Despite autistic shutdowns being one of the most important terms to write about, I have been putting off doing so for so long, I have written over 150 other entries in this glossary before finally tackling it!

Autistic shutdown is no laughing matter. It is an extreme reaction to unbearable stress, to emotional or sensory overload. To someone who reaches this point, it becomes, albeit unconsciously, the only way out, the only solution. Shutdowns are quiet, silent even. Very different to meltdowns – they can follow on from meltdowns. For our exhausted, cornered minds, there is no longer any attempt at salvaging the situation or fighting it. It is the mind’s way of saying,

look, I’ve got so little left to offer up, but as my final coherent suggestion, shall we try turning off, waiting [unknown amount of time] and then turning on again?

Obviously, it’s not a conscious decision – it’s involuntary,  it’s survival mode, a coping mechanism – all of those things.

Communication stops, withdrawal begins. Whether this be on the floor in the middle of the dreaded supermarket, in a ball in the bathroom, in bed with the curtains drawn. These events aren’t planned – they can occur anywhere. The only solution for an autistic person that has reached such an unbearable level of suffering is shutdown, allowing a gentle recovery in a pressure-free environment.

I can say that from personal experience, and from witnessing some of those close to me experiencing the same. Unfortunately, I didn’t identify any of these shutdowns as such, because I wasn’t even aware that shutdowns were A Thing.

The shutdown that happened to me last year, occurred following a series of meltdowns in quick succession – only a few days apart. They just kept coming. My ability to find solutions to the problems I was trying to solve was reduced by every added meltdown that burst out of me. I was exhausted, I felt broken, I was ashamed of my meltdowns, I was failing in every direction and the (yet to be invented) oblivion switch that I requested from Father Christmas at the age of 17, and most years since, was still not forthcoming. I craved the absence of thought and emotion, of decisions and responsibility, and guilt. I lay there with silent tears pouring down my face randomly. I only knew I was crying because I can remember the irritating sensation of trickling on my face but I couldn’t move to wipe them away.

Mostly I just was. I have little solid memory of it, just fleeting glimpses. Sadly, because I didn’t know what I was experiencing, and nor did my husband, or my GP, I got only one kind of support, medication in the form of diazepam and anti-depressants.

From here, therefore, my shutdown, decided it needed to take me to the next terrifying level: burnout.

This all sounds pretty bleak, doesn’t it? It was bleak. But it was astronomically more bleak than it needed to be because I had no idea what was going on. This, along with meltdowns and burnout are three crucial aspects of being autistic that need your attention and understanding, and the same from your loved ones. My terror and bafflement over what was happening to me gave me such extreme anxiety and consequent reclusive behaviour, I wasn’t able to leave the house for anything but diazepam-induced hospital appointments for months. If I had known what we were looking at – I really don’t think it would have gone anywhere near that far – I would have had strategies, I would have known where to turn for support.

I really don’t know where my shutdown ended and my many months of recovering from burnout began. I’m still recovering now, gently and with the joy of my favourite special interest to keep me company!

This is one of those examples of self-disclosure that I truly hope will be of practical use to others, particularly those who are still wondering about their identity.

Phew. That’s one biggy done. Now to tackle meltdowns…