An experience that happens to many autistic people under sensory overload or other forms of overload. One or more areas of cognitive functioning shut off, either temporarily or over the long term. This can happen in response to either immediate and intense overload or prolonged low-grade overload.
Sensory shutdowns involve total or partial loss of the ability to understand sensory information. The information is still received, but the person doesn't understand it. Visual shutdown is known by many autistic people as meaning-blindness, and auditory shutdown is called meaning-deafness. In visual shutdown, information is taken in through the eyes, but some part of understanding that information doesn't happen. The person may be able to understand shape, color, and distance enough to navigate, but unable to understand what objects he is looking at. He might be unable to consciously perceive anything visually at all. He may be able to take in less visual information than usual, seeing only small parts of things at a time. And he may see some distortions in his vision. Other perceptual shutdowns resemble this, but in the other senses. In these shutdowns, the senses remain technically intact, but the ability to interpret them is lost. They can resemble the agnosias or pure sight.
Receptive language shutdowns happen when a person loses previous ability to understand some amount of receptive language. Sometimes it only happens in one sense, so that someone can read but not understand speech, or vice versa. Sometimes a person may be able to understand speech with a regular rhythm, such as music, but unable to understand ordinary speech. Sometimes it involves all language coming in from outside, regardless of the sense or the way the language is happening. Text looks like meaningless garble, or the person may be able to read aloud the words but find no meaning in them. Speech sounds like noise or what Donna Williams calls blah-blah, or the person may be able to understand a few individual words but not put them together. Words in general come in, but they feel like they hover around in your brain finding nothing to connect with. Receptive language shutdown doesn't necessarily imply expressive language shutdown, which can lead to interesting situations like writing complicated articles on shutdown while being unable to read them. These kind of shutdowns can resemble the receptive aphasias.
Expressive language shutdowns involve losing the ability to come up with or use speech and writing. This may involve increased difficulty with word-finding, syntax, grammar, or the ability to use words -- or at times any symbols -- in any way at all. It may result in telegraphic speech or writing: "Words gone. Need time think." These kinds of shutdowns can resemble the expressive aphasias.
Speech shutdown occurs when a person becomes unable to use some or all functional speech. She may or may not be capable of vocalizing, singing, echolalia, or even seemingly normal speech on a few narrow topics. Speech shutdown does not always entail the loss of expressive language, and a person experiencing it may be able to type or write. Someone may have immense word-finding difficulties when using speech but none at all when writing, or may be able to discuss a broader range of topics in writing than they can in speech. Despite Tony Attwood's unfortunate wording, speech shutdown is not the same as selective mutism because it need not be due to fear or any other emotion.
Motor shutdowns involve losing the ability to deal with some aspect of voluntary movement. A person experiencing this kind of shutdown may or may not have trouble with automatic, triggered movements in response to a familiar form of stimulation, but be unable to form his own very easily. He may become clumsier when trying his own movements, he may get the wrong movement altogether when he tries to do something, or he may simply be slowed down, sometimes to the point of immobility. He may be able to move if physically assisted, or move one small part of his body but have trouble with others. While this is happening, he may or may not still be moving in repetitive or automatic ways. Motor shutdowns can resemble dyspraxia or apraxia.
Other partial shutdowns can involve loss of memory, sense of time, emotional perception, sense of self or other, or various specific aspects of thinking. What they have in common is that they only involve a partial loss in functioning. Often they will bear at least a superficial resemblance to a number of cognitive difficulties that tend to have Greek names starting in dys- or a-: aphasia, dysphasia, apraxia, dyspraxia, anomia, agraphia, dysgraphia, alexia, dyslexia, hyperlexia, alexithymia, agnosia, and so forth.
A shutdown is a particular sequence of behavior which we observed in a child diagnosed as high-functioning within the autistic spectrum. In academic settings when pressured by an adult to perform tasks that were difficult, she became unresponsive, sleepy, immobile, and limp to the touch for several minutes, and then fell asleep in a chair for as briefly as 10 min. and up to 2 hours. These shutdown (SD) states were always triggered by social stress of a certain kind and they became more severe and frequent over a period of about a year.1
So begins the paper "Shutdowns and Stress in Autism" by Ingrid M. Loos Miller and Hendricus G. Loos. What they are describing is full shutdown, in which a person loses all ability to function and simply shuts off, usually going to sleep for awhile. Even when someone is done sleeping, she is likely to take awhile before she is able to function at her normal capacity again, and will have more trouble in all or nearly all areas of functioning. While the authors describe the girl as going limp, some autistic people go rigid instead.
An autistic person experiencing full shutdown will become overloaded more rapidly than usual from doing things that ordinarily give her no trouble. She will often be more tired than usual and need to rest a lot, which may or may not be easy depending on whether she still has the cognitive skills required to remember that. If she doesn't, she may wander around aimlessly and end up overloading herself even more or even putting herself in danger. Under normal circumstances, she will gradually regain most or all of the abilities lost during such a shutdown, but there is some evidence that piling shutdown on top of shutdown may lead to permanent loss of prior abilities. This is probably responsible for some of what professionals call regression.
If you know someone who appears to be experiencing full shutdown, one of the most important things you can do is reduce the amount of information and interaction he has to deal with. This isn't the time to get in his face and force her to do things, nor is it the time to allow strangers to get in his face. Keep people away who might prove annoying or dangerous.
If you are experiencing full shutdown, two of the most important things are sleeping and stimming. Treat yourself as if you have a bad flu. Try to remain in a familiar location, and do not go outside unless strictly necessary. If you do go outside, you may end up walking into the street or attracting attention from the wrong sort of people. If possible, and it is too often not possible for someone who can normally do these things on his own, get help with things like food and water. The disorientation you may be experiencing can be terrifying, but as long as you're where you're supposed to be, you should be pretty safe. Don't assume that you are able to do something just because it's normally easy. Try things slowly to avoid hitting another unpleasant shutdown. As your perceptual and cognitive abilities come back, you may find the initial onslaught of information painful. Don't push it, but don't fight it too much either. Things will make sense again and won't be as chaotic then. It will be difficult to remember these things when you are actually experiencing shutdown, so it might be useful to write things like this down as reminders, or to have someone else remember them for you. Unfortunately, because many autistic people have trouble reading during shutdown and have few to no friends, this can at times be impossible and you may have to muddle through as usual.
Voluntary Aspects of Shutdown
Shutdown is often involuntary. This means that the person has no choice about the fact that she is shutting down, and no choice over the amount and kind of abilities that will shut down. In this case, there is nothing she can do but wait it out.
Shutdown can also have voluntary components. An autistic person may find that he is shutting down, and be unable to control that fact. However, he may be able to direct which abilities are more important to preserve. In this case, the other abilities will shut down first. For instance, if he is driving, he may elect to understand enough sensory information to navigate around obstacles and retain the motor skills to drive the car to a safe place. However, during this time he may have lost speech, the ability to move in any way other than the motions required for driving, the ability to identify objects, and the ability to respond meaningfully to human voices. When he stops the car, he may find himself unable to step out, but he drove safely and competently. An autistic person may also be able to delay a full shutdown by allowing himself to experience increasing numbers of partial shutdowns, or head off an involuntary shutdown by deliberately stopping the activity in question before his brain stops it for him.
Timing of Shutdown
Shutdowns, whether partial or full, can happen over the long term. In long-term shutdowns, the loss of certain abilities may last years or even be permanent. These kinds of shutdown are often described as regression, but if they last long enough, people might forget the person ever had the abilities in the first place.
Shutdown can also be short-term and fluctuating. Given the narrow focus of autistic perceptual skills, many autistic people live in a constant state of shifting abilities. When one ability burns out, we switch to using another, until that one burns out, and so forth. Living in this way can be like running through an entire Oliver Sacks book in the course of an ordinary day.
One autistic person writes:
I taught myself to read at three, and I had to learn it again at ten, and yet again at seventeen, and at twenty-one, and at twenty-six. The words that it took me twelve years to find have been lost again, and regained, and lost, and still have not come all the way back to where I can be reasonably confident they'll be there when I need them. It wasn't enough to figure out just once how to keep track of my eyes and ears and hands and feet all at the same time; I've lost track of them and had to find them over and over again.2
In my case, what these fluctuations can mean is that I've done much of the conceptualization of this writeup while unable to move, the typing of this writeup while unable to read, and the proofreading of this writeup while unable to write. I've lost abilities and sometimes also lost any memory of what it was like to have them. Then I've learned them slowly and painstakingly, only to find from my writing that I had learned them before. At times there is nothing except whatever I am experiencing right now, no past or future or abstraction, no sense that language ever existed. At times there are obviously all of those things and more. Since these shifts are not always under my control, I end up adapting to whatever I'm able to do at that time. I am the sort of autistic person who experiences frequent and varied shutdowns, so this is relatively ordinary and unalarming to me.
Many autistic people's abilities are more constant than this. They may still have short-term shutdowns occasionally or only in one area. They may also experience a large number of long-term partial shutdowns in order to keep a few abilities stable.
Perceptions of Shutdown
Unfortunately, while nearly all autistic people know what shutdown is, the same is not true of autism professionals. Because of this, shutdown has been described in many ways that are inaccurate or only partially accurate. It has been labeled as regression, epilepsy (particularly partial seizures), noncompliance, catatonia, hysteria, defiant behavior, dissociation, avoidance behavior, migraine, playing dumb, passive aggression, and all kinds of other things. To complicate things more, epilepsy, migraines, and catatonia are more common in autistic people than usual, and professionals often put autistic people into situations in which defiance (passive or otherwise) is a rational response.
Shutdown is becoming more commonly known for what it is, instead of all the things listed above. This is largely due to the efforts of autistic people. Because pushing us as hard as possible as young as possible is seen as best practice, there has been some resistance to the idea of a legitimate neurological reason for avoiding this kind of pushing. It is unfortunately easier for some people to view autistic children as willfully avoidant or mysteriously regressing than as genuinely suffering under the load of too much work too often, whether that work comes from early intervention efforts or simply from trying to understand the world at too rapid a pace. The existence of shutdown forces the issue.
Shutdown also creates misunderstandings among laypeople. One of the most common misconceptions about disability in general is that people have a constant level of ability in most things, and that this ability is either completely present or completely absent. This can lead to problems for people who are blind but have residual eyesight. It leads to even more problems for autistic people who may be functionally blind part of the time and experience a wide variation in sensory perception and response depending on what kind of shutdown is occurring. It leads to the above accusations of willful misbehavior.
Functions of Shutdown
One of the biggest functions of shutdown seems to be giving an overworked brain some rest. Even neurotypical people can shut down under extreme stress that causes their brains to overwork themselves. Autistic people's cognitive skills tend to be more narrowly focused than neurotypical cognitive skills, meaning we have fewer resources to work with to begin with for many things that neurotypicals find easy. We also start at a different point than neurotypicals do in dealing with our environments:
Simple, basic skills such as recognizing people and things presuppose even simpler, more basic skills such as knowing how to attach meaning to visual stimuli. Understanding speech requires knowing how to process sounds--which first requires recognizing sounds as things that can be processed, and recognizing processing as a way to extract order from chaos. Producing speech (or producing any other kind of motor behavior) requires keeping track of all the body parts involved, and coordinating all their movements. Producing any behavior in response to any perception requires monitoring and coordinating all the inputs and outputs at once, and doing it fast enough to keep up with changing inputs that may call for changing outputs. Do you have to remember to plug in your eyes in order to make sense of what you're seeing? Do you have to find your legs before you can walk? Autistic children may be born not knowing how to eat. Are these normally skills that must be acquired through learning?2
In the case of partial shutdown, then, it's sometimes no more surprising that an autistic person learns speech and then loses track of it, than it is that a neurotypical can become out of practice with differential equations and have to learn it all over again, or even be unable to learn it a second time. It's also unsurprising that an autistic person forced to do the equivalent of differential equations day in and day out might find himself not up to the task and burn out periodically. Or that he might need to stop being able to do other things in order to spend his energy solving the math problems.
Some researchers also link full shutdown to a particular kind of stress response. They say that autistic people have an exaggerated and unstable stress response in comparison to non-autistic people, and that we experience greater levels of stress in less stressful situations. This may be true on its own, or it may be a function of how much harder we have to work in situations that to non-autistic people would be ordinary. It does not take a long series of catastrophes to cause an autistic person to crash and burn.
1 Miller, Ingrid M. Loos and Loos, Hendricus G. "Shutdowns and Stress in
Autism". Shutdowns and Stress in Autism. http://www.shutdownsandstressinautism.com/. Accessed March 16, 2005.
2 Sinclair, Jim. "Bridging the Gaps: An Inside-Out View of Autism (Or, Do You Know What I Don't Know?)". From High-Functioning Individuals with Autism. Schopler, Eric and Mesibov, Gary B., ed. New York: Plenum Press, 1992.
Attwood, Tony. Asperger's Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals. London: Jessica Kingsley, 1998.
Blackburn, Jared. "Autism? What Is It?". http://www.serversolutions.com/wolfe/Autism/AutismWhatIsIt.htm. Accessed March 16, 2005.
Kurtz, Alan. "Systems Shifts and Shutdowns." Autism National Committee. http://www.autcom.org/systems.html. Accessed March 16, 2005
Miller, Ingrid M. Loos and Loos, Hendricus G. "Shutdowns and Stress in
Autism". Shutdowns and Stress in Autism. http://www.shutdownsandstressinautism.com/. Accessed March 16, 2005.
Miller, Ingrid M. Loos and Loos, Hendricus G. "Shutdown States and Stress Instability in Autism". Shutdowns and Stress in Autism. http://www.shutdownsandstressinautism.com/. Accessed March 16, 2005.
Williams, Donna. Autism - An Inside-Out Approach: An innovative look at the mechanics of 'autism' and its developmental 'cousins'. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1996.
Williams, Donna. "In The Real World". The Facilitated Communication Digest. http://soeweb.syr.edu/thefci/3-2wil.htm. Accessed March 16, 2005.
Williams, Donna. Somebody Somewhere: Breaking Free from the World of Autism. New York: Times Books, 1994.