Shutting Down – Deborah's Experience
When some autistic people feel extremely stressed or overwhelmed, they might respond by ‘shutting down’. This varies from person to person, but common signs can include complete silence and stillness, withdrawal, and unresponsiveness.
Deborah said: “It can be really, really dramatic and incredibly intense. Or it can be quite short-lived.”
“For me, personally, shutting down happens when there’s too much information, or confusing or conflicting information.”
In Deborah’s case, this usually occurs in social situations when she doesn’t understand what’s going on. The influx of different information can be difficult to process, along with all of the unspoken social rules and expectations.
It’s likened to a ‘freeze’ response – your body withdraws from the environment in an attempt to protect itself.
Deborah continued: “I think your brain, just to be kind to you, says you need a break. It’s usually a sign that I’ve been doing too much or that I haven’t been looking after myself and protecting myself properly from my environment.”
She can feel it building shortly before it happens, but at that point, it’s too late to prevent the shutdown. It’s like an increasing pressure and panic that festers until she’s left feeling trapped and distressed. The brain shuts down and she’s no longer in a position where she can communicate.
As an adult, it can be really frustrating because of the fear that comes with the loss of control and inability to communicate how you’re feeling. Shutdowns can be an exhausting experience, and the after-effects can linger for weeks before she returns to her usual self.
“I like to be in my own house, in my own bed, and definitely in the fetal position. I think that’s a very common position to get into because that’s the feeling of safety.”
In that moment, what she needs is space. Any extra noise, questions, or demands only add to the stress. While it might seem appropriate to offer your help, this only re-engages her brain when it actually needs to rest.
Everyone is unique and different techniques work for different people. By providing some alone time, Deborah is able to de-compress at her own pace and comfort. The entire ordeal is draining and requires patience and understanding as she takes the time to recover.
She added: “I think people are really quick to judge these days. If somebody looks like they’re in despair, they probably are in despair. They’re probably not putting it on or trying to get attention or all of the other excuses that we might make for people who are different.”
Creating a supportive and safe environment during difficult times is crucial. By respecting each individual’s needs, we can help them navigate challenging times.