You might have heard about autistic meltdowns, but what about autistic shutdowns?
The two terms are often used interchangeably by non-autistic autism professionals, but autism meltdowns and autism shutdowns are two completely different things.
Difference between Autistic Meltdowns and Autistic Shutdowns
Autistic shutdowns are NOT meltdowns, and recovering from them is not the same either. Read on to learn more.
Autism meltdowns are external bouts of distress. Temper tantrums that happen as the result of — or involve — a broken promise, change in routine or sensory disruption are two things:
- An autistic meltdown
- An inability to regulate and express uncomfortable emotions in an appropriate manner
Get your child out of the public eye as soon as possible and cater to their sensory needs until all is calm again.
Meltdowns can turn into autistic shutdowns.
There is a tingly, quiet and numb phase after the climax of a meltdown. This is not a shutdown; it’s the meltdown recovery period. If it lasts longer than a day, then you are dealing with a shutdown.
Autistic shutdowns stem from overwhelm and low energy. Autistic people typically shutdown after exhausting all resources and trying to push past the stress in hopes that it will get better, though that’s not how it works.
Think of trying to turn on a four-wheeler that struggles to charge. Some days, you can drive it for hours at a time, no issue. Other days, you manage to start it and it quickly dies. A few times, it stays on but only sputters about instead of going full speed. And then it’s quiet.
If an autistic shutdown lasts over a month, you’re in autistic burnout territory. The battery is dead, and you’re not getting whatever it is you want out of the autistic person.
Their main goal, whether they realize it or not, is to conserve energy.
Symptoms of Autistic Shutdowns
If you meet one autistic person, you’ve met one individual on the autism spectrum.
Autistic shutdown symptoms vary for everyone, but there are main warning signs anyone who knows an autistic person should know about.
Autistic shutdowns are just as debilitating, if not worse, for autistic people.
Because shutdown mode is harder to notice and easier to hide, autistic people may struggle alone.
Social Struggles during Autistic Shutdown
In shutdown mode, an autistic person may start yawning in social situations. The more they speak or type, or try to speak or type, the less they make sense. They may trip over their words and become frustrated with themselves that their brain is not processing information as quickly as usual.
If they are speaking autistics, the following speech errors may occur:
- Malapropisms: Incorrect word used in place of correct word (e.g. “condom” instead of “condiment”; “petty” instead of “pretty”)
- Spoonerisms: Consonants or vowels switched with corresponding words (e.g. “look down below” instead of “blow your nose” or “belly jeans” instead of “jelly beans”)
Stuttering and flat-out going non-speaking may also happen.
Only Doing the Bare Minimum
If your autistic child or friend previously excelled at most everything they did, but they’re now only putting out minimum effort for everything, this is a sign of overwhelm.
Watch for signs of sleep loss, clumsiness, extra naps, decreased appetite, and increased sensory sensitivities.
“Idle behaviors” is an umbrella term for a cluster of similar, stereotypical autistic shutdown traits:
- staring into space
- withdrawing to a quiet, potentially dark, area free of stimuli
- laying flat on the floor and/or planking
- staring into nothingness while sitting or standing (dissociating)
- not speaking, remaining mostly silent
It’s important to remember that all behavior is communication.
Not speaking to you is not a lack of communication. If you try speaking to an autistic person exhibiting idle behaviors and they acknowledge you, pay attention to how they’re doing it.
- Are they covering their ears? Your voice is the wrong kind of sensory input right now.
- Are they covering their face? Stop looking into their eyes. Don’t look at them at all.
- Are they closing their eyes? Unless it’s accompanied by covering their ears, it’s just them processing information; it’s not a slight against you.
- Are they blinking a lot and looking around? This is a sign of sensory overwhelm/numbness/dizziness. Please, find a quieter, more subtle way to communicate with them.
Is Autistic Burnout a type of Depression?
If resting does not relieve autistic shutdown symptoms, you could actually be dealing with depression or autistic burnout.
The difference between autistic burnout and depression is simple. Neurodivergent Insights put together a good graphic.
Key traits of depression are feelings of hopelessness or despair.
These are not key traits of autistic burnout.
Do they feel optimistic or hopeful about the future, despite feeling mentally and physically exhausted?
A 2020 study characterized autistic burnout as a pervasive, long-term (3+ months) exhaustion, loss of function and reduced tolerance to stimulus.
Both autistic burnout and depression can happen at the same time, and one can easily lead to the other. However, hundreds of autistic adults are sharing their stories across social media about how their autistic burnout was misdiagnosed as a depression or other mood disorder, no medication or treatment worked, and treating their autistic burnout as autistic burnout does work.
Recovering from an Autistic Shutdown
The autistic brain is keen to conserve energy when overstimulated, but might not actively seek to decrease stimuli.
Autistic kids are conditioned to grow into compliant autistic adults who forgo their boundaries in favor of trying to take on all the things like their peers, for love and acceptance. Even if you don’t actively do this as a parent, they are influenced by teachers and societal expectations.
Sometimes, the best way to recover from an autistic shutdown is a break. Eliminating or reducing obligations, taking time off, a small getaway, or time alone goes a long way for autistic people.
- Rest, possibly under weighted blanket
- Tell people they can’t talk right now or pass them a card that says, “I’m in a shutdown right now. I can’t talk to you.”
- Stimming, listening to music they know the words/melody to, self-regulatory behaviors
- Swimming, taking a bath, standing under warm shower water
Everyone has different needs. Find what works best for the autistic in your life, and go from there — keep it healthy and discourage destructive behaviors.
Izzy Lively is a 30-something autistic adult currently navigating autistic burnout. She blogs at xoizzy.co.
Thank you so much Izzy, for contributing this very valuable article.
Parents–as always, you know I advocate for self advocacy and self determination. If this is something your child is experiencing, you should work with your IEP team to develop supports for emotional regulation, self awareness and other things to accommodate your child.
Lots more on all those topics can be found on this site.