Autistics have shutdowns. It’s part of life. There are multiple root causes for a shutdown, including the result of sensory overload, physical and mental exhaustion, unexpected news, anxiety about an upcoming event, and upheaval in our schedule. Sometimes it comes in combination; other times it comes down to simply being “on” for so long, that we have no choice but to turn “off.” Co-occurring stressors, such as physical pain, heightened anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress, and the like, serve to further drain our energy reserves.
The amount of energy it takes a typical, non-autistic person to get through the day is, in most cases, significantly less, in comparison to an autistic’s. In example, I make one hundred conscious decisions, at minimum, within the first hour of waking up. What most individuals decide subconsciously, on a type of automatic mode, I do not. The way I process life can be compared to the sensation one feels when they concentrate on their eyes blinking. When focusing on the eyes closing, we are distracted by an automatic action that would normally not be a distraction. Blinking doesn’t involve thoughts. The way I process is similar to the sensation of paying attention to the blink of one’s eyes: I am pulled into the blinking of my own thoughts.
My brain, like all autistics’ brains, seeks connections through patterns. It is on super drive all day long. It solves, reasons, rearranges, deciphers, and concludes. Every move I make is an effort, an action I am noticing, and behind that action multiple scaffolding thoughts. Where in an average person might think about six things in relation to a feasible outcome, I am thinking of sixty. What one throws out as a die with six sides, I throw out as ten dice with six sides. What commonly goes unnoticed by others, is a heavy blink to me with multiple facets, some hidden, some upright, some tossed off the table.
The questions of how many steps to take, which room to enter first, which task to accomplish next, which word choice to use, how long to linger on one topic, are not just familiarities, they are essential elements of my existence. And behind those questions, evidence gathered in the past, visual flashes of what has been and what could be. In many moments, I am a bystander set within a machine, carried where it leads, with no steering wheel or access to controls—an entity within a larger calculating entity. And this entity is deciphering the feasible best route to everything, including my thinking process.
As my mind works, nothing is disqualified from being factored into an outcome. Even my toothpaste brand, how much paste I squeeze out, and the flow of the water from the faucet, are scoped out and theorized, and then neatly tucked into a web of accumulated data. My thoughts gathered, molded, and placed into a previously opened drawer, a unit only to be reopened and reassembled during a later point of time. I am essentially a vast storage house with feelings.
Seeing as I am constantly moving within strings of webbed-data, in order to gain relief, I am instinctually drawn to a semblance of predictable patterns—something to alleviate the constant sensation of gathering, sorting, and storing. The familiar doesn’t need to be analyzed. And in that there is ultimate refuge. Familiarity can come in multiple shapes and sizes—in a predictable routine, a familiar voice or face, a soothing melody, a favorite movie or book, a pattern of speech.
When I am unable to find predictable retreat in the familiarity, or when something pulls me into overload, especially when I am already at full capacity of input, I cannot help but to go into shutdown. It is automatic. My brain understands no other way to refuel and get back to a place of semi-peace. Unfortunately, the space of shutdown is not always comfortable; sometimes, it is a necessity to get me from one place to the next, like a tattered bridge, booby-trapped in a war zone, strung across and over a deep chasm of unknown.
In example, during my shutdown:
- I am unaware that I am in shutdown at the starting stage. Usually a part of me knows, but the most of me feels confused and off-balance. At this point I can do nothing but be. I have not an ounce of energy or thought process left to help myself or anyone else. I am literally a computer unplugged. (non-responsive, unaware of surroundings, lost somewhere)
- I might be unable to form complete thoughts or talk aloud.
- I spend the majority of time alone, in isolation and away from people. However, I could be sitting in the same room as someone else, but be lost in my mind.
- As a result of little to no energy whatsoever, I skip showers, don’t brush my hair, stay in my pajamas, don’t eat. (This is different than depression. I am too tired to do anything, even if a part of me wants to.)
- I finally feel like I can breathe and not think.
- I curl up into a ball and sleep.
Shutdown leading into implosion or minor-meltdown:
- Sometimes after a shutdown (or before a shutdown), I experience an implosion of thoughts. My brain, doing what it does best, stemming out in web-like connections trying to solve a problem; only it’s a problem that I cannot readily identify.
- During implosion, I turn my anger inward and use all-or-nothing self-talk. I use words like never, what was I thinking, I can’t stand this, I won’t ever do this, I am done with that.
- My mind, in its search for relief, makes big plans. I convince myself in the finality of my situation. That I am at last leaving something behind, turning over a new leaf, making a life altering decision. This usually means wanting to demolish an aspect of self and the way I do things. I long to become tougher, become stronger, even if that goes against my core values. I believe if I am tainted, angry, rude, better than, then I will be able to make a stand for myself.
- In implosion, I turn my back on a large part of self, thinking who I am, who I was, ultimately continually betrays me. My self-expectations are extreme. I pressure myself into rearranging aspects of self that aren’t ideal. I analyze my frailties and shortcomings, both real and imagined.
- I visualize extreme decision making: I am never going on Facebook again; I am never reading about autism again; I am never going to ask him for help again; I incorporate the word again into self-talk, as a means of self-punishing myself for past decisions and actions. I criticize my past behaviors: I cannot believe I ever thought that way or acted that way; I shouldn’t be this way: What is wrong with me?
- I over-exaggerate the dire state of current relationships and self-blame. Everything is ultimately somehow my fault. After all, I should have known better. What is wrong with me to think they ever cared, to have ever trusted, to have ever believed? I wallow in self-pity and hate myself for wallowing in self-pity and being trapped in the isolation chamber again.
Fortunately, part of my brain’s grand analysis scheme has led me to directly dissecting my previous shutdowns and meltdowns. Given the ability to analyze elements of my experiences, I have been granted opportunity to establish certain blinking-light reminders to guide me —reminders that enable me to, at opportune moments, logically steer myself into a direction of less self-injury and poor decision-making.
It’s a delicate balance, in helping self during stages of shutdown (or meltdown), as I need to allow myself not to think too heavily (in order to not fully drain all my energy reserves), but at the same time, I must allow myself opportunity to engage in some constructive self-talk. Also, there is only a finite point of time in which I will actually recognize I am in shutdown and be willing to listen to reason. Some of what I tell myself, includes:
- This has happened before; this is nothing new;
- This is part of the way your brain works;
- You will come out of this soon; you will be okay;
- Try not to follow through on any major decisions while in this state;
- You cannot reason yourself out of this, so just go with the flow;
- If you shame yourself, it’s okay; it’s only temporary.
As an aside, where the mental health professional veers off course, is in their thinking that traditional means of cognitive behavioral therapy will work in such shutdown mode or meltdown mode. They usually don’t understand or comprehend how the mind works of an autistic, unless autistic or well versed in the matter. A counselor implementing a set of rules in hopes of supporting a client, may indeed serve to further drown an already over burdened mind. It is a delicate dance, in which first the one in need must recognize they are trapped in the shutdown, and then maneuver through it without over burdening the mind and causing the act of further sinking into mental exhaustion. This is difficult to explain to anyone, unless they thoroughly analyze what happens in the thinking patterns of the autistic brain.
Like everything else in an autistic world, nothing is simple, nor can be simplified.
I made some minor changes to this original piece, the same day it was published, because I realized I was talking about shutdowns and meltdowns, not just shutdowns. Also it’s important to note that my shutdown and meltdown episodes resemble depression, but the process is different than depression. During meltdown, a part of me is motivated to fix and move forward. A part discouraged. When I am depressed, I know it. When I am in shutdown or meltdown, I have a hard time identifying it. I also usually don’t sink deeper and deeper into sadness with meltdown, rather I seem to be swimming upstream. I don’t feel like the world is crashing in. I don’t lose hope. I am exhausted from living, but I want to live. I want to get better. I want to regain energy.
Each of these describes different shutdowns:
About the Author
Samantha Craft (aka Marcelle Ciampi) is the mother of three boys, one adult son who is on the autism spectrum. She is the lead job recruiter for ULTRA Testing, an autism educator, the author of the blog and book Everyday Aspergers, Selection Committee Chair at the ANCA World Autism Festival and is active in autism groups locally and globally. Samantha serves as a guest speaker, workshop presenter, curriculum developer, neurodiversity recruitment specialist, and more. She is working on her second book Autism in a Briefcase, written to provide insight to employers and agencies about the neurodiverse talent pool. A former schoolteacher and advocate for children with special needs, she appreciates the skills and talents of autistics. Diagnosed with Aspergers in 2012, she enjoys the arts, writing, movies, travel, and connecting with others.