What is an autistic shutdown?
posted: Dec. 13, 2022.
Claire’s son, Matty, is now 19, and was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when he was three years old.
“We joined a support group pretty quickly after his diagnosis, and all the other parents seemed to deal with meltdowns,” remembers Claire. “You know, hitting, screaming, kicking, things like that.
“But for Matty, it was totally the opposite. He would just freeze, like sometimes altogether stop moving. Sometimes he’d just fall right asleep. In the beginning (for us), it was the oddest thing – almost scary, if I’m going to be honest – because it’s like he’d just go dark, you know? Shutdown, our GP called it, and let me tell you, there’s no better way to describe it.”
A shutdown is as it sounds. When a child feels overwhelmingly stressed, they may enter a sort of “survival mode,” attempting to reboot their systems. They may, as Matty did, zone out and freeze, or they may lie down and sleep. Some kids retreat to a quiet space where they can be alone, or stop responding even in the presence of other people, like they’ve disappeared somewhere. In some cases, they may be irritable or seem moody, even though they’re not “melting down,” or they may seem to regress in certain areas, like their verbal communication.
What causes shutdowns?
When a child with autism experiences sensory overload – too many sounds, smells that are unpleasant, lights that are too bright – they may need to shut down. Think about when you yourself, if you’re not also autistic, are overwhelmed with too much of anything – you probably want to withdraw too (but you likely know other ways to manage). That’s the same for kids with autism, except they may not know any other way to manage other than having a meltdown or a shutdown.
Also, if a child with autism finds themselves out of routine, that could be the cause for a shutdown too. Steadiness and routine feels comforting for kids with autism, and when routines are disrupted, it can be very scary.
Social situations may also be the cause of shutdowns too. When faced with new people, new places, or new circumstances, that can be very challenging for the autistic child, and a shutdown is the only way for them to cope.
How can I help?
When your child has a shutdown, the best thing to give is love, support, and a lot of patience. You may be like Claire and not know what to do at first, but over time, you’ll learn to be a source of comfort for your child while they’re shutting down. During a shutdown, it’s time for compassion, not panic; understanding, not interrogating; loving, not overbearing.
If you can, try to find out what triggers your child’s shutdowns, and do your best to avoid those triggers if you can, or to minimize the stress around them if they’re something that can’t be avoided. If you can find an opportunity to take a break from the stressor and introduce a calming activity, that can help too.
Sometimes, there are signs a shutdown is coming. Learn to identify them in your own child. For instance, your child may start rocking back and forth before a shutdown, and if you recognize that as a sign, you may try removing your child from the stressful environment and calm them. What calms them is also dependent on your child – some may like fidget toys, certain music, or the comfort of a favorite stuffed toy.
Shutdowns can be just as exhausting as meltdowns, but these incidents can be managed and minimized. Just as all autistic kids are different, so too are the reasons for their shutdowns and the ways we can help them. Best to stay calm, supportive, and positive, always.