A shutdown has all the same overwhelming and distressing feelings as a meltdown, but instead of the feelings being expressed outwardly, they are trapped inside. They can be triggered by all the same things as a meltdown, such as sensory overwhelm or a stressful situation. They can happen separately, or before or after a meltdown.
When you have a shutdown you might:
- Find it difficult to speak, or you might not talk at all.
- Want to hide away somewhere dark and alone, or curl up in bed.
- Feel like you suddenly have no energy at all and want to sleep, or find it difficult to move.
- Feel ‘spaced out’ and detached from what is happening.
If you experience shutdowns it can be difficult for other people to know that you are feeling incredibly distressed as there are not many obvious outward signs. Therefore it can be helpful to let others know that this is something that happens to you, any signs they can look out for and then work together to come up with a plan for what would be helpful when they occur.
Why do I find it difficult to talk during a shutdown?
Shutdowns feel very much like your brain is a computer that has become too overloaded and isn’t functioning well anymore, and the only option is to close down the different apps and turn the power off for a little while to prevent it from completely crashing.
Our brain says ‘We’ve too much to process – and speech takes a lot of processing – so let’s switch that off for now.’
All your words are still there in your head, you know what you want to say – you just can’t get your mouth to do it. If people ask you things – instead of your mouth saying the words you want to say, you can end up repeating back what they say instead – or you can get stuck with one word on repeat – or your mouth loops on a familiar script that may or may not relate to what’s going on – this is called echolalia.
This is why having a text app like ‘Emergency Chat’ or a text-to-speech app like ‘Tell Me’ on your phone can be really helpful. Texting uses a LOT less processing than speech and it will give a way to communicate when speech isn’t available.
If the overload becomes too bad then it is possible for you to lose your words too, becoming fully non-verbal. At this point, not only can you struggle to form words to communicate, but other people’s speech around you can stop making sense too.
This is only a temporary thing though, and once the overwhelm or shutdown is over then your brain will slowly be able to switch that processing back on.
Writing led by
Nanny Aut, founder of Autistic Village and Inside Aut