Navigating High Functioning Autism Shutdown in Adults (By An Autistic Adult)

Cam Russo
Navigating High Functioning Autism Shutdown in Adults (By An Autistic Adult) Navigating High Functioning Autism Shutdown in Adults (By An Autistic Adult)

Autism Shutdown Characteristics

Have you ever experienced a moment where everything just becomes too much, and your brain decides to hit the pause button? This is what a shutdown in high-functioning autism can feel like.

It’s not a conscious choice to shut the world out; it’s your brain putting up a “Do Not Disturb” sign as a defense mechanism.

Key characteristics of autism shutdowns include:

  • Reduced Responsiveness: People might stop talking or responding to others, seemingly detached from their surroundings.
  • Overwhelm and Overload: Shutdowns often occur in response to sensory overload or intense emotions, where the brain becomes overwhelmed and needs to “turn off” temporarily.
  • Physical Symptoms: These can include feelings of fatigue, muscle weakness, or an inability to move.
  • Mental Exhaustion: Shutdowns often result in mental exhaustion, where even thinking feels like an insurmountable task.

Autism Shutdowns vs. Autism Meltdowns

While both shutdowns and meltdowns are responses to overwhelming experiences, they manifest differently.

  • Meltdowns: These are outward expressions of distress. During a meltdown, an individual might cry, shout, or engage in physical outbursts. They react to a feeling of loss of control and an inability to cope with the immediate environment or situation.
  • Shutdowns: In contrast, shutdowns are internal. They’re characterized by withdrawal and a temporary shutting down of external responses. The person might appear zoned out or deeply detached from their surroundings.

Recognizing the differences between shutdowns and meltdowns is key to understanding and supporting adults with high-functioning autism.

Both are valid neurological responses to overwhelming stimuli or situations, but they require different approaches in terms of support and intervention.

Causes of Shutdowns in Adults with High-Functioning Autism

Understanding the triggers of shutdowns in adults with high-functioning autism is essential for offering the right support.

These causes vary widely but often refer to overwhelming sensory input or complex social and emotional situations.

Sensory Overload

One of the most common triggers for a shutdown is sensory overload. Adults with high-functioning autism often experience the world more intensely.

Their senses can pick up more information than neurotypical individuals, which can be both a blessing and a curse.

  • Intense Environments: Places with bright lights, loud noises, or strong smells can be particularly overwhelming. Imagine being in a crowded market with people pressing in on you from all sides. Now imagine that combined with bright lights flickering or extremely loud noises. For someone with autism, this sensory cocktail can be too much for their brain to process comfortably.
  • Cumulative Effect: Sometimes, it’s not just one sensory experience but a build-up of smaller sensory inputs throughout the day that leads to a shutdown. It’s like a cup slowly filling up until it overflows.

Social and Emotional Triggers

Social and emotional situations can also lead to shutdowns. Navigating the complexities of social interactions can be exhausting for adults with high-functioning autism, primarily due to their unique way of processing social cues and emotions.

Social Exhaustion: Engaging in prolonged social interaction, even if it’s enjoyable, can be draining. It requires constant interpretation of social cues and maintaining appropriate responses, which can tax the brain.

Emotional Intensity: Intense emotions can trigger a shutdown, whether the cause is positive or negative. It’s not just about feeling too much; it’s about not knowing how to process these intense emotions in the moment.

Conflict or Criticism: Situations involving conflict, criticism, or misunderstanding can be particularly challenging. The stress and emotional turmoil arising from such scenarios can push the brain into a shutdown for self-protection.

Signs of an Autism Shutdown in Adults

Detecting the onset of a shutdown in adults with high-functioning autism is a crucial step in providing timely and appropriate support.

These signs can be subtle and vary from person to person, but generally, they fall into two categories: physical symptoms and behavioral/emotional indicators.

Physical Signs

Physical signs of a shutdown are often the first observable indicators. They can serve as an early warning system that the individual is starting to feel overwhelmed.

  • Change in Posture: The person might slump, lower their head, or adopt a closed-off posture. It’s as if their body is trying to shrink away from the sensory overload.
  • Decreased Responsiveness: You might notice a delay in responses or a complete lack of response. This isn’t rudeness; it’s a sign that the brain is struggling to process incoming information.
  • Facial Expressions: The individual’s face might become blank or expressionless. This is often mistaken for disinterest, but it’s actually a sign of internal overload.
  • Physical Withdrawal: Moving away from people or stimuli, seeking out quiet corners, or physically turning away are common physical signs of a shutdown.

Behavioral and Emotional Indicators

Behavioral and emotional indicators often accompany the physical signs. These can give us insight into the individual’s internal state during a shutdown.

  • Reduced Verbal Communication: The person might stop talking altogether or speak very little. It’s not that they have nothing to say; it’s that saying anything feels too overwhelming.
  • Escape Behaviors: There may be an increased desire to leave the situation. This could manifest as physically trying to leave the room or expressing a strong wish to go home or be alone.
  • Decreased Eye Contact: Avoiding eye contact helps reduce sensory input, which can be soothing during a shutdown.
  • Emotional Withdrawal: The person might seem disconnected from their emotions or the emotions of others. This isn’t a lack of empathy; it’s a protective mechanism.
  • Verbal Stimming: Stimming is an involuntary mechanism in many people with ASD that involves any type of noise-making, movement, or talking to themselves. Oftentimes, this practice is soothing for overstimulated children and adults.

Caregivers, friends, and colleagues can take proactive steps to reduce sensory input or provide a safe space by being aware of these indicators.

Personal Coping Mechanisms for Shutdowns

Personal coping mechanisms are strategies that individuals with high-functioning autism can use to manage sensory overload and emotional distress.

Individuals can better manage shutdowns and minimize their impact by understanding and utilizing the following strategies:

  • Identifying Triggers: One of the most effective strategies is learning to recognize personal triggers. This awareness can help in avoiding or preparing for potentially overwhelming situations.
  • Sensory Tools: Sensory tools like noise-canceling headphones, dimming lights, or comforting tactile objects can help manage sensory overload.
  • Safe Spaces: Creating a safe, quiet space where the individual can retreat when they feel a shutdown coming on can be immensely helpful. This space should be a sanctuary from sensory and social overwhelm.
  • Relaxation Techniques: Techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or calming music can help manage stress and anxiety levels.
  • Structured Routines: Having a predictable routine can reduce the stress of the unknown and provide a sense of security and control.

How Family and Friends Can Help

Family and friends play a vital role in supporting individuals with high-functioning autism during a shutdown. Their understanding and actions can make a significant difference.

  • Recognize the Signs: Recognizing the early signs of a shutdown can help take proactive steps to reduce stressors.
  • Provide Space and Time: It is crucial to give the individual space and not pressure them to interact or communicate during a shutdown. It’s important to allow them the time they need to recover.
  • Non-Verbal Support: Sometimes, non-verbal support like sitting quietly with them, offering a hand to hold, or simply being present can be comforting.
  • Avoid Overwhelming Questions: Bombarding them with questions or instructions can increase stress. It’s better to communicate with clear, concise, and calm language.
  • Educate and Advocate: Educating yourself about high-functioning autism and being an advocate for the individual’s needs in various settings can provide them with a supportive environment.

Combining personal coping mechanisms with support from loved ones creates a comprehensive approach to managing shutdowns.

My Recommended Autism Shutdown Prevention Trick

One of my friends, an ABA therapist, taught me a really interesting mental exercise a few years ago called “The Awareness Game.” And I love it. People of all ages with ASD can benefit from this!

The process is simple: If you find yourself highly stressed in any situation, take a minute to internalize (and physically feel) objects in the immediate vicinity.

For example, if you’re sitting in a chair, tell yourself (in your mind, not out loud) that you’re sitting in a chair and be aware of how the chair feels under you. If it’s an armchair, maybe you’d feel the leather of the arms.

And if it was me, since I’m writing this article, I’d want to think about the fact that I’m working on a computer. As I typed, I’d register the feeling of the keys under my fingers. 

After identifying each thing, move on to others until your mind has quieted. 

You can also do this if there is another person with you and is willing to participate. Have them listen to your verbal description of each object, gently prompting you if needed.

My friend told me that this exercise forces your brain to focus on rational, physical objects in the real world, stopping it from creating real or imagined stress that affects your mental capacity.

Give it a shot the next time you or a loved one feels an autism sensory shutdown coming on; you might be pleasantly surprised!

Long-Term Management and Support

For adults with high-functioning autism, managing shutdowns is not just about coping with immediate situations but also about long-term strategies and support systems.

Professional support options like the ones can be crucial in helping individuals understand and manage their condition effectively over the long term.

Professional Support Options

  • Therapy and Counseling: Working with therapists specializing in autism spectrum disorders can provide valuable insights into managing shutdowns. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), for instance, can help in developing coping strategies for stress and anxiety.
  • Occupational Therapy: Occupational therapists can assist in developing sensory integration strategies and helping individuals manage sensory overload, which is often a trigger for shutdowns.
  • Support Groups: Joining autism support groups can provide a sense of community and belonging. Sharing experiences with others who understand can be incredibly validating and helpful.
  • Career Counseling: For work-related challenges, career counseling tailored for individuals with high-functioning autism can provide strategies for managing workplace stressors and communication challenges.

Building a Supportive Environment

Creating a supportive environment involves adjustments both at home and in other areas of life to accommodate the unique needs of an individual with high-functioning autism.

  • Understanding at Home: Family members should strive to create a home environment sensitive to sensory and social needs. This might involve having designated quiet spaces or establishing routines that reduce anxiety.
  • Workplace Accommodations: In the workplace, accommodations like a quiet workspace, flexible work hours, or clear and structured communication can make a significant difference.
  • Social Flexibility: Friends and family members can help by being flexible with social plans and understanding if plans need to change last minute.
  • Educational Settings: Working with teachers or educational therapists to create learning environments that consider sensory sensitivities and provide clear, structured instructions can benefit those in educational settings.

Long-term management and support for adults with high-functioning autism involve a holistic approach that encompasses professional help, home adjustments, workplace accommodations, and an understanding social network.

By establishing these supportive systems, individuals can manage shutdowns more effectively and thrive daily.

Wrapping it Up

It’s important to remember that continued learning and support are crucial when it comes to managing or caring for a loved one who experiences autism shutdowns as an adult. 

Each individual’s experience with high-functioning autism is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. 

Either way, embracing a journey of ongoing education, empathy, and adjustment can make all the difference in the lives of those affected.