.