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Understanding Autism Shutdown


Individuals with autism may withdraw themselves from their surroundings as a coping mechanism to deal with high levels of stress.

When we experience highly stressful situations, our reaction could be flight, fight or freeze (Ambitious about Autism, n.d.). Similarly, individuals with autism may attempt to escape from the situation (i.e., flight), have a meltdown (i.e., fight), or experience a shutdown (i.e., freeze). Both meltdowns and shutdowns are involuntary reactions to high stress levels, but they are being experienced differently (Autism West Midlands, 2019). During meltdowns, individuals with autism may cry, scream, hit themselves or others, or engage in repetitive behaviors. On the contrary, shutdowns are less obvious and more difficult to detect. During shutdowns, their brains get ‘turned off’ temporarily as they withdraw themselves from their surroundings, as an attempt to calm themselves down and lower their anxiety levels.


Shutdowns can be triggered by a particular situation or it can be due to the accumulation of anxiety-provoking situations over a period of time (Ambitious about Autism, n.d.; Autism West Midlands, 2019). Some of these common triggers include:

  • Unexpected changes in routines or plans

  • Sensory overload (especially among individuals who are oversensitive to bright lights, loud noises or strong smells)

  • Social situations – It is more challenging for individuals with autism to engage in social interaction with others due to their social skill deficits, making it more stressful for them.

  • Highly emotional situations

  • Cognitive overload – Being exposed to situations that require a lot of thinking could increase their anxiety levels.

  • Lack of sleep – This could reduce their cognitive ability to manage their stress levels during anxiety-provoking situations.

Shutdowns may sometimes get unnoticed, especially among non-verbal or lower functioning individuals with autism (Aylward, n.d.). Hence, it is important for parents or caregivers to be aware of the signs of shutdowns so that the behavior can be addressed timely and interventions can be implemented. During shutdowns, individuals with autism may (Delano, 2021):

  • Move to a quiet, less crowded, dark space to escape from the cause of their shutdown

  • Keep quiet and unable to communicate as they usually do

  • Stay completely still and unable to move

  • Feel lethargic, lie down or fall asleep

  • Forget simple tasks or behaviors they are usually good at (i.e., regression of skills)

Here are some strategies we can use to support individuals with autism during their shutdowns (Ambitious about Autism, n.d.; Aylward, n.d.; Delano, 2021).

  • Avoid situations that trigger the shutdowns or reduce the anxiety associated with these situations

A “worry book” can be created to note down a list of stressful situations that may trigger the shutdowns. Avoid these situations if possible (e.g., avoiding large crowds or taking public transport during non-peak hours to prevent sensory overload) or measures can be implemented to create environments that do not overwhelm their senses (e.g., wearing noise-canceling earphones in noisy places or installing dim lights in their rooms).


If social situations or certain cognitive tasks (e.g., academic work) are highly stressful for them, limit the socializing to a short period of time or start off with a simpler, less stressful task. Once they are comfortable, gradually increase the intensity and duration of socializing or the difficulty of the task. Ensure sufficient breaks are given to them and the stressful activity can be alternated with a fun and stress-free activity.


Anxiety associated with unexpected changes in routines can be reduced by informing them about the changes well in advance. A visual timetable can be created to provide detailed information about the changes so that they have sufficient time to familiarize themselves with the changes and clarify any doubts. This helps them better cope with the changes and alleviate any anxiety associated.

  • Providing them with ample time and space to recover while ensuring their safety

Individuals with autism will typically recover from their shutdowns after a period of time. It is important for us to understand how we can help them recover without placing additional demands on them. If they are not engaging in any self-injurious behavior, leaving them alone for a while could allow them to recuperate at their own pace. More support can be provided by giving them a favorite toy or blanket, providing some gentle physical touch, or reassuring them in a soothing voice, depending on the individuals’ preferences. It is always important to discuss their behavior with them after the shutdown, if possible, to find out what we can do to prevent future shutdowns and better support them when the shutdown happens.


In a nutshell, shutdown is one of the ways in which individuals with autism cope with high stress levels. Understanding the triggers for the behavior can allow us to better address their needs and support them.


Written by: Xiao Hui


References

Ambitious about Autism. (n.d.) Meltdowns and shutdowns. Retrieved from https://www.ambitiousaboutautism.org.uk/information-about-autism/behaviour/meltdowns-and-shutdowns


Autism West Midlands. (2019). Meltdown and shutdown of autistic people. Retrieved from https://autismwestmidlands.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Meltdown_and_Shutdown_Nov_2019.pdf


Aylward, L. (n.d.). What are autistic shutdowns and why do they happen? Bristol Autism Support. Retrieved from https://www.bristolautismsupport.org/autism-autistic-shutdowns/


Delano, C. (2021). Autism shutdown: The causes and how to manage it. Autism Parenting Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/manage-autism-shutdown/

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