As a sensory processing disorder (SPD) advocate, people frequently ask me about sensory shutdowns, those neurological episodes in which sensory information becomes too overwhelming to tolerate and the system goes haywire. Let me start by saying that within my role in the SPD community, my mission is to share every single experience of my sensory life with anyone who will listen. I’m totally not shy. I use my training as a mental health counselor and my writing skills to evaluate and capture even the grimiest, buggiest twists and turns of a delayed-diagnosis sensory adulthood to explain every inch of SPD. And nothing is quite as grimy and buggy as sensory shutdowns.
Here’s what I want you to know about these challenging, temporary events:
1. A shutdown is like having a frozen computer that needs a reboot.
Imagine you’re multitasking online. You’re watching “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” on Netflix on mute, playing Yo La Tengo’s latest album on Spotify, browsing BuzzFeed and posting a Facebook update about the hilarious cat video you have open on YouTube all at the same time. Suddenly, everything on your screen freezes because, well, it was all probably too much for your 5-year-old MacBook Pro to handle successfully. Interrupted and frustrated, you’re forced to restart.
A sensory shutdown is when your brain stops being able to take in and make sense of sensory information. Much like your overworked laptop, there’s only so much a brain, especially a differently wired brain, can process all at once before freezing. Become oversaturated with too much input, and you may need a reboot as well.
2. Shutdowns can be both peaceful and terrifying.
I’ve been told by some that their shutdowns are always peaceful, distancing, welcoming experiences that allow them to escape the ceaseless barrage of sounds, sights and movements, almost like donning an insular layer and feeling protected from a sharp winter wind. I’ve experienced a few of these shutdowns; it almost feels as if I am sleepy and just less present in the moment. My eyes become glassy and I stare into space until someone notices (usually my husband, who I call my “Handler”) and points out that I have floated away somewhere into the great unknown. Like a drifting balloon, he always manages to tug my string and pull me back into reality.
Others experience shutdowns that teeter on the edge of panic attacks. They’re vicious, jarring shutdowns that pulse with detachment and anxiety. These are the kind I have most frequently. In my experience, one moment I am handling my sensory environment with at least a small degree of grace, and the next I watch as my functional visual field collapses. I go from seeing full objects to just their parts. I hear every excruciating nuance of sound from all directions, and I cannot find my body in space. I feel lost, confused and no longer present in my skin or in the world. Whereas the first type of shutdown is like a protective distancing of the sensory self from the environment, this second type is a sharp dissection of the self from the environment.
I like to think that shutdowns happen in degrees like this, and some are just more intense than others.
3. Shutdowns are not meltdowns.
Hear me clearly on this one. So many people like to mix these two types of episodes up, and although both are triggered by our experiences with the sensory world, shutdowns and meltdowns are not the same thing. A meltdown is an intense, emotional reaction to sensory input and related, unplanned changes to preset expectations about the sensory environment. It comes on like a tornado of tears and anger and passes through just as quickly, not too dissimilar from a childhood tantrum, although the cause in this case is neurological.
I’ve melted down in the face of intense sound, but I’ve also melted down to unexpected changes relating to my sensory environment, like an unanticipated shift in the location or timing of an upcoming event. Our experiences with sensory input are such that the more information we have about an upcoming sensory challenge, the better we’re able to cope. Structure and familiarity are friends to people with sensory issues both on and off the autism spectrum. And for those of us with SPD, shifts in the structure related to sensory input — whether as part of our familiar routine or an unfamiliar event or excursion — are incredibly uncomfortable. Add sensory concerns to this shift, and it’s no surprise we crumble into a heap of tears.
4. Support during a shutdown can help or hinder.
When I am in the throes of a massive, soul-sucking, detaching shutdown, the most pivotal thing someone can do for me is help me find my way to a quiet, dark, safe place. In this moment, I can’t effectively make sense of what I’m seeing, hearing, touching or coming into contact with, and so a deep squeeze of my hand and a confident, trustworthy companion with a plan of action to take me out of the situation makes this temporary retreat feel less scary and more controlled. Some prefer kind, encouraging words, but some do not. Some want to be touched and some do not. Once again, our sensory experiences vary, and so the best way to help a loved one during a shutdown is to know what works best for them. Pick a time outside of a shutdown when they seem calm and regulated and ask them how you can help the next time a shutdown crops up.
5. Shutdowns are survivable.
Shutdowns have been the bane of my existence for years. Before I came to my senses, I spent all of my time fearing these episodes and making plans to avoid them, whatever the cost. Had I understood them, I would have known that they were ultimately transitory and actually benign. As uncomfortable and terrifying as they are in the moment, a shutdown can’t kill you. It can’t hurt your family and friends. It’s a signal from your brain to you that there’s just a bit too much going on sensory-wise at the moment and that you need to switch gears. You are actually safe in your body, regardless of how raw and exposed you feel. You will survive.